RB and I watched the movie Submarine(2010) last night. I am grieved by a terrible affliction whenever we pick a film to watch which is that I get very, very anxious over making the right choice.
I choose a movie to watch the same way one might research what car to buy.
I want a synopsis, a Rotten Tomatoes score, who’s in the cast, and a rundown of the award nominations it earned upon release. Maybe it’s a symptom of my attention scarcity, but I fear committing to anything for two hours without concluding it’ll be worth it.
RB is the exact opposite.
He can commit to a movie without knowing anything about it. He revels in the journey like an absolute madman.
When RB recommended Submarine, a coming of age film about a Welsh teen who falls in love, I was game because it’s my favorite genre of film and also, Welsh accents. It did not disappoint.
Submarine is a visual delight, highly imaginative, and delivers that dry humor that is so characteristic among the British, as well as a beautiful music score by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys.
RB first watched this film in the 10th grade and I was reminded yet again of our ability to recognize unapologetic indie kids in one another. The dreamy nature in me falls further in love with the dreamy nature in him each time I catch a glimpse of it.
Submarine’s script and cinematography reminded me of my favorite movie of all time, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Eternal Sunshine, nor will it be the last. It’s one of those movies that got under my skin in my formative years and became a way to understand the world and the tension I felt within myself. I used to watch it over and over again between the ages of 13-17, falling asleep to Jon Brion’s score whenever I felt afraid or sad.
If you haven’t seen it, Eternal Sunshine follows two individuals, Joel and Clementine (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), that erase each other from their memory in order to get over their failed 2-year relationship.
Part of what makes this film stand out to me is Carrey and Winslet’s delivery of the script. I’m reminded of a “behind the scenes” clip I watched once where Carrey was practicing his lines with Winslet and he threw the recorder they were using off the table because of the emotional sinew the scene evoked. Carrey started crying and Winslet immediately began comforting him as a friend. Their portrayal of these characters stuck in heartbreak is significant to me because I’ve recognized it in my parents, my friends, myself.
In Submarine, the main characters are younger than Joel and Clementine. In fact, the main protagonist, Oliver, is assured by his mom that his heartbreak over Jordana, his teenage love, won’t matter when he’s 35.
And he tries to buy into that idea as he reckons with the possibility of his own parents separation. He doesn’t share this tumult happening at home with his girlfriend because she has her own challenges as she deals with her mom’s cancer. Ultimately, our protagonist fails to show up for our girl when she needs him the most… when she’s explicitly asked him to.
Some may say this is cowardice. And similarly, Joel’s failure to address the issues in his relationship with Clementine could be considered the same.
In a way, they both fail to find their voice until it’s too late.
They don’t lose the girl because they don’t love her. They lose the girl because they are terrified by the idea of their own vulnerability.
We are so human that way.
Our female protagonists, on the other hand, characterize a certain bravery I believe we should aspire to. It’s not that their characters are perfect, quite the opposite; they’re flawed, impulsive, and resentful at times.
But they each communicate what they want very clearly, move on once they realize their person is incapable of providing the partnership they desire. And both dare to love their flawed heroes again once their errors are realized. I think that’s when love becomes real.
It’s one thing to choose one another when we are shiny, new. It’s another to love each other when we’ve held each other’s hair back after drinking too much or once we’ve isolated ourselves because we’re actually terrified to be known and rejected.
Both of these movies stand out to me because the main characters, for all their efforts, are so average. Even Clementine who dyes her hair a different color every month is painstakingly familiar to me in her fears and desires.
But I recognize myself in both parties, both the coward and the courageous.
I’ve lost friendships because I wasn’t in a healthy enough place to fight for them and I’ve dared to forgive, knowing full well the collateral damage love is apt to bring.
I guess what I’m saying is love is a lot like picking a movie.
You can do your best to measure the outcome and try to outsmart your way out of disappointment. Ultimately, these efforts are futile. You may love a movie (or a partner) for reasons others will never understand. You could very well be disappointed by the ones littered with awards.
All we can do is press play and enjoy the mystery.
As I consider how to cultivate this space, I think about the *feeling* I want to convey more than I think about the content.
An inside joke.
A much-needed latte (extra-hot so it’s not cold by the time you get around to drinking it).
These are the things, however small, that inspire a moment of gratefulness in me because they make me feel connected, relaxed, empowered to face the day.
I’ve been reading Jonathan Van Ness’ book over the last week. I bought it Saturday and haven’t been able to put it down since, save to write you this note.
Like many others, I was introduced to JVN by watching Queer Eye on Netflix.
If you’ve never watched the show, may I implore you to add it to your must-watch list. The show isn’t linear so I’d recommend beginning with S3 E1 “From Hunter to Huntee” where they help a good ol’ Southern outdoors-woman get her groove back, or S3 E3 “Jones Bar B Q” where they honor the heritage of a famous BBQ restaurant in Kansas City by helping the sisters that inherited it from their father envision a bigger future for their family’s legacy. Or S2 E1 “God Bless Gay” if you just feel like having a really good cry.
Among my group of friends, or I guess among progressive city Millennials, Queer Eye is cherished and hyping it up any further would be redundant. The 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself. But I realize there are still people that haven’t seen it like my mom who has expressed an interest in watching it privately to avoid closed-minded comments from my dad (the endless work-in-progress that he is).
What you need to know is this show isn’t about gay men or makeovers.
It’s about the fabric of American identity, the connections we share, and how vibrantly the human spirit comes alive when we dare to elevate the dignity of others.
Jonathan is a hairdresser by trade, a comedian, a *majorly successful* podcast host (among my favorites!) and as of this week, a New York Times best-selling author. His whole thing on the show is giving the individual receiving a makeover a lesson in skin and hair care, ever-impressing the importance of a holistic approach where beauty begins on the inside.
When I picked up his highly-anticipated memoir, “Over the Top”, I expected his gracious insights, his hilarious way of sharing anecdotes but I didn’t expect to become fiercely overprotective of this sweet spirit of a human.
As he retells his life story, Jonathan Van Ness recounts some dark years as a young adult characterized by self-destruction. I won’t spoil it for you and I can’t retell it as well as he can anyway, but a central theme is he got to a place where he didn’t care what happened to him. He partook in risky behavior in different areas of his life and the collateral damage was significant.
I consumed half of the book last night and as I completed a dramatic retelling of JVN’s life to RB this morning, I concluded with, “isn’t it wild his life was so hard?”
(I realize how silly this sounds now. JVN grew up gay in Quincy, Illinois. Of course his life was hard. Red carpets and blow-outs are deceiving.)
RB thought about my words for a second and replied with his signature brand of casual wisdom, “being a human is hard.”
And it’s true, being a human is hard.
The words encapsulate my favorite thought shared by Maya Angelou being that (and I’m paraphrasing here) once we understand we as individuals have the same capacity for excellence as the best among us and the same capacity for evil as the worst, we’ll understand we are all inherently the same.
As a result of the trés shitty day I had yesterday and a new appreciation for the things that fill my day with gratitude, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite things below. The Queen herself would call it self-care.
Lush Bath Bombs
A regular bath is to a Lush bath what a bag of Lays is to a gourmet meal. They may both quell your hunger but they don’t hit the same way.
Lush is a handmade all-natural cosmetics company that prides itself on keeping animals as friends, not testers. Their products are famous for their otherworldly fragrances (literally don’t try to tell me heaven won’t smell like an Intergalactic Bath Bomb, I won’t believe you) and sustainable packaging. I’m obsessedwith their products, particularly their ocean salt scrub. If you haven’t taken an evening to soak your muscles in warm water while inhaling the smell of pure jasmine, I need you to love yourself better this week.
JK—maybe you have a thing about baths or hate all things floral but they have other scents that will transform your tub (or moisturizing routine, you know, whatever) into an oceanfront veranda or citrus grove. It’s all about finding something you like.
Quick aside: I’m a fan of baths but I’m an even bigger fan of their luxe cousin, bathhouses. Russian friends in Brooklyn first introduced me to bathhouses which they just did like, as a weekend family activity. I would later be introduced to Aire baths and never be the same again.
Restorative nights with my BFFs
John Mulaney perfectly communicated the deep sense of joy we feel when relieved from obligations we made last week (when we were younger, dumber), but there’s something to be said for friends that make you feel the exact opposite.
I’ve recently made a habit of going to my best friend’s house to eat snacks, watch very silly movies that don’t care for sensible plotlines and talk about everything annoying us that particular day/week/month. I always leave grateful for the space she makes for my soul to just be, no performing necessary.
First things first—I didn’t mean to get a dog.
And certainly not a dog that sheds its coat two times a year en masse. But when RB and I got back together, he had a new four-legged friend in tow and I understood that permitting him back into my life meant making room for her, too.
Within a couple months of knowing her, I felt a part of my heart I hadn’t recognized in years expand. You know the one, it’s reserved for our dogs, our cats, whatever creature has burrowed its way into our affections. It’s not unusual find us spooning on the couch as you can see here or snoozing together midday and it brings me an unreal source of comfort to know she’s at home where I’ll soon scoop her into hanging out on the couch with me.
Diving into a really good memoir
This one’s a tad obvious here but I LOVE them. I like reading fiction just fine but I’ll consume memoirs like air. There’s something about getting lost in the life of another person, even more so if their lifestyle is unfamiliar to my own. I feel more connected to myself and to others when I’m lost in the human story reading about another person’s journey around the sun and absorbing the lessons they’ve learned along the way as my own.
When I was a guppy and homebaked goods were still allowed in schools, my mom taught me how to make a mean tray of Betty Crocker cupcakes for the school bake sale.
I later moved beyond the box and began making everything from gluten-free cookies to no-bake cookies and cakes I’d bring home for family dinners. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth myself which is why I promptly pawn off the goods on others once they’re out of the over, but there’s something soothing about the exactness baking demands. My need for control is satisfied by the perimeters of measurements and baking times. It comforts me when I can’t put words to my fears or disappointments. After all, the world can’t possibly fall if your cake doesn’t.
If you see me baking these days, call my mom—something has gone terribly wrong.
Paper, paper, paper
I have an ongoing, unrelenting love affair with paper.
I love, LOVE, love finding a new store to peruse greeting cards and stationary and craft supplies in with a fervor that is unapologetic and at times unhealthy (to my bank account). My mom took me to Jo-Ann’s and Michael’s as a kid to prepare science fair projects and now, I wander around the aisles of fake flowers arranging wreaths in my mind that I’ll never make or feeling every texture of ribbon available. And there are hundreds. I lose hours in stores like these because just when you think you’ve seen everything, you turn down the scrapbooking aisle. Or find the office supplies, have mercy.
But I always end up taking home notecards, lined envelopes in every color of the rainbow, or gift tags I’ll need for Christmas presents which may be 7 months from the time of purchase, sure. My rationale stands: I will need them… eventually.
Honorable mentions: Beginning a movie in bed on a Saturday morning and falling back asleep while it’s playing, wine and cheese, building community on the internet, and painting portraits that are not fit for sale because no one would want them.
Actually, that’s not true.
I did sell one once about ten years ago at a local market. It was a butterfly and the wings looked more like two jalapeños to me. I wonder if they still have it. The point is any painting I do is for the person it gratifies most and that’s always been me.
With that said, I hope you’ll stay gorg (as JVN would say) and think of the things your own soul draws restoration from. Being a human is hard and it’s a Thursday—I imagine we’re both overdue for a pick-me-up by now.
I didn’t expect the events over the last week to get me back into blogging, but I’d been praying that something would for a long time now.
If you’re new here, it’s fine.
I kind of feel like I am, too.
This is technically my third blog.
I let the first two die—never renewed the website host or lost the domain name and tried my best not to care. I outgrew them, sure, but the truth is I’ve never taken this habit of mine seriously.
It’s been a pet and a project, a compulsion at times, never a focus.
At some point between 2017-2019, writing anything at all became impossible. I’m still unpacking the reasons why which you have a front row seat to, but I suspect being cut down by people I trusted had something to do with it.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where, although it had its own brand of dysfunction going on, my formative years were never burdened by societal expectations—not by my parents. I grew up with the permission to experiment and push boundaries, to both my detriment and benefit. The result was a very windy path to becoming who I am today.
When you grow up with that kind of freedom, you are resented by those who don’t know the same.
Although you may know this kind of liberty in your childhood, adulthood is a never-ending challenge to reclaim it.
We each have the choice of doing the work or submitting to the conformity of our environment. Whether you’re dating or parenting or working or hurting or growing or seeking, adulthood presents milestones to stand against the grain or jump the hoops society has designated “correct and acceptable” among your generation, age, or location.
And if you’re going to allow the world to know your inner self—the one that meets you in your thoughts in the middle of the night momentarily relieved from societal pressures—you have to acknowledge it.
One thing I set out to do by covering the R*levant story over the last few days was take my voice back; to let this inner self, unmarred by competing expectations, be known again. Even though I’m still dressing wounds from the last time I allowed myself to be vulnerable.
I suspect I’m not the only one who knows living in this tension is tireless and thankless. The goal posts are always moving and the mystery in refusing to play is having to tell the world over and over again you’re not game.
As I read through old entries last week, I remembered how small and insignificant I felt a few years ago as a result of being misjudged by people I trusted and walking through my own failures, both personal and professional.
I wrote in this post that I’ve missed the young woman I used to be for a long time, and didn’t know how to find her again. I’d stare at the blank page (or the blank screen, let’s be real) hoping to invoke her, but that voice remained buried under displaced shame and disappointments I couldn’t make sense of then.
I finally feel like the recovery of my own place in the world has happened as a result of this week.
At a time when our feeds are becoming increasingly monolithic (thanks be to the algorithm), a diversity of voices is more important than ever. I finally believe that is true for myself, and wish to contribute to the patchwork of the weird, complex, beautiful humanity we share by telling you about my own.
I’m challenging myself to keep up with this blog I pay oodles for every year with more frequency. Thank you for your grace as I grow through them and most of all, for following along.
As a result, I feel the need to reintroduce myself to friends old and new. Perhaps even to myself.
First things first—I’m a reformed perfectionist.
I don’t take the Enneagram as seriously as some of my contemporaries do, but I’m a textbook 3 nonetheless. I currently work as a Communications Analyst for one of largest non-profit healthcare systems in the country. As part of a recent project, I worked on the corporate communications for an org-wide tech implementation affecting 28,000 employees.
All this means is I wrote internal communication distributions, blogs, newsletters, talking points and executive emails addressing what employees could expect once systems went live. I loved my work however, and I cherished my team.
Before that, I freelanced and worked as an editor, first for Odyssey, then for Relevant and finally, this small B2B publication called Printing News.
I’m a first-generation American and as a result, I feel an insane amount of pressure to be excellent. To return good on the investment my parents made when they relocated to a new country with tentative hopes and a whole fuckton of grit.
(I try not to curse especially so in my writing but there’s no metric equivalent to a ‘fuckton’ and that’s the only accurate measurement here.)
I recently learned my father learned English at 27 shortly after he moved our family to the States.
My mom had three kids under the age of ten at my age.
I don’t feel a draw towards either of their paths, but I feel I have to live up to the excellence characterized by their immigrant journey. More on that to come.
On a celebratory note, I got engaged to my favorite man in the world last month. I’ll refer to him going forward as RB.
He kept his word. And by doing so, he’s loved me back to myself. My proximity to all that is lovely and holy in him has reacquainted me to the parts lovely and holy in me. Fractions I’d calcified in regret and self-loathing. I am eternally grateful to him for this.
We currently live together in Orlando where we try to cultivate the thing most important to each of us—the relationships we share with our loved ones.
It sounds simple enough but for a reformed A-type performer like myself, it has taken a quarter-century journey to ground me to the imperishable things in life like faithfulness, love, loyalty. Things that won’t get you any public accolades but anchor your soul to moors eternal.
My proximity to RB’s generous soul and my friends and my family has challenged me to reacquaint myself with my own beginning and end on this earth. The purpose of it unfolding as I steward my proximity to their hearts with duty and consideration.
I am privileged to know the love I’ve found in my people—as imperfect, honest and cutting as it can be.
These days, I’m satisfied with being a quiet extension of this honor I’ve known.
I’ve leaned my head towards the sun and I am satisfied growing in its light. I don’t need to become it, but I want others to know its warmth.
I wrote my blog post regarding my time at R*levant on Friday.
Shortly after I published my corroboration of Andre Henry’s experience under C*meron Str*ng’s poor management, subscribers picked up the story and began demanding answers from leadership.
Str*ng effectively ran off the internet by deactivating his Twitter and making his Instagram private. There are a few issues here, namely his demonstrated refusal to engage the many issues outlined in our posts.
What I could not foresee when I decided to stand with Andre were the dozens more that would come forward after us, many for the first time. Former R*levant employees across the internet began sharing their personal stories surrounding Str*ng’s erratic leadership, the toxic duplicity, and long-buried memories of trauma at his hands. A Twitter account had to be made just to centralize them all.
I am not gonna lie, fam, I was a little overwhelmed. From Friday up until yesterday evening, I’ve received Instagram messages, tweets, and emails from others describing how intimately they’d once shared my pain.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I wrote on these matters, I never thought my story would go as far as it did. Maybe that was for the best. Perhaps if I had known or even dreamed The Washington Post would report on it, I never would have published it. I can’t say.
R*levant had ground up the faithful hopes and talents of yet another talented young professional and I couldn’t just watch.
To put it in the words of an ex-editor quoted by The Huffington Post,The CEO publicly fetishized racial justice efforts but privately catered to the company’s “white, male, conservative-leaning base.” Andre was the first to draw public attention to this reality and the many ways it committed a disservice to consumers.
It was important to me to speak objectively about the things I’d witnessed, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope telling the truth would chip away at the kingdom and reputation that gives Str*ng the power to harm so many.
Once the stories gained traction and R*levant’s customers began unsubscribing, we learned a customer service representative tried to discredit the victims. This strategy quickly became futile as dozens of former staff members spanning over a decade of time spoke up. I’m eternally grateful to them. They’re the reason the #exRLVT movement picked up wings and landed in the media. Jack Jenkins at Religion News Service was the first to break the story. Other outlets soon followed.
R*levant and Str*ng finally published a statement on Monday, 9/23, announcing Str*ng’s ambigious, length-indeterminate leave of absence from the R*levant podcast and day-to-day operations. If I’m keeping it 100, I take issue with Str*ng absorbing public praise for this move while avoiding the work of private contrition. It’s yet another symptom of the con.
To date, Str*ng has not personally reached out to Andre or I. The last time he contacted me was the 500-word email he sent to me on the day of my firing.
The company’s attempt to discredit our stories has also never been addressed with us personally, outside of a tweet from R*levant to the individuals that originally brought this to our attention.
Can you see why I’d be exhausted by this point?
(The value of a public relations professional cannot be understated here.)
Str*ng’s incompetency at dealing with criticism and amending things with his victims makes the issues former staff members have spoken to all the more apparent. I can’t help but suspect his hand was moved because his pockets were impacted.
Preacher and theologian Kyle J. Howard was also the first to note Str*ng’s statement is framed as a victimization. This is problematic. The sympathetic framing also perpetuates many of the issues I spoke about in the post that put all this into motion, compounding the pain felt by many of his victims, including myself.
But I told you this would happen.
When you fail to name your racism, sexism, and egotism, even as you publicly apologize for them, you’re not listening to those you’ve hurt. And most likely never will.
R*levant is a unique case-study in workplace hostility because there’s the professional complexity and then there’s the spiritual.
A handful of people have reached out to implore there’s an opportunity for grace and redemption here, and I agree with this in principle. Str*ng, however, has demonstrated over a decade of incorrigible behavior. And I don’t believe the news of it comes as a surprise to him. He chastised me for sitting on a couch and using a pen name. Forgive me if you imply he didn’t know regularly degrading his staff, particularly as a Christian leader, was bad and I don’t buy it.
I’d like to.
But the organizational structure at R*levant ensures he’s only accountable to himself. I can’t change that. I would simply advise any young professional to avoid this environment entirely.
I’d also like to stress that I do not trust the leadership at R*levant to inform conversations surrounding soul care, faith, the church, Christianity, accountability, or anything else related to spiritual well-being, responsibly. Not when they miss the mark, even in their apologies, so grievously.
In my opinion, Str*ng would do well to evolve his personhood in the shadows. Maybe this uprooting of so many things in his personal life will prompt such, but I’m not holding my breath. After all, it’s not C*meron’s world. We’re not living in it.
He’s the responsibility of his community now, Godspeed to them. May they keep him accountable, at least for the sake of everything he and his institutions profess.
This whole experience has taught me a few things. Once I recount them below, I’ll return to regular life; planning a wedding, buying groceries, thriving in my current role under an empowering male lead. One thing I’m so very grateful for in telling my story is that I set out to take my voice back and I do feel like this purpose has been accomplished. My writing feels re-energized and I’m excited to share life with you all here. If only because…
People are ready to find another faithful source for the types of conversations R*levant has monopolized. We are in a new era. When I was under Str*ng’s management, the publication went through a rebrand but it was the equivalent of a facelift. Their praxis is quickly fossilizing and the world is moving forward.
I’ve so appreciated connecting to so many people in the faith community that are open and eager for new springs of edification. One of those sources I want to highlight is the work of Nate Dove and Colby Long at Thanks Be to Pod. I joined them to discuss the events that developed over the weekend. You can listen to that episode here.
I’m so very grateful to Nate for honoring my story so well in this episode. Thanks Be to Pod does not have the platform R*levant has (they’re just getting started), but Nate’s commitment to lean into the mystery of Christ’s work throughout the world is refreshing and primed at a time when people are hungrier for it than ever.
This brings me to my next point which is that I believe we as individuals, and particularly as Christians, have every opportunity to live out the complexity and diversity of who we were created to be.
God is not afraid of it. Men may be, but I know God is not.
In fact, creation suggests that He delights in it.
At a time when our feeds are becoming increasingly monolithic (thanks be to the algorithm), a diversity in voices is more important than ever. I finally believe that is true for myself, and wish to contribute to the patchwork of the weird, complex, beautiful humanity we share by telling you about my own.
I don’t think I’m particularly brave for writing what I experienced at R*levant.
I’ve just found that the shame of failing to speak up when we have the opportunity to is a greater burden than the comfort of staying silent.
I hope that this experience has encouraged others to stand in the margins of the unknown with the people who live at the fringes.
We’re a welcoming crew.
Finally, I want to impress that the issues I pointed to are not unique to Str*ng. On the contrary, I received countless messages from people all over the country who had experienced their own brand of narcissist in a spiritual environment whether it was a worship pastor or leader or peer. The church will always be impeded by people like C*meron Str*ng who seek to choke out what God’s doing, even as they claim to be pursuing it. But he is not an anomaly. He’s a symptom. A case-study in what happens when power goes unchecked.
The only way we are going to heal from this evil is calling it out when we see it and committing to the endless work of becoming healthy individuals ourselves so we don’t add our baggage to the brokenness.
That said, if we’re talking to each other as members of humanity, you and I, I maintain that we are family. And there’s always some brand of dysfunction within family. There always will be on this side of heaven.
Don’t let that reality discourage you.
As I impressed to someone who left a comment on my previous post, don’t allow the mystery (or even the pain) of these complexities overwhelm you or rob you of your joy.
Instead, take courage and consider my favorite words by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and there are years that answer.”
When the silence of your years grows deafening, know I’m standing with you, waiting for your song, ever humming along in hope.
*Please note the italicized/bold sentences are excerpts from Andre’s article referenced throughout and not my own words.
Sometimes you’re just driving your usual route after work, mindlessly running your errands when a text lands on your phone that makes everything slow down and speed up at the same time. I glanced at the message at a red light and my eyes peeled. I started sweating and suddenly couldn’t remember where I was going. I haven’t experienced many of these moments in my life which is why I pulled into a random parking lot and started reading.
My heartrate increased as I wondered, “what is this?” I hadn’t kept up with Relevant in a long time or kept in touch with anyone who still worked there.
Did I write this in some fever dream I couldn’t remember?
Did I accidentally publish it?
Why did I feel like I was in trouble?
I figured we’d continue to be intentional about making content that was both timely and centered marginalized groups at the intersection of faith, culture, and justice.
“Oh! So you’re just making decisions now,” he asked.
All of my subordinates and the Brand Manager attend the content meeting. So when he asked about me “just making decisions” as though that was not exactly what I’d been hired to do, as though my authority to do so was questionable, it was awkward for everyone. I didn’t know how to respond.
I wanted to be respectful. And I couldn’t think of a respectful way to say “Well, that’s what you hired me to do, isn’t it?”
So I bit my tongue.
I scrolled back up to the top of the article mid-way to look at the name of the author half-expecting to see my own.
These were angry tears. After only three months at what I’d imagined would be my dream job at the largest Christian media company serving millennials in the U.S., I’d determined, in tears, there was no way I could stay there indefinitely. I promised myself, after that meeting, I’d quit once I’d completed a year at the company.
Although Andre Henry and I had never met or spoken before, I knew who he was before I read my former coworker’s reply—Andre Henry was the former Managing Editor at Relevant Magazine, the man that got my job at Relevant after I was fired.
It didn’t matter that I was meeting my family across town in 30 minutes or that I still had a few errands to run, nothing else mattered other than this article, this moment, this validation of my own experiences in the lion’s den that I’d never asked for or recognized so intimately. Not until now.
My life converged with Relevant in the Summer of 2016.
I returned to Florida by chance. Up until then, I’d worked for a year at a start-up in New York City that wanted to become the next Buzzfeed (spoiler: they didn’t). I’d managed 15 remote teams of content contributors, led a monthly speaker series hosting guests from CNN, Refinery 29, Blavity, New York University, The MET, and other institutions, I had solidified my network of talented media professionals and after a year, I was ready to move on to the next thing. I resigned from the company with a healthy amount of savings and thanked leadership for the opportunity to serve our contributors alongside them. They would unceremoniously let go of 60 members of the editorial staff in droves shortly after burning through 24 million dollars in capital. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Up to this point, I’d lived in New York City for 5 years and grown increasingly exhausted by the backdrop of subways in disrepair, the rat race, the literal rats, the long winters and I was feeling totally wrung out. I wanted something new but didn’t know quite what yet. I decided to spend a month in Orlando near family and friends while I figured it out. I moved out of my apartment in Brooklyn and put my belongings in storage while I spent a month living at my best friend’s in Central Florida, applying to jobs in New York City, Colorado, and Los Angeles.
As ambiguous as the future seemed, I was confident in what I’d accomplished thus far and prioritized restoring my soul with rest before moving into the next opportunity. It was, in every practical sense, a quarter-life sabbatical.
Around the same time, one of my best friends who had been working at Relevant for a year told me about an opening for a Managing Editor. I didn’t follow Relevant closely but as someone who grew up in the church during their mid-2000s peak, I respected the work produced by the publication and invited the opportunity to expand my network. My friend had graciously been in the ear of leadership promoting my editorial skills and the next thing I knew, I had a phone screening arranged on my behalf with their Editorial Director.
Shortly after, I had an in-person interview arranged with both the Director and Cameron Strang, the CEO/Publisher/Founder. This was over three years ago now and I remember it feeling like any other interview I’d been in. Strang impressed there were 400 applications stacked on his desk for this position that he hadn’t looked at but somehow, I’d ended up in front of him. Outside of his repeating this comment a few times, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this occasion except I’d heard the stories about Cameron regarding his temperament, his despotism, and occasional unusual brand of barbarity.
Yet when the 5’10 individual himself finally appeared in front of me in expensive sneakers and black-rimmed glasses, he looked like someone I’d sooner grab a beer with than fear. The stories didn’t align with my first impression of him and either way, I was a strong, independent woman who had just cut my teeth in New York. How bad could it really be? I cautiously—naively, perhaps—disregarded the stories as hearsay. After all, this wasn’t just a potential boss. Cameron Strang was a brother in Christ.
The role of Managing Editor was offered to me at $45,000 a year. It was $20,000 less in salary than I had earned in New York but I figured that the cost of living in Florida, as well as the opportunity to be near my family, would be a considerable exchange. Beyond that, I was excited for the opportunity to use my talents to build God’s kingdom in such a unique way. The convergence of my story with this opportunity at Relevant felt, at that time, divine. And I was excited to get to work.
I joined the team September of 2016.
When I was brought on, Relevant still operated out of their Winter Park office at 900 Orange Avenue. The office had an open floor plan and a beautiful recreational area complete with a pool table and several couches that faced the huge windows looking out onto a beautiful commercial street. The editorial team sat in the front of the building, Cameron’s office was in the center and the back was designated for creative, and the studio where the Relevant Podcast was recorded each week. There was a huge banner featuring Nicholas Cage’s face in in the back and you could very well have confused the staff with Urban Outfitters catalog models. This is important to note because when you came into the office, Relevant presented precisely the way it wanted to: cool, relaxed, irreverent. The 30-page employee manual I was handed should’ve suggested otherwise.
The Editorial Director I directly reported to was a wonderful leader, which probably made me ignore the red flags I’ll outline momentarily. He was patient, genuinely curious towards my goals, my experience, and kind. I also appreciated that the Editorial Director made it clear what my role was responsible for:
Curating, editing, and publishing 20 feature-length articles per week on the digital website
Writing 3-5 daily news blurbs on a variety of trending topics including pop culture, entertainment, politics, the church, and faith
Contributing to and editing the bi-monthly print magazine
Participating as a guest in the Relevant Podcast when directed to
Relevant, although they’ve been around for 10+ years, operates on a skeletal staff with a barebones budget. While I was there, the soda cans complimentarily offered to staff were replaced with 2-liter pitchers in order to pinch pennies.
One woman who was often regarded as Cameron’s right hand was responsible for all matters related to HR, Operations, and Project Management. The first red flag to me was when during our orientation (an informal chat on the couch with paperwork) she explained to me how Relevant operated.
“We’re like, one big family and I’m mom, you can come to me for anything, and Cameron’s dad. Our job is to keep dad happy.”
I was onboarded at the same time as Relevant’s newly hired Social Media Producer. The only reason this is significant is because Cameron Strang’s method of “leadership development” was to regularly suggest that we were not coworkers or equals, but competitors. This tacitly implied there was only room for one successful female leader. What we were competing for is still unclear to me, but my assumption would be his favor.
He had a similar dichotomy set up between directors as well. One was the gentle, sober-minded, quiet strength of the editorial team but he was openly disparaged and undermined by Cameron in meetings. Another director was the golden child. I was often instructed to mimic this individual’s voice and ironic humor in our daily news blurb distributions. After all, this person’s popularity and Relevant’s popularity were implied as one in the same. This man was not disposable—unlike the others.
The second red flag appeared during my first week when the Editorial Director explained to me that he would be my buffer. His job was to protect me from whatever ran downhill. He explained that the most exceptional boss he ever had did that for him and he, in turn, would do that for me. He kept that commitment. And the relationship I would observe between him and Cameron was disparaging. It wasn’t enough to discuss deadlines and proactive choices that would move us in unison in their direction, Cameron would often subvert my boss’ authority in my presence and question his talents, too.
Fill this calendar.
I was given the same imperative that Andre described in his article, almost exactly, but it appears that Andre was also responsible for Instagram and building new products, which I cannot even imagine possible within a 40-hour workweek. We were already producing 80 articles a month to publish on the website. If we’re responsible for coordinating 80 articles a month, can you imagine how much content we’re reading through simply to curate, edit, and refine the select few fit to publish? As I look back on this time, it was a Herculean ask but I trusted that as the Managing Editor working in close unison with the Editorial Director, we’d get this right. After all, it wasn’t rocket science and we had over a hundred talented contributors.
I was soon proved wrong.
The editorial meetings on Monday mornings became increasingly wrought as time went on.
I began dreading editorial meetings because the goal, and Cameron Strang’s vision, was an ever-moving target. Yes, we could populate the articles and present them but there was always something wrong. They either weren’t culturally relevant enough, they were too Jesus-y, too stale, too secular. The message communicated to Andre was that his ideas were too Black. My own were found too feminist.
What made navigating this reality so exceptionally difficult was that you never knew which version of Cameron you would get on any given day. He would either shoot the breeze with you animatedly discussing The Magic team’s latest blunder, recent blockbusters, or recalling some zany memory from the podcast like their Nicholas Cage movie marathon. In these times, you felt like you were finally in. You were trusted or you were succeeding. You could breath.
Other days, he would arrive to the office visibly perturbed, ready to skewer whoever displeased him first and you’d keep your head low hoping to avoid the misfortune.
I’ll remind you that we already had the burden of being understaffed, over-exerted and now, eternally suspended in the unknown of which Cameron we would get.
Would it be the temperamental CEO that made it evident he believed he was surrounded by imbeciles or Cameron, the Christian? Cameron, the friend?
Monday mornings became a matter of holding our breath and hoping he had a good weekend, a good morning, a good breakfast. Although the office space was open seating, everyone kept to themselves. There was no sense of community fostered at Relevant. The words “purpose” and “vision”, the few times they were thrown around in meetings, soon became empty. Our job was to come in, feed the internet, and keep Dad happy. You just hoped you wouldn’t get scalped in the midst of trying to do so and walked out the door as soon as 5pm hit.
I would often take my laptop to work on the couch in the common area, as was typical at the start-up I worked at in New York. I got used to not being at a desk but Cameron took issue with it and said it appeared slovenly. I was asked not to sit on the couch again.
If I remember correctly, there were 14 full-time staff members in the office. Our tireless copy editor was Black. I’m Latinx . Everyone else was white. That’s a diversity rate of 14%. But it doesn’t matter. Andre’s article did an exceptional job communicating the race fatigue any non-white individual would experience as an employee.
RELEVANT remains without excuse for the patterns of tokenization of Black people and fetishization of racial justice efforts that characterize their work, and the harm it has caused to Black people within and outside of the organization. As long as they refuse to acknowledge this about their praxis, they’ll remain an unsafe environment for Black people and a collaborator in the racist status quo while giving themselves credit for being an ally.
I cannot communicate the points made in Andre’s article with the same clarity of mind or his tenacity, and I won’t try. Andre’s experiences, his observations, and his story-telling are both exceptionally unique to his lived experience and all too common of a story when it comes to the subject of the largest Christian company serving millennials.
In this respect, Cameron Strang and Relevant are interchangeable entities. If the source of water is toxic, the body of water is not fit to swim in. You see where I’m going with this?
My intent in speaking up about my tenure at Relevant is to co-sign Andre’s experiences as regrettably familiar. I suspect we both find ourselves as hosts of these stories because Cameron Strang’s greatest fear is that people aren’t interested in what he—or Relevant —has to say.
Instead of leaning into the mystery of what God could be speaking in present day and the diversity that He has gifted each of us with, Strang continually allows his fear to choke out the voices, strengths, and giftings of the people he hires.
This account of experience as the Managing Editor at Relevant Magazine is an effort to recover the voice stolen from me during my time with this company.
All of my subordinates and the Brand Manager attend the content meeting. So when he asked about me “just making decisions” as though that was not exactly what I’d been hired to do, as though my authority to do so was questionable, it was awkward for everyone. I didn’t know how to respond.
It was in one of these terrible editorial meetings where the subject of a famous Christian Black rapper and how he had been criticized by white evangelical America for speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was brought up. In an effort to build framework around how to discuss the challenges this man was facing as a result of the backlash and abandonment, Cameron Strang suggested we feature him in the magazine with a noose around his neck as a “shocking image to symbolize his lynching by white evangelical America.”
This is where I need to pause and bring you into my position in the editorial leadership meeting.
I was both the only woman and the only person of color in a room of five people. And now the CEO of the company signing my paychecks was suggesting featuring a man of color in a noose on the publication with my name in the masthead. I spoke up immediately and tried to choke back the wry disbelieving laugh that had crawled up my throat in shock.
“We can’t do that,” I said.
The rest of the editorial staff blinked and avoided eye contact with me. Cameron doubled down. “No, like imagine someone is reading the magazine,” he said as he picked up a previous month’s issue “and flipping through the pages and they see [redacted name] in a noose. It’s like, WHOA, what is this about.”
I paused before speaking and suddenly felt like I was in a trap I wouldn’t get out of safely. He wasn’t getting it and as the token person of color in the room, I had the singular responsibility of walking him back from this ledge.
I took a breath in hopes to restrain my emotion from reaching my voice and continued as professionally as I could.
“Listen. I’m telling you, as a person of color, that if I were reading this magazine, whoa is not the reaction I would have. I would be deeply disturbed. And alienated. We do not need to publish an image of a Black man in a noose. This isn’t a good idea.”
I didn’t bring up the viral videos of Black mens’ bodies being broken all over Twitter.
I didn’t bring up the fact that I believe we need more representation of Black excellence, not Black trauma.
I didn’t bring up how embarrassed I would be to approach the individual’s camp with this idea, or having my name on the masthead if we proceeded with it.
I just hoped he would trust me.
Instead, Cameron Strang grew exasperated with me and I think we left it at having to agree to disagree. He was obviously annoyed with me and I left trying to hide my exhaustion towards this environment, and my white coworkers that remained silent throughout our interaction. It was at this time that a glaring qualification I was missing to succeed at this job became obvious: Cameron wanted a “yes man” and I’d just revealed my lack.
During another editorial meeting, I pitched an article about millennials and how the lack of job opportunities was making them susceptible to pyramid schemes (like Lularoe and those essential oil companies) where you put capital forward for inventory and then have to make up your profit by selling these items to friends and family. I’d been exceptionally dismayed by the lack of opportunity in Central Florida for my graduate-degree educated friends and thought we could flesh it out into a meaningful conversation around capital, education, and the diminishing middle class.
There was an increasing amount of dialogue around the factors that keep millennials from buying homes and the burden of student debt; with the right direction and contributors, I believed we could craft it into a meaningful conversation.
Cameron replied, “Well, if they don’t like their job, why don’t they just get another one?”
I didn’t even think about my reply.
In fact, it was an immediate knee-jerk response that stated the obvious.
“I think that’s a privileged statement,” and I thought of friends who weren’t able-bodied or people who couldn’t even get in the door for interviews at many institutions for arbitrary factors like the name given to them by their parents.
There are more men named John and Robert in CEO positions than there are women in total, period. I didn’t think I was making a particularly bold or incendiary statement to Cameron when I pushed back. I just thought reality wasn’t as simple as he was deducing it to be.
That comment alone led to a sit-down reprimand conversation with Cameron and my boss. Unbeknownst to me, Strang had left the meeting in great offense towards me and the next day, he talked for 20 minutes about my inappropriate behavior and proceeded to impress to me that he’s traveled the world, visited war zones, and spent time with refugees. He therefore could not possibly have a worldview that qualified as privileged.
(A quick aside here: even if we ignore that his last house sold for over a million dollars or the capital spent on a rotating sneaker collection he openly discussed, using refugees as an argument for why you’re woke is a bizarre move. Moving on.)
I can’t tell you exactly when I fell out of Cameron Strang’s favor but if I had to guess I would say it was when I insisted being called by my preferred name.
Sometime between December-January, I was working on a round-up of what to expect from the music industry in 2017. The headline was Good Lorde, This Will Be Another Great Year For Music and you can guess who the talented young ingenue anchoring this editorial was. As I was editing, I noticed my byline featured my full legal name, Rebecca Marie Jo Flores, which was odd because I’d been writing at Relevant and other publications under my more commonly used name, Rebecca Marie Jo. I don’t think I need to explain why I write on the internet under Rebecca Marie Jo because privacy is, you know, a thing, and beyond that I’ve never felt an affinity to my last name which wasn’t a conversation I necessarily expected to get into with my employer.
I figured it had been a mistake and corrected my byline to remain consistent with my previously published articles. It was either that same afternoon or a day later that I noticed it had been changed back and I brought it up to my boss, the Editorial Director. He explained that had been a call made by Cameron which is when I grew concerned and confused. Consistency is important to me, and so is, you know, whatever has my full legal name published on it so I asked my boss to speak to Cameron on my behalf. A few moments later, I received a Slack message advising me that he had done all he could but this was a call made by Cameron and little could be done.
At this point, I’m reasonably confused and notice Cameron’s
in the office. His door was open, as it usually was, so I popped my head and
asked if I talk to him about something. I was visibly annoyed, I’m sure, but I kept
it professional and thought, “maybe if he hears it from me, he’ll understand
and we can move on.” I told him I was changing the byline back to Rebecca Marie
Jo just to remain consistent with formerly published articles and said
something to the effect of “I don’t write under my full legal name.”
And I thought this would suffice.
Moments later, I received a Slack message from Cameron himself
reprimanding me for coming into “the CEO’s office” without an invitation and providing
an explainer on, once again, how inappropriate this behavior was. His solution
(punishment?) was to take my byline off the article altogether. And he cited
the reason being that he had to rework my introduction anyway because my writing
quality was terrible.
Can I tell you that I absolutely lost it in this moment? All of it. Whatever it I had. It was gone.
It was the middle of the workday and I started crying hot, angry, ceaseless tears at my desk. I have never had another professional moment like this to this day, but I was inconsolable. If you’ve cried at work, and particularly in an open floor plan office, I’m buying us both these matching shirts. I was hurt, I was disappointed, and I was livid at Cameron’s retribution for something that I thought would be a non-issue. I’d worked hard on that article. I was proud of it.
Was I brought there to lead, to use my taste to shape the kind of content they published, to use my voice, as I’d been told?
The next day, I was brought into a meeting with the Editorial Director and Cameron and very nearly fired on the spot. Cameron said something to the effect that this brand was not to build *MY* name and therefore, my reaction was wholly inappropriate. Then, he ended his diatribe with something about me being there to build HIS vision and it’s HIS name on the masthead and that if I don’t like that, well, there’s the door.
It was at that point that I realized I wasn’t there to build God’s kingdom. I was there to build Cameron’s.
I said something to the effect of “I understand” and I didn’t have the courage to leave yet, not when I had invested so much and had so many great relationships with my contributors. I wasn’t ready to go then, so I told Cameron I’d shut up and play the game. That’s when I wholly checked out of my work.
“Your taste,” they said. “Your vision,” they said.
Strang began having challenges with his HR/Operations/Project Manager. She wasn’t project managing the magazine as closely as he wanted (maybe because she had three job titles), but his solution was to offload her project management responsibilities to me, in addition to curating, editing, and publishing the 80 articles a month in addition to writing daily blurbs that got all of our traffic.
I will openly concede to the fact that I did not do my best work at Relevant, not consistently, because of the volume demanded and the stress of navigating the environment itself. I was now given project management responsibilities on top of that and I had never been a project manager in my life. To be completely frank, I just kind of nodded and figured it would pan out. I took it upon myself to prompt the Editorial Director more frequently about the status of things. This didn’t make him or anyone else move any quicker, mind you.
But what was I gonna do? Say no to Cameron Strang? He made sure I’d learned my lesson.
I grew increasingly depressed and disassociated in my role. I was miserable and felt indebted to my responsibilities, to my commitment and to the vibrant community of contributors I’d built relationships with. I cherished them and their words, and wanted to honor the opportunity to steward this platform well.
There were still times that I would be so moved by the content I was reading from our writers that I would feel God’s presence intimately and believe in His ability to use Relevant Magazine, despite the toxic despot at the helm. I figured Cameron’s regular lashings were a sad reality of the work itself and kept going. Like, Andre,
I tried to rationalize that access to the platform was an opportunity.
In late February, I went on vacation to the Netherlands for 9 days. I hadn’t earned the entire bank of those vacation days but I had committed to this trip before I had started my work at Relevant and was once again duped by the illusory easygoing nature of the company. I had little concept or care for the number of grievances Cameron had against me at this point. As Cameron followed me on Instagram, he was privy to my joy, my freedom, my best carefree vacation self. And to this day, I speculate that he resented it. I wasn’t producing, and therefore I wasn’t of use to him.
I returned to the office on a Wednesday morning, 8 hours after landing in the States. I attended a local music festival that same weekend. As miserable as my job was, I was trying to cultivate joy in other areas of my life, like my friends and any opportunity for adventure in their company.
The Sunday after the music festival, I was watching the HBO tv series Girls and found the subject of the episode hit too close to what I was feeling in my life. The main character, Hannah Horvath, had realized her prestigious grad program at the University of Iowa for fictional writing was not what she imagined it would be. She was disillusioned and disappointed by her hopes when held in contrast to her isolated reality.
I could relate.
I surprised myself with my own tears and began praying alone in my living room. I no longer knew what my purpose at Relevant was or if it could be accomplished. I felt responsible for so many things—the readers, the writers, my desire to share the beauty of God’s work in everything—yet denigrated, robbed of my agency, my leadership potential, and my own well-being.
I prayed for the freedom to let go. That sounds like I prayed to be fired or quit but at the time, I just prayed God would give me permission to move on. I didn’t want to quit prematurely, but I also couldn’t withstand another day. I was in a truly depressive state and dreaded the editorial meeting that was scheduled in a few hours. I knew I had ambiguous project management responsibilities that I would not know how to account for. I didn’t have anything left in me to pretend or bite my tongue or tuck my tail between my legs, and I knew it.
I emailed my boss at 3:08am to tell him I wasn’t feeling well. I asked for a day to recoup from jetlag and get my bearings. In reality, I felt like my vacation had reintroduced me to full self and suddenly, I had to shrink to fit into Cameron’s world again. For whatever reason, I couldn’t do it in that moment. Maybe I refused to.
My boss replied “No worries! Feel better,” when I woke up at 7am to check my email that morning and by noon, I’d received a 500-word email from Cameron Strang effectively letting me go from my position. He told me I’d failed to live up to my responsibilities. That 30-page employee handbook? He had cited it extensively, even added in a P.S. in case I missed the point of my firing.
What I didn’t know at this point was that the Social Media Producer who had started her role alongside me had put in her notice days before I returned from the Netherlands. Could Cameron see another resignation coming? I’ll never know.
To add insult to injury, the Macbook Pro I’d used at work had been left at my desk the previous Friday and for some reason, Cameron assumed I had returned on the premise to put my computer back the afternoon after my firing so I received a follow-up email from HR/Ops personnel notifying me know that the police would be called on me if I returned to the premises without advising anyone and to return my key fob as soon as possible.
Am still aghast, even as I recall these memories.
I coordinated to return my key fob to my best friend who had gotten me the job. The HR/Ops person who emailed me this… threat.. apologized months later and put the onus of it on Cameron.
After that period in my life, I did everything to put Relevant behind me, chalking up my experience to a loss, not necessarily for me, but the Christian community as a whole. God is still using Relevant, can still use Relevant, will continue to use Relevant—but for the leadership, this is an incident, not a priority.
As I wrote this article, I remembered the disparaging things Cameron Strang spoke over his associates, his friends, and many of the Christian celebrities we featured in the magazine. Comments I haven’t thought about in years. I will never go into public detail about those. The only thing these memories have in common was how often Cameron was able to solicit my empathy against these villains in his own life out to get him.
Cameron Strang is exceptionally talented at behaving for those whom he must behave for and that itself reveals the inner conflict that drives so much of this egotistical behavior. This is probably the most important thing I can communicate about the experiences that are all too common between myself and other former employees.
He’s either aligned with the winners or he’ll be the victim, but he can never be the loser.
Last night, I attended the funeral service of an old classmate. I hadn’t seen him in ten years and in fact, I can’t say I had a personal relationship with him but we were often around each other in groups of friends. Although he enjoyed playing the class clown, he had a gentle nature about him that contrasted against the brashness of his peers. He was a kind guy and I respected him.
Yet as I was getting ready, I was confronted by my unwillingness to go. I have been to two funerals in my life and for the first one, I was still untouched by personal loss. I was young and unaffected, perhaps inappropriately so, but I would not have to grapple with the finality of death until a few years later when the sudden loss of my grandmother—barely 60—threatened to still my own heart.
In contrast, I understood what my classmate’s death meant to the dozens who loved him yesterday. I understood that his departure from this world meant he took the hopes of his family and friends—for what would be—with him. And I knew I’d regret not going to pay my respects. Everyone’s taken different paths since high school but we belonged to each other then. We grew up in a tight community. Teachers still keep up with alumni, I see old classmates around town. This loss was the one of our own.
Although youth makes it all the more unnatural, I can’t say anyone’s departure will ever feel right on this side of heaven. I feel the most intimately acquainted with scripture when I consider that God’s original design was that we would not die. I won’t go into theological exegesis but for all of our ritual around the loss of a loved one, it appears that our hearts never reach the closure these formalities imply.
I believe the nature of our being on this earth is a weaving with others. Those who do try to resist it end up the most gnarled by their own closing off but when we accept the nature of our commonalities, we share the joys, memories, laughter, celebrations, and love. And we bear the damage when the fabric rips.
I’m praying for the Garcia family and the friends who knew Fabio far more closely than I ever did. In my card to his family, I wrote that I had lost contact with their son over the ten years since we graduated, but that he had a light within him I’d carry in memory for the rest of my life. Although the memory of those days will continue to dim, his impression on me never will. I thanked them for sharing him with us and looked in wonder at the packed room, half of this beloved person’s community standing because there simply weren’t enough chairs. Hearts knitting together over and over covering each other with comfort and prayer, braving to love again even as we wove along the tear.