What is privilege? What is it not? How does privilege cause harm? In this bonus episode, Amy Julia describes her working definition of privilege, the ways that privilege leads to unjust social divisions and disparities, and how we can participate in healing from the harm of privilege
“Privilege is a set of unearned social advantages that lead to unjust social divisions and disparities.”
“Privilege is not a guarantee of an easy life and it’s not an accusation of an easy life.”
“As unearned social advantages lead to unjust social divisions, we find ourselves participating in injustice.”
“Privilege harms everyone. The ways we are cut off from one another and from the full expression of human diversity is not only unjust but it is also harmful, and I, for one, want to be a part of healing.”
“Healing comes from the overflow of the love of God at work in and through God’s people—not just the love of God, but the love of God that is expressed in acts of mercy, of kindness, and of justice.”
ON THE PODCAST:
Thank you to Breaking Ground, the co-host for this podcast.
White Picket Fences, Season 3 of Love is Stronger Than Fear, is based on my book White Picket Fences, and today we are taking a break from our typical podcast episodes and guests to talk about the topic of privilege. Check out free RESOURCES—action guide, discussion guides—that are designed to help you respond. Learn more about my writing and speaking at amyjuliabecker.com.
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Note: This transcript is generated using speech recognition software and does contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Hi friends. I'm Amy Julia Becker and this is love is stronger than Fear a podcast about pursuing hope and healing in the midst of social division. Today's episode is different than any episode I've done this season because it's just going to be me talking. I decided it was time for me to actually take a moment to share it
When you all my own thoughts on this concept of Privilege, we've had some amazing conversations in this season so far, and thank you all so much. Those of you who've told me what those conversations have sparked the thoughts and questions in actions in your own life. Thank you so much for that. We've had conversations about race and policing and justice and conversations about disability and self care and the way of Jesus. And I'm really, really grateful for all of that.
And we're really turning to the second half of the book. White Picket Fences. Now I know plenty of you are not following along at home chapter by chapter as I go through these different topics with guests on this podcast. But for me, White, Picket Fences as a book has provided the framework for the conversations that I wanna have. And so when I had chapters in the book about my early childhood, I talked to other people who could speak to the reality of racism from multiple perspectives.
1 (1m 25s):
When I had a chapter in the book about receiving my child with down syndrome, as a gift, I talked to another mom who has a child with down syndrome. And so it's guided the way I've gone through this. Most recently, we were at the mid point of the book White Picket Fences and returning towards some conversations actually about disability again. So the month of October we'll have it coincides nicely, actually, because October is down syndrome awareness month. And so will be interviewing some people with down syndrome and those who are related and have been affected by people with down syndrome.
1 (2m 2s):
And we're going to be talking also of course, about the upcoming presidential election. So there's a lot ahead, but I want it to pause today and give you some thoughts on what Privilege is, what it is not and why we are even bothering to talk about it. Why we open the doors on this, why we look at this problem of social divisions within our nation and within our own lives, in our own communities. And I'll give you a hint. The reason we do that is so that we can participate in Healing.
1 (2m 35s):
So thanks for being here with me today, and I am now going to do what I do when I'm invited to speak,
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Speak in front of groups and talk about Privilege
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What I would think that many of you who are here listening. No, my story, but just as a really quick run through my life, I did grow up in Eatonton, North Carolina in a small Southern town. I'm on the coast of North Carolina, but I grew up with parents who came from Connecticut. So I was a little bit of a Yankee in North Carolina, even though I had a thick enough accent that my husband says, if we listen back to a home videos of that time, you can't understand what I was saying. It was a really happy childhood. I loved my neighbors.
1 (3m 19s):
I'd loved my school. I'd loved my town. I felt really proud of living in this small town in North Carolina. There's a lot of safety and stability in my life as I write about. And White, Picket, Fences, there were three African American people who actually worked in our home and I felt loved and cared for by them as well as buy the old ladies who lived on our block and the men and women in every sector of my life. I moved to Connecticut when I was 10 years old and started reflecting.
1 (3m 50s):
Then about that time in North Carolina and the racial and economic socioeconomic dynamics, ah, that continued really for the rest of my life. And I went on to boarding school. I went on to college, I got a job right out of college, working in a para church ministry and a married my high school sweetheart. So that worked out well. I still really like him and it is 21 years later. So that's been quite a blessing in my life, but it also meant that I had this life that just went pretty well.
1 (4m 23s):
Now I say all that. And those of you who've read White Picket Fences know that I also had like a severe eating disorder in the midst of it. And as an adult, I've certainly struggled with some are not clinical, but the kind of run of the mill anxiety and sadness and loneliness and seasons of just drinking too much wine and all sorts of problems. But that said looking in from the outside, my life was going pretty well. And I was on a track of achievement efficiency and success five years into my marriage with Peter.
1 (4m 59s):
I was pregnant with our first child and our daughter Penny who of course you have heard me speak about before was born on December 30th, 2005. She was born into all of these social advantages that I had. She had whiteness, she had wealth, she had educated, married parents. So all of that safety and stability Penny also was diagnosed with down syndrome. As soon as she was born. And as a result, she was born into a history of exclusion and discrimination within our country.
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She had been born into a set of social advantages. She also had been born into a set of social disadvantages that I had not personally experienced before I tell you this, because her story has shaped my story, her experiences, and our experiences as a family has shaped how we see not only people with disabilities, but also all sorts of other people who are on the margins and who over the course of the history of this nation.
1 (6m 0s):
And over the course of just human life have been pushed to the margins and pushed out of opportunities and advantages that I just found myself born right into. I share all that as a preamble to a conversation about this word. Privilege, it's a word that has been used a lot more in recent years. I don't remember ever talking about Privilege other than like, it's a privilege to meet you. A when I was younger. And what I want to try to do is to talk about what Privilege is.
1 (6m 31s):
That is not how it harms everyone and how we can participate in Healing. I know the word can be kind of like a trigger for shame, for anger. It can really make people just shut down and be like, I don't want to be a part of this conversation. If you're going to point your fingers at me, I'm not pointing fingers. Okay. And if I am my gosh, I'm pointing it out myself. I'm wanting to take a hard look at my life in such a way. Not that I can go hide in a corner and feel bad about the unearned gifts and opportunities I was given, but rather to reckon with them, which we acknowledge the ways that they have caused harm in my life, in, in the lives of other people, but also to recognize the ways in which they've given me things that I can bring to participate in healing within our society.
1 (7m 23s):
So let's start with what privileges it began. It's just a legal term, a legal right, that is given to one group and not to another. So if you think about voting rights and you go back to the history of our nation, the Privilege of voting was initially offered to land owning white men. And I don't need to go through all of the history in order to make it clear that that privilege is something that has expanded over time. And it's still something that in legal terms, we actually debate in our country who should have the privilege of voting people over 18 people who are citizens, both men and women, people of all different races and ethnicities, as long as they meet those other criteria.
1 (8m 6s):
Right? But what about someone who has spent time in prison? Should they be given the privilege of voting? There are lots of questions still about that, but that helps explain what that word Privilege means. And it's a legal context. Over time, we started using the word. Privilege not simply to mean legal advantages, but also social advantages. And we've started to see that there are sets of social advantages that are unearned and that are given by society at large to some people on not to others.
1 (8m 38s):
And that's how I think about Privilege. That's how I talk about privilege as a set of an earned social advantages. So now I want you to call forth in your mind then diagrams. Alright, because Privilege is like a Venn diagram where they're overlapping circles of social advantage, and there are different identifying markers within our society that confer social advantage on some people and not others. And yes, whiteness is one of them. I'm going to come back to that.
1 (9m 8s):
We hear this term white privilege, but that's not all that privileges reduced to now, but there are other ways to experience Privilege. So there's socioeconomic privilege. And there's the Privilege unearned advantage of having parents who are married, who are educated. They're are privileges that come with being male, being a heterosexual and on down a whole list of different identifying markers within our society. And of course, privileges can change from one society to the next.
1 (9m 39s):
But I'm talking about Western North American United States are a society, but I do want to point out that some of the guests I've even had on this podcast has talked about the privileges as women of color that they have had in their lives. So my friend Niro Feliciano, who's a psychotherapist and is the child of immigrants from Sri Lanka, talked on this show about the privilege of being born into married, affluent, educated parents, but also the disadvantages that she experienced as a woman of color.
1 (10m 15s):
She didn't talk in at great length about this, but she certainly experienced discrimination at the school that we went too for boarding school. My friend Subira Gordon, who also gave an awesome interview on this podcast about educational inequity, as in Connecticut, would say that she, as a black woman, had the privilege to be in predominantly white spaces for a lot of her educational life. And that meant, and in many other people do not have that an advantage.
1 (10m 48s):
So these are both just examples of people who would say yes, I definitely, I'm not white. And I have privilege and I have some privilege that some white people do not have. So we're not only talking about whiteness when we were talking about Privilege and I do want one make that really clear as we go, that said, whiteness does confer. Privilege if we're talking about unearned social advantages, and there are studies upon studies that show this. So I'm going to just give a couple of examples. When people apply for jobs, if their qualifications are identical, but their name indicates that they probably come from an African American cultural background.
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I, as opposed it was to a white sounding name from a white sounding cultural background, all the people who come are presumably from that African American background are half as likely to get a call as the applicant with the White it sounding name. So that's an example of unearned social advantage. The names of it has been given to you are giving you an advantage in a job interview. Okay? So even when you control for factors like college, educational attainment, et cetera, white people get paid more than people of color.
1 (11m 59s):
Okay. Unearned social advantage is conferred upon whiteness. I'll give one more example. I heard this actually in a Ted radio hour, that people who are given pictures of two athletes, one white and one black, and the athletes credentials are listed identically. People rate the anonymous white athlete as being higher in intelligence than the anonymous black athlete. Even though they have the same information about those two players.
1 (12m 34s):
So these are just small examples of the ways in which whiteness confers Privilege confers, unearned social advantages. And of course those advantages have consequences that are legal and legislative and social in nature. They're disparities for all sorts of people in our nation. It's not just about being black or white, and I'm not going to go into all of those details here, because I think for those of you who have listened to this podcast long enough, you'll know that you can think through what does it mean to, of been given unearned social advantages?
1 (13m 14s):
What are the concentric circles that overlap in that Venn diagram? Where do I fall in the midst of that? How has that played out in my life, in my community? And those are questions I would certainly encourage you to ask, but I also want to talk about and be really clear on what Privilege is not as I have traveled around the country and talked with people about this topic. There are three things that have come up. People feel like when I say the word Privilege, I am making an accusation that they're guilty of something, or people feel like I'm making an accusation, that they are not working hard.
1 (13m 53s):
And people feel like I'm making an accusation that they've had an easy life with no suffering. And none of those things are true. So let me say it again. Privilege is not an accusation of guilt. It is not an accusation of not working hard and it is not an accusation of having had an easy life. And I want to explain that a little bit more. I remember being in Raleigh, North Carolina, went to a white man, was listening to me speak alongside a black man. And he said, you know, there are times when I just want to walk out the house in the morning and put a paper bag over my head.
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I just don't. I feel so much shame and guilt in being a white man in Raleigh, North Carolina, knowing that what white men have stood for in this city has not often been good for other people. It's really important that all of us understand what it means to be who we are. And especially for Christians to consider what it means to be made in God's image as who we are. And that certainly include white men are in.
1 (14m 55s):
So for this man to be affirmed in being a man being White and saying, what does it mean for me to reckon with who I am and to use that for good, my friend Natasha Sistrunk Robinson who again has been interviewed on this podcast has written before your guilt doesn't help anyone. Actually, she didn't write that. She said that ON THE, PODCAST, you're a guilt. Doesn't help anyone. But if you can recognize the ways in which you are Privilege has advantage Hugh you in this world than you can use that Privilege to help lots of that people including yourself.
1 (15m 32s):
So privilege is not an accusation of guilt. Privilege is not also an accusation of not working hard. And most privileged people worked really hard. We have a value of achievement in a privileged circles, and we will see that with something like the college admission scandal of a couple of years ago, where are you have all these parents who already have wealth and already have status and already have whiteness and already have all of these things, nevertheless, paying more money and working harder to get their kids into college because they think they're life is going to be a disaster.
1 (16m 8s):
If they don't have that, there is a sense of people in these circles of whiteness and wealth and education and attainment of working really, really, really hard. It's actually, it can be a really distorted value. I became most aware of this. However, that hard work is not what confers the advantages hard work is not the only thing. At least that gets you ahead. And I came to see that I remember this moment really early on in Penny's life when she was doing physical therapy and she was working so hard, groaning and grunting and trying again and again and again, to re just a toy and she couldn't do it.
1 (16m 53s):
And it just was this moment of recognition for me that what other babies were just given in their bodies, in their eyes, in their brains, she has not been given. And she was going to have to work harder and receive less. It helped me to see that, yeah, the hard work is important. I want to teach that to all my kids. I think it's a great value, but working hard is not what gives us the advantages that we have in our culture, because so many of them are unearned and are given to us by our culture.
1 (17m 29s):
The final thing I will say about Privilege and what it is not is that its not a guarantee of an easy life and its not an accusation of an easy life. There's a reader of White Picket Fences who I really appreciated early on. She wrote me and she said, I'm now starting to see the difference between being privileged and feeling. She has a white woman who again had grown up like me and I house with married educated parents who are able to provide for her to go to college and provide all sorts of material goods and possessions.
1 (18m 4s):
And yet she also has growing up in a household where her parents were on the brink of divorce and her sister had gone to a rehab facility for an eating disorder and things felt awful at home. She did not feel privileged to be a part of her family and yet being a part of her family did confer, unearned, social advantages upon her that really did offer opportunities for her to get out of that destructive home later on in her life.
1 (18m 36s):
So this brings me back having talked about what Privilege is, what privileges not too my working definition of Privilege. I mentioned earlier a set of unearned social advantages. And that is the beginning of how I think about Privilege a set of unearned social advantages, but I'm going to add a second clause. I believe that Privilege is a set of unearned social advantages that lead to unjust social divisions and disparities.
1 (19m 6s):
And here's why unearned social division's. It could be that I get something that I don't earn. And my automatic response is, well, I better share this with other people cause I didn't earn it, but that isn't how humans as individuals or as groups tend to work. What we tend to do is to find ways to convince ourselves that we did earn it. And even if we're a little bit aware that we didn't earn it to still try to think about how we can keep it for ourselves because we are scared of losing it.
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And so what happens over time is that we build systems that exclude and they cut us off from one another and that perpetuate those advantages in such a way that it can cause great harm. There's the harm of exclusion. And we see that in our society. We see that in these very small ways, whether it's the exclusion of, I remember my daughter Penny when she was two years old being told she would not be eligible for preschool because she had down syndrome, right?
1 (20m 7s):
That's just this like kind of minor experience of exclusion, the experiences of exclusion that again, I mentioned my friend Niro having when she was in high school and recognizing that she was cut off from either social or in some cases, scholarly opportunities because of the color of her skin, we call some of these things, micro aggressions, working through the world in such a way that there are these little micro exclusive things that happen throughout the day throughout the course of our lives.
1 (20m 41s):
But then of course they're also our is the harm of exclusion that can happen on a much broader level, whether the exclusion from a social club or from a school or from a zoned housing area and all of these things and lead to great disparities between different with groups in terms of our health, in terms of our finances and in terms of our security and safety within our society. The other thing that can happen as unearned social advantages lead to unjust social divisions is that we find ourselves not participating in injustice.
1 (21m 20s):
I feel that way when I look back at my childhood growing up in North Carolina, that I was a part of a system of great disparity, socioeconomic and racially in our town. I went to a school as I've talked about here before that was founded as a result of the desegregation of schools. So I went to an all white school and I loved that school, but I've also participated in a system of injustice. This is not just something that happens in the South or is it something that happened in the past?
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I've been learning recently about systems that have been perpetuated here in Connecticut when it comes to housing, many of the towns in Connecticut, how does that accounting laws that effectively make sure that people all from different socioeconomic classes cannot move into town because you can only build a single family or buy a single family dwelling on a large parcel of land. And so when you can't have small and multifamily dwellings within a town, but it is, does that do it means that people who have less money, even if they're hard workers can't live there, it means they can't have access to the schools and other opportunities all within that town, in that community, people who are in that position are disproportionately not white.
1 (22m 46s):
So it also perpetuates racial and ethnic divisions. So zoning laws and housing laws and mortgage financing here in Connecticut is another way in which I personally participate in injustice. So there's the harm of exclusion there's participation in injustice. And then finally there is what I call harmful benefits of Privilege I've said this before, but I'll mention it again that if you look at white affluent educated populations, they have high rates, both among adolescents and adults of substance abuse.
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I rates of anxiety, high rates, depression. Again, the college admissions scandal gives a little zoomed in window on the degree of distortion when it comes to achievement that can happen in those communities. So you have all the benefits, all the advantages, and there's a desperate sense of needing to work for more. So when Penny first came into our family, I became aware first of this harm of exclusion, recognizing the ways that she and other people in marginalized groups were cut off from the advantages that I had by no fault of their own.
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But I also began to see the harm of homogeneity the harm of living in a culture of achievement and deficiency, a culture that values productivity over people and the intellect over relationship's on the individual, over a community. I began to see that I lived in a world of isolated achievement instead of mutual giving and receiving. I lived in a world of competition instead of compassion, invincibility, instead of vulnerability, I lived in a world of control rather than love.
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And I don't mean to say that people who have down syndrome or people who live on the margins more broadly are idyllic humanity. What I really just mean to say is that Privilege harms everyone. The ways. We are cut off from one another. And from the full expression of human diversity is not only unjust, but it is also harmful. And I for one, want to be a part of healing. So I want to acknowledge the harm, the harm that I've been a part of the harm that I've experienced, the harm that I've participated in so that I can see it more clearly and begin to participate in Healing.
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I wrote a couple of weeks ago on my blog about traditional responses to the harm of social division and the ways in which the different responses that we've given over the years as a society are good, but inadequate and haven't worked. And I we'll just run through those are right here. And we will note in the show notes that blog posts, if you would like to look, the first response has been no bless. So bleach, which is a French term. That means nobility obligates, and essentially Privilege obligates.
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If you are a person in Privilege than you are obligated to help other people. And I mean, certainly helping other people's a good thing, figuring out what it means to share. What you've got is a great idea, but some of the problems that come up with this is that there's no structural change. Charitable acts of both time and money do not create structural change in the way a society functions. They also can perpetuate power dynamics in which the person who is the giver stays removed and in power and the person who is the receiver is meant to simply sit back and be grateful.
1 (26m 33s):
So there's no structural change in, it can be one sided. And that perpetuates the status quo. Activism is another response to these problems of social division and those activists off and do a great job of addressing systems of injustice, of recognizing that they're our economic and social system's at work that needed to be changed, rethought reimagined. But of course, as we've seen in recent months and years here in America, these activist causes can be really polarizing.
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It can be really totalizing they're can be a lack of grace and a sense of if everyone just became perfect like me, then we'd be OK and there can be an us vs them. So there's a lots of truth telling I believe among act within activism. And I think we really need that to work in our culture. And yet if we can't have grace, if we can't have listening and if we can't have a recognition that seismic change often brings with it, seismic destruction, whereas incremental change allows us to you anticipate unintended consequences in time and make slow, but steady adjustments towards a better outcome for the common good.
1 (27m 59s):
And for many people that can be a real disadvantage of activism, that sense of polarizing and idealistic movement. I hope that makes sense. And the final thing that has happened, I think in our culture is a simulation where people that are in positions of power, which again tends to be some concentric overlap of white, wealthy, educated, affluent say, Hey, you're welcomed to come and be like me. You're welcomed into this space, but you need to become like I am.
1 (28m 31s):
And so again, it maintains a power dynamic and it perpetuates the status quo. So there's some truth in all of these responses, but it's an insufficient truth. This is not a surface problem. This is a deep problem that we are facing as a society. And I believe at its core, it's a spiritual problem that requires a Spiritual solution. Yes. Policy changes. Yes. Charitable giving yes activism, but more than all of that.
1 (29m 2s):
And this is where I, once again, want to call forth humble holistic participation of individuals and institutions in Healing that is drawn from a source outside ourselves healing that comes from the overflow of the love of God at work, in and through God's people, not just the love of God, but the love of God that is expressed in acts of mercy, of kindness and of justice, churches, and individual and people of faith, not just Christians have a significant role to play and healing the wounds within our nation and the wounds that have come to all of us as a result of these social hierarchies and these social divisions.
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The reason I talk about Privilege the reason I talk about unearned social advantages that lead to unjust social divisions is so that we can acknowledge the harm that Privilege has caused reach out to one another, but also reach out to God for help, and then participate in Healing. Maybe someday I'll come back on this podcast and give you my Healing talk. If you're interested right now, you could go and look up. I have an audio book called Head Heart and Hands that talks about the ways in which we can begin to participate in Healing.
1 (30m 29s):
But for now I'm going to leave it with this sense that we are all invited to understand Privilege differently. I want to close with reading a couple of paragraphs from a chapter in White Picket Fences where I begin to think about Privilege not in terms of these unearned social advantages, but in terms of what it means to receive the gift of being human. I wrote sometimes I think about Privilege in terms of times I have been overcome by gratitude when I've recognized the end deserved moments of beauty and grace and purpose that connect instead of divide the list, unfurls, the time I swayed with the music and a multicultural worship service, the time I folded sheets and towels from my best friend after her brother died, the time I rocked a friend's new born baby to sleep the time I passed out the communion wafers at my grandmother's funeral and was entrusted with the words, this is the body of Christ broken for you.
1 (31m 32s):
The Privilege of whiteness and Wells can become a wall against the privilege of being human loved, not for status or performance, but simply loved and able to give love in return, not because of obligation, but in grateful response to an invitation. I have been given much that I do not deserve. And my a very real social privileged has cut me off from others, or as much as it has also made my life comfortable.
1 (32m 4s):
But social privileged is not the end of my story. The real privilege of my life has come in learning what it means to love others that love involves suffering and sacrifice and sleepless nights and tears and heartache and great gifts. It makes sense to talk about Privilege in terms of access to private clubs and schools and bank loans and preferential treatment by authorities, it makes sense to expose the injustices of privilege and call for them to be rectified.
1 (32m 37s):
But there's also the Privilege of cleaning the of people you love of participating in healing and new life of becoming vulnerable and needy and receiving love and care. There is another type of Privilege Privilege that connects instead of divides that shimmers through the air, like a line of light are available. If only we stopped counting the coins and look up
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1 (33m 8s):
Thanks so much for listening to love is stronger than fear. I know this has been a different episode than what I typically offer. And next week we'll be back with conversation. Got lots of cool people lined up for the rest of this season, including Todd billings to you. I've got his book here on my desk and it is called the end of the Christian life. How embracing our mortality frees us to truly live. I'm really excited to talk to him. I'm going to be talking with Andy crouch later on in the season and hopefully with Jay and Katherine Wolf, and I'm going to get to talk to Kurt Neil, who is the director of normy, as well as Ann Marie Kerrigan, who helped to produce it.
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And also who stars in it. I'm really excited. I've got lots of cool things coming up, and I really hope that you will stick around and get to listen in. I'm also just thankful for the opportunity to send out this podcast into the world. I'm thankful to breaking ground our cohost. Certainly you can look for more great podcast episodes as well as articles and videos and the like firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm really thankful to Jake Hansen for editing and to Amber Berry, who is my social media coordinator and does so much to make this podcast happen.
1 (34m 27s):
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Please. Come back next week. Please share. Please rate, please review all of those things. It would be really helpful. And finally, as you go into your day to day, I hope and pray. You will carry with you that piece that comes from believing that love is stronger than fear.
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