by Shannon Sutherland Smith (photo by Arcenia Finley)
When Stacey Dallas stood alone in a sterile hospital hallway in Mobile, Ala., having just learned that she had been repeatedly exposed to HIV by her partner of many years, she felt numb. There was nothing to do but wait and see.
Dallas had slipped away from God after trying for years to cope with the trauma of childhood abuse by a family member who used physical and mental intimidation to control her.
“He used to tell me I was going to grow up to be a prostitute,” she says. “And the idea that someone could think so little of me eventually made me think very lowly of myself.” She says self-destructive sexual encounters, depression, and desperation had robbed her of her relationship with Christ. Now it seemed HIV might be poised to take what remained.
“I was sure I had it,” she says. “After how I was exposed, I couldn’t see how I wouldn’t. I pleaded with God to take my life—I just wanted to die.”
But she didn’t die. Instead, she wrote.
I’m hurting—screaming inside!
Can’t anyone hear me?!
Pacing back and forth—up at night.
What’s going on with my life?
Everything is definitely not all right.
Who can I tell?
Who can I trust?
No, they will judge me.
I better hush.
And to her surprise, God seemed to have a different agenda for her life. When Dallas’ first test came back negative, she, her doctor, and her family were ecstatic. When test after test also came back negative, they rejoiced again and again. “I know it was a miracle,” says Dallas. “My family knows it was a miracle. The Lord knows it was a miracle. I was so grateful for it and for another chance to rebuild my relationship with Christ.”
Dallas found comfort in renewed faith and in her poetry, through which she expressed her emotions, thoughts, and prayers. Suspecting that others might find solace in the same way, she founded Mobile’s Poetic Justice. When she organized the first event, Dallas, now 38, didn’t have many expectations.
“We hosted it at a dance studio, because we felt that having it at a church might make some people feel uncomfortable,” she recalls. “We wanted this to be a place where everyone was welcome to come share their poetry. We put out 80 chairs, and I remember thinking that it would be pretty amazing to fill those chairs. Then people started showing up … and then we were out of chairs, and so we brought in more chairs, and then there were still people standing all over the place. We had 20 poets sign up for the open mic, and so many more came to listen, and I wanted to cry because these young people just wanted to share themselves and their poetry. It was beautiful. It blew me away.”
Their next event attracted not just young poets but also rappers and Christian reggae artists. Dallas had discovered an untapped demographic, a neglected contingent of young artists searching for a creative outlet.
Gregory Finley Jr., 27, is a Christian rapper, musician, and poet who believes, like Stacey Dallas, that a generation of unbelievers can be reached through the creative arts. “I want people to know the love of God,” he says. “They don’t need money and all the women and all the things they chase after. There’s a God who loves us and cares for us, and we can deliver this message to people through music and spoken word poetry.”
Finley’s sister Arcenia, 21, is also involved with the group and says she would be frustrated and unfulfilled without the ability to express herself through the arts, namely photography and dance. “Stacey has really shown me that it’s okay to be different and that God loves who I am,” she says. Yolanda Middlebrooks, a 23-year-old criminal justice student and poet with Mobile’s Poetic Justice, says when she goes to “Christian house parties” and sees young people gathering to share music that is God-honoring and share spoken-word poetry, she feels a peace and happiness that is supernatural.
Dallas, whose day job is at a crisis pregnancy center, estimates that about one-third of the people attending events are unbelievers and another third are self-professed Christians who “go to church now and then but aren’t really walking the walk.” Taking poetry to the people, she says, is bringing the gospel message to many unreached youth. “There are people who are just not going to receive Christ within the four walls of a church, and there are people who aren’t going to see Christ if we don’t show them who he is through the creative arts,” says Dallas. “Poetry and art are just another way we can show Christ to the world.”
Learn more at Facebook.com/MobilePoeticJustice.
Shannon Sutherland Smith is a freelance writer focusing on faith and social justice issues and is based in Alberta, Canada.