Social Justice for Single People

by Christena Cleveland

I've been a social justice warrior since midway through the first grade. The "new girl" in my class, who also happened to be blind, was unable to participate in our lunchtime kickball game. I responded by declaring that we couldn't play kickball anymore because the game excluded Melissa. Then I staged a sit-in; I lined all of the kids up against the school building wall and forbade anyone from moving away from the wall until we had brainstormed an inclusive game.

"If Melissa ain't playing kickball, ain't nobody playing kickball," I commanded my classmates.

The single social justice warrior

My mom says I was born with a heart for social justice – and I'm glad that I was. But I've discovered that while social justice work is the most life-giving, freeing, Christ-centered work I've ever known, it's also the most painful, isolating and marginalizing work. When it's in your DNA to notice and feel the pain of the Melissas of the world, and then take bold steps to stand with them and make things right for them, you encounter a lot of valleys, shadows, and death. The world is particularly unkind to the people who fight for kindness.

DSC03510medDespite the fact that I'm committed to self-care, one of the challenges I've faced as an unmarried person is how to deal with the daily hits of justice work without a spouse with whom I can daily process those hits. I wish there were someone who knew the intimate details of my life story, knew my past and present pain, encouraged my eschatological hope, and was present in my daily life as a support partner. I wish there were someone I could talk to and pray with each day after I've faced the racism/sexism, isolation, silencing, etc., that I contend with each day at work and at conferences. I wish there were someone who could hug me at the end of the day and remind me that the white male gaze doesn't define me, Jesus does. (And I wish I could play that role in someone else's life too!)


I don't believe that a spouse is the only person who can play a "Barnabas" role in my life. But I grew up in a faith tradition that didn't prepare me for life as an unmarried person. And the American Christian world is so unimaginative when it comes to non-marital relationships. I'm afraid I've become unimaginative as well, so much so that I don't know where to find daily respite from my pain. I have a counselor, a spiritual director, and even a monthly support group of black women. And I listen to and talk to God each day. But the daily processing piece with another human being has been and is missing. Married people have a Barnabas in their spouse, but there are no ready-made Barnabases for unmarried people.

So I took to Twitter to ask for help:

"Hey unmarried social justice advocates. How do you deal with all of the pain w/o a spouse with whom you can readily process it? Any tips?"

Here are some of the responses I received from Christian Social Justice Twitter:

  • I had a best friend who did the same work as me and that was more helpful than anything. when she got married it was so painful 🙁
  • Specific friends. But it's hard. They either don't always agree or don't want to talk about it all the time.
  • What's been suggested in my line of work is giving urself grieving time. Some things affect you more than others &…
  • Any of your friends (married or single) are interested in communal living? My wife & I have had roommates for 90% of our marriage.
  • Different outlets to release…working out, xbox (lol, but for real), writing.
  • Having a team going through the same thing helps. In Ferguson our people were wounded healers. Self care is vital.
  • Lots of journaling. And prayer. Social media connection helps you feel you're not alone.
  • The tendency was to isolate myself. Don't. The bitterness towards everyone isn't worth it. Talk it out with community.
  • The black church tradition has taught me to lament with others and then run to the resurrection and worship. Hard, still learning.

I'm so grateful for each of the people who responded with care and insight. I especially appreciate the wisdom of naming grief and taking time to grieve. My unhealthy sense of obligation to everyone else makes it difficult for me to take time to nurse my own wounds. It was freeing for me to hear that other unmarried people take time to grieve.

I also needed to hear that staving off bitterness and self-imposed isolation is well worth the effort. I'm going to add "fighting bitterness and self-imposed isolation" to my job description (which already includes "not caring about how many people read this blog", "saying what God wants me to say, not what white hegemony wants me to say", "declining speaking invitations from groups that tokenize me", etc.) And the suggestion to run to worship is so key. I needed that reminder.

Towards deep community for singles

But I remain struck by how little the Church plays a role in walking alongside unmarried social justice advocates. Most of the responses I received were along the lines of "it's really hard to find support as a single person" and "if you hear of any good ideas, let me know." This doesn't surprise me. I have firsthand knowledge of how the Church marginalizes unmarried people. But it grieves me to know that many others in the Christian social justice community feel the same lack of support that I feel.

It seems that so many of us (myself included) have bought into the lie that deep, mutually supportive relationships are God's gift to married people alone. This lie is insidious on its own, but in the context of social justice work, it is even more destructive. Social justice advocates need mutually supportive relationships as much as, if not more than, any other group!

I'm tired of waiting for the Church to get better on the married/unmarried divide, so I'm taking steps. I've lived alone for the last year but I'm going to re-visit the idea of communal living.  In the meantime, I'm asking God to help me see and appreciate the support that is already present in my life, and to seek out the mutually supportive daily relationships that I need to keep going.

If you're an single social justice warrior, I'd love for you to share your experiences of deep community and any other insights or questions below!

Christena Cleveland  is a social psychologist teaching at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., an award-winning researcher, a consultant for pastors and organizational leaders on multicultural issues, and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart (InterVarsity Press, 2013). This article originally appeared on her blog and is reproduced here by kind permission.

Related reading: "New Relationship Advice for the Church: Part 1 and Part 2."


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