Jun 15, 2022
Through the Prism with Rodney McKenzie, Jr.
Rodney McKenzie, Jr. is the Vice President of Ally Development at the Fetzer Institute, a foundation whose work is focused on building the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Through his leadership, Rodney creates transformative relationships with individual donors, donor advisors, and philanthropic institutions through engaged conversations, open dialogue, and internal reflection that result in increased giving to issues of faith and spirituality.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I grew up in a Black community in South Dallas, Texas. When I was a kid in the 1980s, the community was ravaged by the drug epidemic, HIV/AIDS, joblessness, and poverty. Church was the one place where Black and Brown folks could retreat to and be called saints, while the world around them seemed to be hostile to their very existence. Church was a place of resistance, a place to refuel from a life that was very hard throughout the week.
The thing I loved the most about church was the testimony services. Every Sunday night, folks would gather to tell the stories of their victories or the real-life challenges they were experiencing. As they told their stories, the community would listen, almost as if it was their story too. They would groan during sad moments, they would encourage them to keep going – knowing from their experiences that this moment would pass. I loved seeing how people would use their faith, their love rooted in something bigger than who they knew themselves to be, to imagine what might be possible for the week ahead – even if the week ahead would hold the same level of poverty and racism. These testimony services were a space of sacred communal imagination, where the impossible was made possible, if only in their hearts.
Human connectivity allows for everyday people to move through life even in the hardest of challenges, not in weak ways but in ways that give them pride, allow them to hold their head up high even when the world they are living in is breaking their hearts. Human connection allows us to endure that which at times seems unfair, and create pathways for all of us to live our lives with dignity and grace. As a child I loved these sacred moments of vulnerability; as an adult I am convinced that they are the only way that true transformation in our world will happen.
What values guide your work?
There is an idea in liberation theology that you need to have your sacred text in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Your love, your faith, your values must meet the moment we are in together. This approach to the value of love guides my work. It’s an approach that sees love as extending beyond loving yourself and your family to possessing the courage to love our very world. It’s an approach that asks: How does my love meet where people are right now at this moment? Can I – can we – be the lovers of our world? Can we hold a vision of love that allows for more to be at the table and celebrate the audacity to love in this way?
What are you working on right now?
The moment we are in requires something more than politics. More politics is not going to solve the division, the rancor, and the pain that people are experiencing in today’s society. What’s needed is the transformative power that only love can bring. I’m working on building a transformative funding community that is rooted in love – this radical and simplest of ideas. At Fetzer, we are building a movement of love because we realize we can’t do this alone. My work involves building a community of friends who are interested in using their financial resources to fund a love-based movement that can transform our world, a philanthropic community that is willing to come out as love and as lovers of our world.
In the day-to-day, I get to meet with donors and funders to share a vision of love. We talk about exciting projects through which we can invest in love-rooted programmatic work. We dare to come together around this notion of love – and talk strategically about what needs to shift or what is in the way of a love-centered approach – so that love becomes the central conversation within philanthropic circles.
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?
During the pandemic, I lost two of the most important women of my life: my grandmother and my aunt. One whose funeral I was able to attend; the other I wasn’t. This pandemic has made real the idea that we are human, and as humans, we experience hardships and challenges and loss. The loss that has happened during the pandemic is not just the loss of normalcy, but also the loss of loved ones. How do we hold love and loss together? What does it mean to lose so much as it relates to our families? How does that shift our awareness of why love is so important? We are all being affected in some way: having to wear masks, not being able to go to the funeral of a loved one. All of these changes we have gone through make us think about where our world is and what it means to love. The act of loving in this moment is an act of resistance. We can either be driven crazy by the loss we have experienced or we can come together as a community, sharing our pain, holding our shared humanity, and being transformed by the value of love.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
Being a part of a team brings me joy. In a world where many of us are alone, or deeply feeling alone, I’ve found that by choosing to be in a team – with a group of people who are choosing to be vulnerable about their pains, hopes, and dreams – brings me joy. I find that I am not alone. I remember that my pain, sorrow, and hurts don’t make me special. But my ability to love and be loved while doing transformative work is what makes me, in this life, special.
I pray that we all find ourselves in teams, communities, and families (chosen or born into) that allow us to be vulnerable and share our stories, our pains and sorrows, while pushing us to love, not only ourselves, but a world that is desperate for the affection that is often blindly withheld by so many.