Gospel Of Cyntoia Brown: The Newly-Freed Woman Credits Her Survival To God During Riverside Church Talk [Recap]
Cyntoia Brown credits her faith to both her hardships and her freedom, and spoke in detail about this during one of her first live talks at the Riverside Church on Tuesday night.
“Do you take on the title of being a social justice advocate today?”
The question, asked by Dr. Traci Alexander to Cyntoia Brown during a speaking event Tuesday night (October 15th), resonated in a large room connected to the Riverside Church in Harlem. The audience waited for Brown’s response.
“I don’t put a title on it,” Brown responded. “I know it’s in my heart to speak for the people that can’t speak for themselves. I know it’s in my heart to share the things that aren’t often shared and that people don’t talk about. And that people who want to talk about it aren’t given a platform to talk about it on. I would just say I’m here and I’m open.”
Prior to this, Alexander had contextualized the significance of Brown speaking at the Riverside Church, referring to the space as “the epicenter of social justice.” She’s not wrong. Countless figures who’ve fought for the humanity of people in the United States and abroad have graced the almost 90-year-old church with their presence. Alexander even took time to acknowledge some of those figures: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and others.
Although honored to be included and named among such activists, Brown seemed hesitant about labeling herself as anything other than a woman of faith trying to enjoy her newfound freedom. It’s understandable. The now 31-year-old was imprisoned at the age of 16 for killing a child predator who paid her for sex in Nashville, Tennessee. She was sentenced to life in prison, only eligible for parole after serving 51 years.
Brown’s story resurfaced two years ago thanks to celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna bringing awareness to her case on social media, aiding Brown’s fight to receive clemency. During this time, Brown became a symbol for people, primarily women who saw themselves in her. Women who are sex workers; women who’ve been victims of abuse and assault; women who’ve been victims of sex trafficking; women who’ve been victims of America’s judicial and prison system. In the age of the Me Too movement, Brown’s story showed that problems of sexual assault and harassment weren’t only happening in Hollywood or the entertainment industry. It was happening throughout the country and it was happening to women of color too. This was evident during the event’s Q&A portion, as most of the women who lined up to ask Brown something were black or women of color, many of them sharing their own stories of abuse (some even seeming to vocalize it for the first time in her presence).
The attention brought to Brown’s case through social media, as well as the grassroots efforts of countless organizations, led to then-Gov. Bill Haslam granting her clemency in January of this year. Brown had served 15 years of her life behind bars as a teen and young adult. Now, she was preparing to leave prison in August as a married woman with a college degree and book deal.
Two months since her release and Brown has been busy. She recently had her first television interview since being released from prison and is currently promoting her book, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System, with a string of speaking events — including the one at Riverside Church.
The venue was a more fitting choice to where the event was initially at (John Jay College of Criminal Justice), considering Brown framed what she endured through her relationship with God.
“It wasn’t until I tapped into him — and that was after meeting my husband — he helped me prepare my relationship with God, he helped me understand what it meant to actually have a relationship with God,” Brown told Alexander. (Brown is married to Christian rapper and former Pretty Ricky member J. Long.)
There was something fanatical about Brown contextualizing her experiences as trials and tribulations God gave her, especially when considering that the man she was convicted of killing — Johnny Allen — was a youth minister at a church in Donelson (a village in Tennessee). Religious rhetoric was also used against Brown during a clemency hearing in 2018 by Debby Heughan, a friend of Allen’s.
“God probably put him in her path to make a choice,” Heughan said according to a report from the Tennessean. Heughan also said Allen probably “was the one person who was going to help her turn her life around. That’s sad.”
This also seeped into some of her responses to attendees’ questions during the Q&A protion of the event. A woman who introduced herself as a member of the New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution asked Brown what she would recommend for discouraging people from purchasing sex. (Decriminalizing sex work in New York City has become a contentious issue since Democratic state Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos announced that they were working on a bill to legalize sex work earlier this year.)
Brown acknowledged that buyers are a part of the problem and should be penalized, but ended her response by suggesting that the woman, “pray for discernment and see how the lord wants you to address that.”
This isn’t to say that Brown’s responses weren’t also grounded in reality. But that her faith punctuated just about everything she said was very noticeable. So much so that when the last person — a young woman — was chosen to ask her something, she posited the following question: “What advice would you give to survivors who don’t believe in God?”
It’s a valid question; prior to the Q&A, Brown had even spoken of her skepticism of God before Long encouraged her to work on her faith.
“Try,” Brown responded calmly. “You may not take my word for it…but there’s no other explanation. When he feels it’s time for you to hear, it’s time for you to see, it’s gonna happen.”
In moments like this, it was important to separate the idea of Brown from who she is as a person. Each one of us in attendance had our own idea of Brown. Prior to Alexander asking Brown if she took on the title of social justice advocate, she had even dubbed her a “social justice influencer.” That Brown didn’t carry herself in that way but rather just a person wanting to share her story helped to humanize her. Black women are seen as larger than life; in moments of tragedy they’re the ones that trudge on, running for office after their son was wrongly gunned down or becoming an activist after their father was choked to death. Surely, we all wanted to hear about Brown’s advocacy plans. But it was also nice to see her happy, basking in her freedom, faith and love — a fantasy that those in her situation rarely get.
As everyone was leaving the event, someone who had helped coordinate it had asked for one of the attendees to come and find her if she hadn’t already left. The attendee in question was a woman who asked Brown how to process her anger in regards to a person who had harmed her. I wondered — and hoped — that Brown had asked for her.