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‘Anyone, anywhere can tell a story’: Rev. Dean Theresa Thames on storytelling, community, and rap aspirations

<h5>Reverend Dean Theresa Thames</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of <a href="https://theresathames.com/about/#">Theresa Thames</a></h6>
Reverend Dean Theresa Thames
Courtesy of Theresa Thames

The Rev. Theresa Thames believes in “different” introductions. “If you say something different in your introduction, it gives someone else permission to say something different in their introduction. If you begin the vulnerable storytelling … it gives other people permission to do [the same].”

Her official title at the University is Associate Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel, but she prefers to introduce herself like this:

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“I am Theresa, a lover of life, a music connoisseur. Being born and raised in the Deep South gives me an understanding of the world and people around me. I love good food. I love my dog and my husband. I’m unapologetically feminist and black and queer, and I love naps. I think joy is a gift, and it’s a tool of resistance. Freedom is non-negotiable. I love beautiful things, not beautiful things you can buy, but I’m a person that loves aesthetics and beauty. I love my friends, a lot. I’m also a lover of rap. I want to be a rapper, and I’m a certified yoga teacher. And growing up, I wanted to be a beautician and a florist because those things make people happy.”

If you see Thames walking around campus, chances are, she’s been up since 4:30 a.m. — and has gone live on Instagram sharing her morning with her nearly 4,500 followers — and chances are, she’s listening to Megan Thee Stallion to “hype [herself] up for the day.”

Thames felt a calling to become a pastor at the age of 14, even after her own pastor told her “little girls don’t grow up to be pastors.” She is now an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be a rapper, too.

In her sunlit office in Murray-Dodge, a shiny black guitar hangs on one wall of the room. The wall opposite her desk is lined with a bookshelf sorted by book spine color. Cardboard boxes on the floor hold books that don’t fit on the shelves. Hers is the office of a storyteller.

Thames grew up in a tradition of storytelling. “In Mississippi, I grew up sitting on the front porch hearing the adults on our street get together and tell stories,” she explained. “Someone could talk about going to the grocery store, and you would think they were traveling through the Ozarks — you’d just be hanging on every single word.”

Now, Thames preserves this tradition of storytelling herself, though that wasn’t her original plan: Thames attended Howard University on a biochemistry scholarship, expecting she would pursue a related career. Soon enough, she realized that seminary, not medical school, was her calling. She proceeded to graduate from Duke University Divinity School and become a pastor in Washington, D.C.

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As she began preaching in her new position, she noticed how many tourists entered her church during services simply because it was a pretty location. Thames realized that her sermons “couldn’t just be these heavy theological [and] biblical stories.” She had to preach in a “relatable and applicable” fashion.

From her church in D.C., Thames relocated to Maryland, where she was a pastor for half a year before heading north to Princeton.

Upon arriving in Princeton, Thames quickly began to make friends. “She was introducing herself around campus and meeting new people,” recalled Tennille Haynes, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Director of the Carl A. Fields Center, and Thames’ friend and colleague of six years. The two women, in Haynes’ words, “instantly just connected.”

Haynes noted Thames’ inviting persona and talented communication skills: “She is welcoming. She’s open. She’s honest … and she has a strong sense of who she is, which encourages you to have a strong sense about who you are.”

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“Her superpower is serving as an ear and a voice to those who are too often not heard or represented,” said Stephen Kim, Associate Director for Information and Technology at the Princeton University Art Museum and a friend of Thames, in an email to the ‘Prince.’

Thames has other special talents, too. According to Haynes, “she has a really good body roll!”

Eric Anglero, a friend of Thames’ and the Assistant Director of the Gender + Sexuality Resource Center, referred to Thames as “the Instagram queen.”

“Theresa was one of the few people that was living their best lives [during COVID],” reflected Haynes. She taught storytelling and yoga to others through Soul Joy Yoga, her “in-person and online gathering that centers womxn and folx of color.”

Taking advantage of YouTube videos, she also brushed up on her hair cutting skills. “She’s trying to get a barber certificate,” Haynes said.

Such creativity is necessary when working at the Office of Religious Life. “The hardest part of my job is building community in a space [where there is a strong focus on] perfectionism,” Thames said, explaining the challenges of holding honest and vulnerable conversations on campus.

Anglero articulated how Thames helps others — including himself — navigate their relationships with religion, instead of forcing values upon them.

“I came from a faith community and was kind of ostracized after I came out. I never saw myself going back into faith based spaces,” Anglero said. “Theresa never really tried to push that on me in any way … [she was] just this incredible person who spoke truth about the situations that queer folks [face] in religious spaces.” 

“Theresa has been very intentional about making sure that … folks who exist in the intersections of those identities, their voices are heard in campus communities and gatherings,” Anglero said.

This intentionality comes through in Thames’ work uniting people across differences on campus. “In her six years here, she has been able to develop a strong community of all sorts of types of people that you wouldn’t normally think would gather together and be friends,” Haynes noted.

But sometimes, bringing people together poses great challenges. Thames recalls an experience she had soon after arriving at Princeton when she was asked to speak at a community gathering about race and integration at a school. “It was a hot mess. These people were fighting … they were not happy.”

Faced with a different audience than she had prepared for, Thames had to find an alternative to her prepared stories. She spotted a candle on a table and decided, “I’m going to pick up this candle and we’re gonna sing a song.” And it worked.

Thames’s ability to give guidance during incredible challenges was essential over the last year and a half. Still, Thames believes that while the hardships of the pandemic strained communities, they also made people more human. “We started having conversations around vulnerability, mortality, life, and grief and naming mental illness, naming income inequalities,” she explained.

This newfound humanity has opened the door to storytelling, whether that be joyous or painful. “I think I’ve heard the most honest and vulnerable stories. Honest and vulnerable doesn’t mean heartbreaking and hard,” Thames noted.

As to whether people will be ready and willing to tell their pandemic stories, Thames can’t say. “I worry about us going back into our shells,” she added.

Thames explained that we’ve lived such varied experiences over the course of the pandemic that it takes great intentionality to create a healthy culture of storytelling about COVID-19. “Hopefully we’ll have enough people having bold conversations and vulnerable conversations,” Thames said.

“Anyone can tell a story,” Thames explained. “Anyone, you don’t have to have a degree, you don’t have to have a special language, anyone, anywhere can tell a story.”

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