ATLANTA — Tricia Hersey was bone tired.
Between studying theology in a competitive seminary program at Emory University, working on campus, doing an internship and raising a young son, she couldn’t catch a moment’s rest.
Having sold her car to afford graduate school, commuting on three buses and a train was just another time suck. Any free minutes were devoted to study, but in her exhaustion, she often had to reread passages to fully absorb their meaning.
Her grades suffered, her health flagged. Something had to give.
Reading on the sofa at home, she’d frequently find the book falling to her chest as she allowed herself a few minutes to rest.
Hersey would wake up feeling renewed.
And so she began to build moments of respite into her days — no matter how busy — napping wherever and whenever she could: in bed, on the sofa, on benches in between classes.
She’d had enough of the grind, so she slept, or emptied her head with something that felt like rest — a long bath, meditating on the train, deliberate daydreaming.
This proved pivotal: She felt better, her mind cleared, her grades improved. Even if rest came at the expense of time she’d typically devote to study or work, Hersey was determined to commit to it — and in the process, to push back on what she, a Black woman, saw as a legacy of forced labor and exhaustion that her ancestors had endured.
“I was exhausted physically, mentally, spiritually, and I just didn’t see any other way except to take a radical leap and say: ‘I don’t care, let the chips fall where they may,’” she said during an interview. “If I fail out of school, that’s fine if I don’t finish that grade — because I’m going to bed.”
The epiphany happened nearly a decade ago, and in the intervening years she has turned her personal transformation into a movement.
Hersey, now 48, began inviting people to nap collectively while she offered soothing sermons about the sheer power of sleep and dreaming. She shared the notion that “rest is resistance” with a growing and enthusiastic group of followers, both in person and online, who were also weary of the grind.
Thus the Nap Ministry was born, and Hersey anointed herself its Nap Bishop. She urges followers to use time they might otherwise devote to extra work to sleeping instead, the stretches they’d spend staring at a screen to staring into space. Tense moments given over to worry about disappointing others would be better spent reflecting on our own needs and comforts, Hersey said. It’s about collectively refusing to run ourselves into the ground.
People who took her advice have decided to quit a job, embark on a sabbatical, or slow down the growth of a business venture in service of their own mental and physical well-being, Hersey said.
While some of us are only just catching onto concepts like “quiet quitting” and “soft life,” Hersey has spent years preaching the gospel of rest and divesting from corporate and academic pressures. The endeavor has exploded since the start of the pandemic, when her online platform began growing by tens of thousands of followers a day. Hersey gives talks across the country and offers coaching services to people looking to stave off burnout.
With nearly half a million followers on Instagram and more on other platforms, social media has been an effective bullhorn for Hersey’s ideas — however she often rails against it, blaming it for many of modern society’s anxieties and ills. Online dispatches from the Nap Bishop, which she writes and designs herself, can be gentle (“If you are not resting, you will not make it. I need you to make it”); prodding (“Aren’t y’all bored with working all the time?”); or both (“You will have to rest to believe in this message. You won’t be able to retweet and meme design your way to freedom from grind culture”).
Hersey calls the Nap Bishop’s tone “tender rage” and says that is by design: She wants to jar people enough to wake up … and sleep.
Waking up in tears
Hersey and her grass-roots crusade are having a coming out party of sorts. Her first book, “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” debuts this week. The Nap Ministry’s new event space, dubbed the Rest Temple and housed in a little-used Presbyterian Church in Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood, will host collective napping, daydreaming and spiritual coaching sessions.
“Grind culture has normalized pushing our bodies to the brink of destruction,” she writes in the book. “We proudly proclaim showing up to work or an event despite an injury, sickness, or mental break. We are praised and rewarded for ignoring our body’s need for rest, care, and repair.”
The Nap Ministry is not a religious movement, she said, but a spiritual antidote to the very earthly problems that are plaguing communities: exhaustion, chronic diseases and mental health crises, issues she sees as arising from systems of capitalism and white supremacism.
Indeed, the concept of getting sufficient rest for good health is not new, and it’s well known that Black people are operating under a dangerous sleep deficit in America. In a 2020 survey of behavioral habits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 44 percent of Black adults reported having short sleep duration (defined as less than 7 hours per night) compared with 31 percent of white adults. Lack of rest is correlated with conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure — diseases that disproportionately affect Black people.
While Hersey holds degrees in public health and divinity, she is an artist at heart. Her passion for writing and performance blossomed while she was growing up on Chicago’s South Side, and she went on to study theater, writing and puppetry, and taught poetry classes in the city’s public school system. She approaches the notion of collective rest as a form of performance art, incorporating elements of Black liberation theology, Afrofuturism and poetry into her messaging.
“Yes, it’s about literal naps, but it’s also about imagination work, justice work,” she said. “It’s about education: We need to understand what the systems are doing to us, so that we can resist in a way that is fruitful for us.”
Staging collective napping and daydreaming events around the country, Hersey has invited strangers to lie down next to one another on pillows and yoga mats and let their tensions dissipate in what can look like a prolonged savasana — guiding them with warm exhortations about their divine right to rest. The events may be accompanied by a sound bath, a curated playlist or the gentle plucking of a live harpist.
Inevitably someone wakes up crying, explaining how profound it feels to give themselves permission to rest, she said.
Tenisha Carrington, 30, a writer and filmmaker in Atlanta, recalled an atmosphere of deep relaxation and introspection at an event at the art space Atlanta Contemporary last October, with Hersey’s rhythmic affirmations setting the stage. Some people napped, others stretched and some sat still with their thoughts.
“We were collected in this room using those moments to intentionally show up and say, ‘We’re tired. We refuse to keep moving when we’re tired,’” Carrington said. “It was such a simple moment but, physically and spiritually, it was very revolutionary.”
The events attract a mix of first-timers and repeat attendees. The focus of Hersey’s talks varies — it may be a dive into the work of feminist writer bell hooks or a prolonged incantation about the effects of colonialism on rest. Participants come away soothed, several said, in the knowledge that they are not lazy for needing rest.
“Especially after COVID-19 forced us all to slow down a bit, I found myself questioning for the first time ever why (and for whom) I and my peers are working so hard — often to the detriment of our mental and physical health — and how that can not only be normalized, but also glorified,” Devon Gates, 21, said. Gates, who is a student at both Harvard College and Berklee College of Music, was so inspired by the Nap Ministry’s message that she reached out and secured an internship with Hersey in her hometown of Atlanta.
But prioritizing rest isn’t always easy or natural. “There is a very real kind of withdrawal from our cultural addiction to productivity that starts to come for you on a no-joke level when you begin to employ these alternate strategies,” Helen Hale, 37, a longtime friend of Hersey’s and the creative director of the Nap Ministry, said in an email. “I have spent some real time thrashing around with the layers of conditioning that make it so hard to detach from our supremacist capitalist systems.”
Rest can also feel like a privilege, and many people tell Hersey they can’t afford to lie down when there are bills to pay. She acknowledges that many see walking away from obligations as unrealistic, but counters that devoting even one spare moment to rest is worthwhile, and a practice that can be built on over time.
A legacy of exhaustion
Hersey’s point of view was inspired in part by studying “Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies” while working in an archive library at Emory. In reading these stories about the brutal origins of American capitalism, she realized that working to exhaustion was part of her inheritance — passed down through ancestors distant and recent. Her father, Willie, who worked for Union Pacific Railroad while helping to lead a church and devoting time to community activism, rarely took a moment to himself. She is certain that, beyond the heart disease and diabetes that precipitated his early death, it was overwork that killed him at 55.
Hersey was inspired in a different way by her maternal grandmother, Ora. As busy as she was with work and child-rearing, Ora took a half hour each day to shut her eyes and meditate on the sofa — a young Hersey would tiptoe through the house to avoid disturbing her. It was an early lesson in the power of resisting outside demands in service of oneself.
At her book launch party, held on Sunday at the Rest Temple, Hersey, dressed in a billowy yellow evening robe and gold halo, called out the names of her elders in tribute. At one end of the sanctuary was an altar built on red clay soil and scattered with raw cotton blossoms and photos of departed family members, including her father.
Hersey’s inspiration and imagery lie in the legacy of the enslaved and their descendants, but the Nap Ministry’s message isn’t directed only at Black people, she said. She sees the treatment of Black and Indigenous people as a bellwether for how justly society is functioning overall, and stressed that everyone would benefit from questioning attitudes around work and productivity.
Even in the midst of rapid growth on all fronts, Hersey doesn’t hesitate to take month-long “digital Sabbaths” — breaks from social media and the many demands coming her way — and encourages her followers to do the same.
She guards her time preciously, penciling in naps, meditation and rejuvenation through walks or pampering rituals.
“I judge success by how many naps I took in a week, and how many times I told somebody no; how many boundaries I upheld,” Hersey said. “To me that’s justice, that’s liberation, that’s freedom.”
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