I am here now

I was as they say raised in the church. We started going after my mother, sister and I moved to our small, upper middle class, mainly white town. I had spent the first 7 years of my life in the Bronx surrounded by various shades of brown and black. I played with kids who were mixed like me. There were no strange looks or questions. I woke up and went to sleep with the sounds of the city in my ear. You could be easily entertained just by simply looking out your window. If I was well behaved, I could sit next to my grandmother in the front of our building and listen to her talking with her friends. They would cackle, suck teetch and talk in low whispers over the latest news. After my parents split up, we left the city and headed for New Jersey. We ended up in a sleepy town where no one seemed to make any noise. It was a place where the ice cream truck did not visit and the night was terrifying because of the silence.

It turned out the only other black family on our side of town was my sister’s pre-school teacher. Her family invited us to the church that would soon become our own. They also became a vital part of our lives with her parents becoming our godparents. That was important for two little girls whose family seemed and was so far away. All of the isolation and awkwardness I felt in school, the probing eyes, the constant questions (What are you? Do you speak English?)evaporated when I came to church. The brown faces that greeted me there made me feel safe. It took some time to become accustomed to the stillness and spurts of boundless energy but there was a lovely rhythm to it. Other than the library, church was where I felt safe. Our family became active. I continued to go throughtout my teens and early adulthood. I was married there. When my husband and I suffered a miscarriage at six months, our church family mourned with us. When our daughter made her way into the world, our joy was theirs. It was home and I assumed it was where I would always be. I thought I would be one of those sisters who would have been there for 50 plus years. As I type these words, I am smiling because I have good memories. Even now.

I no longer go to church. I have not lost my faith. I am not an atheist. I am not in a crisis. So why would I walk away from all that history, support, and safety? The question I have been asking myself is what am I getting in exchange for those things? What must I willingly or at the very least, quietly acquiesce to, lay down, ignore in order to have access to those things? Are they really worth it?

Is that feeling of community worth the sick feeling I have when I hear yet another preacher explain if only “these young girls would stop sleeping with every Tom, Dick, and Harry and having all these babies” our community would be so much better? Do the smiles and warm hugs hold their value when I hear that our young men need to take back their place as the head of the family, stop letting their pants drag – along with the dignity of the race -, that we don’t need psychiatrists, psychologists, and pills. If we only would pray harder and believe more fervently, we could get out of that valley. The fellowship that is real to me, something that I savor, that grace that stretches over the bad times, it pops with a loud bang when I hear gays, lesbians, trans, and queer brothers and sisters disparaged even as I know, the ushers know, the diaconate, hell the pastor knows the person who is hitting that note on the organ that helps him to find their rhthym during a sermon, is in fact one of those who are inviting hell and damnation. Is all that really worth keeping?

Sometimes I feel like those women who are posed the question, “How can you listen to music that calls you a “bitch” and “hoe”?” They respond, “They’re not talking about me.” Technically, the preacher is not talking to me. I am an educated, heterosexual, married mother. If I do not fit in those categories, then why do I feel so much rage, hurt and frustration? It is precisly because of my position that I am afforded acceptance. I am keenly aware that despite my privilege – education, skin, hair, class, being able bodied which allow me not to have to experience certain things – I am still a black woman and generally the person standing in the pulpit is not. Since they don’t know and/or choose not to educate themselves on the realities of our different experiences, they can’t know no matter how well a black woman is dressed, how crisply we may enuciate, how lovely our locs, no matter how smooth our edges, we are still black and female and thus vulnerable. From the pulpit, there is no talk of how domestic violence, sexual abuse, colorism, racism and all the other -isms affect black women and inform our “choices”. Our existence feels like a constant check to see if our slip is showing. The prevailing message no matter where we go is that it’s on us. We are the ones who have to contort ourselves to fit someone else’s idea of happy. It is also not lost on me that while it may seem that our brothers are the winners in the patriarchy games, the constant policing on what it means to be an appropriate example of a heterosexual, respectable and uplifting black male is just as detrimental.

This has been a rough year for black women. It seemed like the attacks were constant and each one was more vicious than the last. It was exhausting to yet again to put up the defenses, to stiffen your spine, to sign yet another petition to stop some bullshit. I need, like everyone needs, a safe space to lay down those burdens, to scream and cry, to gather strength, to gain wisdom so that I can go back out there. I just need one space where I don’t have to fight. I need that space so that I can love stronger and more fiercely than before. I deserve better. My children deserve better. Black women, men and children deserve better.

I am committed to finding a safe, intellectual, and thought provoking spiritual space. I am committed to finding a place that not only respects the uniqueness of my experience but also those whose realities may not reflect my own. Until I find that place, I will continue to pray, commune with nature, and give thanks for those who came before. I will sing and dance for no reason at all. I admit to being nervous about where the journey will take me but I will savor every stop I make. I am full of joy, hope and faith that our family will end up exactly where we belong.

19 thoughts on “I am here now

  1. The church is made of people (and we’re not perfect). You will experience hurt in the church while relating to people. This happens in the same way that you experience hurt in a family. People hurt one another. The reason for continuing on in a situation where you’ve been offended and/or hurt is the “F” word. Yep, it’s forgiveness. Your brothers and sisters will sin, repent, and sin again. You are called to forgive (and they are called to forgive you when you do the same).

    In the Christian faith, we are called to do as Jesus did when while hanging on the cross, He asked God the Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

    Forgive them, dear. Don’t rob yourself (and your family) of people who love you, support your family, grieve when you grieve, and bear your burdens.

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    1. Patricia,

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. The issue is not perfection. The issue is the patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia that is filtered through black respectablity that hinders spiritual growth, honest discussions, inclusion of others and makes church a difficult place to navigate. I am not giving up on God or the church as a whole however I love and respect myself enough – and thus my children – to know I do not need to be insulted or elevated above someone else in order to recieve fellowship. I can forgive but I certainly have to be in that particular place.

      Black women and girls are always the ones who have to look into the hearts of others, to see it from someone else’s perspective, to forgive another’s trangressions before our needs are met. We do it for our families, jobs and our communities. The church is no different. That needs to change. That should be the one place where our testimonies should be heard in all its rawness, our needs met with tenderness and respect.

      I am concerned with how young people take these lessons and apply them to their own lives. What and where do they feel their value stems from? If they deem themselves of no value or consequence what then? For the ones who take the message to heart and use it as a blueprint, how will it inform them as they become professionals? What kind of teacher, lawyer, doctor, social worker or advocate will they be?

      As difficult as the times are now, I know that if will be be even harder for my girls. Theirs will be a constant struggle for respect and dignity. As they go through life, they will need to rest, be still and seek out something larger, stronger than themselves. I want them and every young person to be able to go to that place and be loved, cared for, challenged. I want them to be willing to take risks, to fight the good fight. But I also want something, someone to have thier back. The church should be part of that equation.

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      1. I agree, much change needs to take place in the church. However, leaving it will not enable that change to occur.

        There are different levels of forgiveness; not all of them involve the same type of fellowship as was enjoyed before the breach. We must all use wisdom regarding which type to employ with certain people.

        Regarding our young people, they must be taught how to operate in the context of the church. We teach them to navigate everything else, the
        church is no different.

        Finally, I share your desire that someone would have my child’s back (and mine, as well). I recognize that the church can’t (and won’t) always fill this role. Neither will the family, society and any other entity made up of people. That’s why it’s important to have a personal relationship with the head of the church, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

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  2. Thank you so much for this. I was raised in a Catholic church, and later joined a Black baptist church during college. I have since “walked away” from the church for the very reasons you so beautifully articulated in your post, and in your response to Patricia. The truth is that support wasn’t actually support if neither my gay, poor, or female peers were not welcomed and supported. I can no sooner comfortably sit in a pew and listen to homophobic preaching than I can listen to problematic sermons about how “if you don’t like your job, God never really intended for you to,” knowing full well that upper class people are taught just the opposite. Sundays became an act of hypocrisy for me, and I just can’t do it, nor can I expose my daughter to it. Fortunately for us, we have moved to an area with a very progressive church–ordained women, welcoming to gays and lesbians as they are (and not for the purpose of reprogramming then), and active outreach and fellowship with communities of color. I’m thinking about dipping my toe back in the water. In any event, thank you for being brave enough to voice what is often taboo in the black community, and for refusing to allow theories on “forgiveness” to cloud your moral compass.

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  3. Thank you so much ORJ. I have to admit I was really nervous about this piece. After I hit publish, I had an “oh ism” moment. I can’t take it back now;)

    I have known that lots of people both male and female feel the same way I do. But it is hard to walk away from something that has sustained not only yourself but past generations. My family understands my position but feel I should pray about it and wait. Been there done that. Time for something new.

    If I am not being too personal, where are you located? The women you mentioned are they affliated with the Baptist church or are they non denominational? I am looking for a place that has a womanist center theology if possible.

    Thanks again for the comment. It made me feel really good.

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    1. I’m happy I provided some support; I really applaud you for your honest. I live in South Florida. The Church is a United Church of Christ; here is a link to the website: http://coralgablescongregational.org/

      I don’t know if they’re womanist centered, but maybe you can look into branches near you and get an answer. And if you’re also in South Florida, let me know! 🙂

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  4. I hear you! I hear Sofia from The Color Purple saying, “I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house!” and that certainly applies to the churchhouse. I almost got to the point of just throwing up my hands, too. But I think I’m too much of a rule follower. I feel wicked if I’m not in church on Sunday! Of course, I’ve also been blessed, in each city where I’ve lived, to be able to find a place that didn’t make me want to throw up every week. We must be of one mind, ORJ, because I was going to suggest the UCC, as well. It seems to be a thoughtful and progressive denomination. It was a leap for me to move out of the Baptist church, but I knew that I couldn’t take it one more minute. The AME may also be an option, depending on the congregation. In any case, at the risk of sounding/being elitist, I think that looking for pastors who are educated both in religion and educated in general, makes a huge difference.

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  5. Can I also say that forgiveness is not a good enough to reason to continue in relationship with people who continuously hurt you? Can’t I forgive you without having you intricately involved in my life? I think that’s a dangerous idea.

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    1. Say it again, Magnolia!

      I also agree that well-educated church leaders can sometimes (but not always) make a big difference.

      Finally, I’m gonna just come out of the closet and say I have some issues with Christian theology generally, whether or not it’s preached by progressives. I’m not sure Christianity–or any other religion, for that matter–is the one true way. That can make regular church attendance difficult…

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      1. That’s a good point. I’m absolutely sure that Christianity it not the one true way. Yet, I’m still a Christian. It doesn’t feel contradictory to me, although I understand why it would seem that way, because I think the Bible is very clear about having one’s own relationship with God as the key to salvation. I see Christianity (ie. being a follower of Jesus) as a path to that relationship, created for the social context of some people. But it would make absolutely no sense to my understanding of a loving God if there was only one path.

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      2. Because I don’t think it’s the one true way, I have problems hearing in church that it is. And I’ve found that many churches make it a point to drive home this point during the sermon (“there’s only one true God, and his name isn’t Mohammed, or Buddah…” etc, etc. You’ve all heard it…). We all have areas in our lives where we tolerate a problematic message in pursuit of a greater good; for me, this is just not one of those areas. Maybe because worship, for me, is supposed to be about the highest of intentions. I can deal with sexism or homophobia in some institutions, but not in church–where we’re supposed to be going past this crap. Where our communication with God is not supposed to be hampered by the failings of human form. I don’t know…On the sexism front, every time I attended, I’d be thinking about the message it was sending to my daughter, and I would just walk right out. Finally, just to be clear, I don’t think that Jesus insisted that he was the only way to God, but I do think modern Christian theology suggests that. Now, if a church refrained from that (like I think the UCC might), then I might be willing to consider it.
        LaToya, you suggest another good question–do I actuallly WANT to go to church every Sunday? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, either. I think it’s important to take time out of our schedules to recognize a higher power, and to teach our children to do so. But I’m not sure I want to do that through church, as opposed to community service, or even meditation.

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  6. Great conversation that I’ve struggled with so much. We are members of a church that is very multi-racial, multi-class, although I don’t think as progressive as one would want it to be. What attracts me to it is that while the Church Elders may have very pointed views about homosexuality or abortion, the teachings of the Church are about personal spiritual growth. It is a Bible centered church, and the Bible is so much about one’s personal relationship with Jesus and the Lord, and the sermons are focused on that. In the three years we have been attending church there, there has never been a sermon about the evils of homosexuality, or abortion. On the other hand, there has never been a sermon talking about those things being okay. The closest they’ve gotten is saying that folks railing against these things need to be minding their own spiritual business.

    I was also attracted to this church because it is very community focused. We have job training, financial training – it reflects a deep understanding of how Jesus met first the people’s basic needs for food, shelter, clothing.

    One thing that does bother me is that women are not – cannot be – elders in this church, although there are women pastors who occasionally preach. I’ve inquired about this, and was told that there are no female elders in the Bible, yet women fulfilled many leadership positions in the Bible, and hence why we have women pastors but not female elders. My goal has been to verify if this is even in the Bible first, in order to meet them where they are, but next to inquire as to why on this one issue the church is so originalist in it’s interpretation of this issue, while we adapt Bible lessons all the time to fit the modern world.

    I think the reason I continue to attend and engage, even though being gay or lesbian is not something that is embraced openly and that women do not have equal status, is that the spiritual growth I have had over the past three years is directly attributable to my relationship to Jesus, one I wouldn’t have without the Church. I do believe that fellowship with other believers is so essential to the constant renewal of faith, and honestly, since I’ve going and learning and reading and praying, I’ve never felt better or more able to navigate my life. I realize this is selfish in part; because I am not gay, for example, I have a luxury of not feeling particularly rejected, or unable to be myself. One thing that helps with this is that it’s a large church, with many sub-groups. My favorite church members are ones that I know feel like I do, that being gay is not a sin. And that is allowed and encouraged.

    The woman issue does hit closer to home, of course, but I approach it as I do all institutions with gender bias. It is already such an ingrained part of my life, that I don’t necessarily rely on the Church to be all things. I’m interested in changing it, but want to be a part of it in order to do that.

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  7. Thank you for this essay and for putting in words the gnawing feeling I have that keeps me from the church. I still consider myself a Christian but I’ve yet to feel that sense of connection and spiritual growth from the Baptsit churches I’ve attended. And the process of branching out to new denominations and finding my church home leaves me feeling overwhelmed.

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  8. Hello Ladies,

    I hope everyone is enjoying their Sunday. I am glad this has sparked such thoughtful conversation. As I said before, I really was nervous when I decided to write this piece. It makes me feel a little less alone knowing others have contemplated this issue also.

    @Patricia, thank you for continuing the dialouge. I wish to say that I harbor no ill will toward my former church or any of its leaders. I spent well over half of my life there and I regret nothing. It is certainly more progessive than some in certain areas. It has ministries that seem to suggest that it inclusive and understanding of people’s situations however it is undermined then by very patriarchal views that make itself known in its teachings.

    Your comment regarding teaching young people how to operate within the context of the church had me a bit confused. I am not quite sure what you mean. I know that my husband and I try to be as honest with the girls regarding how people will see them as two little black girls. We try to give them as many tools that will be helpful. I do not feel as parent I should be having that same conversation in regards to church. Church should be a safe space for children as well as adults where one should not have to have defenses up in order to recieve God’s grace, teachings and fellowship.

    @Steel Magnolia and ORJ, I have been researching UCC. I am looking for one that is close to me. I live in central Jersey. I am aware that they are really progressive and I am especially interested in the way they are committed to discussing human sexuality in the church go so far as having material for families to use. It is called Our Whole Lives. Oh and Steel Magnolia you had me laughing at the “Color Purple” reference. Awesome.

    It is interesting you mentioned about education level. My pastor is very well educated, very active in our community and its politics. He brought our first ever female preacher – who I totally developed a huge girl crush on, going so far as collecting her sermons – to our church. However he has some very sexist and extremely problematic views on black women. All of the wonderful sermons and teachings can not make up for that. I do not wish to be a negative force or spirit with the church so I know that I must go elsewhere.

    @Latoya, your predicament reminds me of my mother. She loves the fact that her church has Bible based teachings but she has the same misgivings. Their ministries are also diverse and are very active in the community. She does get so much but she also feels it is lacking in others.

    I do not feel that any church can possibly be everything to everyone. I completely agree about that personal relationship with God is critical. You have to know how to petition for yourself and by yourself. Despite the upheaval our family has endured over the past few years, I know that it is that personal relationship has helped our family not only endure but also to thrive.

    I am so happy to be able to talk so frankly about this. All of you have been such a blessing.

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  9. The point about education is well-taken. I can certainly think of instances when degrees or knowledge didn’t seem to make a bit of difference when it came to logic or common sense.

    I had this conversation in mind today when we visited another church today. We left before the sermon even happened, in part because it was taking too doggone long!

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  10. Latoya you mentioned something that I think for myself is the crux of the whole thing. Why is it certain parts of the Bible are open for discussion, interpretation, or even allowed to be discarded while others parts are meant even now to taken literally? It would be wonderful and shocking if a preacher were brave enough to say while God is perfect the Bible is not a pitch perfect document. Or perhaps if they regarded it – the whole thing – as a living breathing thing. I like what UCC says, “Don’t put a period where God only puts a comma”. I think that is so profound.

    I also think that you asked why have I not to any church at all. I am not much of a church hopper. Since this is such a huge thing for me and my family, I really wanted to take my time and think about what it is that I need and want. It has also been a time of self reflection and I must say it has been nice.

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    1. I agree with you on the issue of the interpretation of the Bible. But my church allows discussion. They say that the no elders in the Bible is a central tenet of Christianity, probably along the lines that fathers are the head of the household. While I still have reservations, I can see in my church that the elder issue is not all-encompassing; there are many women who make leadership decisions. And as long as I’m “allowed” to continue to question what is truly centuries old tradition, I’m comfortable. I don’t like everything, but what I get out of it is more than who is guiding the church. They are guiding it in a way that I appreciate that seems very much to follow the life of Jesus.

      I think spirituality is a huge thing too, and we pondered for a while about going and joining a church. I did it now because I like my children having a good sense of God and Jesus, and being around families that I trust also have God as the center of their lives, even if everything is not perfect. Going to church for me is simply a reminder each week of the awesomeness of God, and a renewal of my spirit. I can feel God a lot, but I do feel him energized inside the church. I want my kids to feel that too, to feel him in a way that I never did as a kid, and hence felt so alone my entire life. I don’t feel that way anymore.

      My question about regular church going was asked of ORJ, not you.

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  11. I also wanted to add that I’ve just finshied reading Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell (it took me months and months because it’s so dense in things to think about) and I have been transformed in my thinking about what church can be. One of the final thoughts I was left with is the idea that church exists to be a light in the world that reflects God’s unconditional love. Then we visited a church whose motto included conversion; I stared at the sign for most of the service (which was so long we left before the actual sermon) and thought, “Wow. Is making people join your church–even the universal church–a good enough reason to pour energy and money into this institution? Is that what we’re doing here?” Wouldn’t unconditional love really mean that we give, help, love, serve, teach without the expectation that you will ever believe like we do? Isn’t the goal of “growing the church” just an exercise in massaging ourselves?

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