A Personal History of Racism in Church

I wanted to make this a podcast, but when I started talking, I realized it was too much to fit in one episode (and as I started writing, I realized it was too much to fit into one post). With all that is going on, it was hard to order the memories and speak calmly—I've always found that writing about things that make me emotional is the only effective way of expressing myself. Upfront I'm asking for three things: 1) forgiveness for not recording this, 2) forgiveness for disrupting the podcast schedule and posting this as a series over the course of this week, and 3) that you will read the entire series.

I'm going to start this series by recounting a few personal memories involving race and Christianity.

Preschool

The first time I was made aware of race was actually at a church. My parents had placed me in a preschool that was run by the United Methodist Church as soon as my mother went back to work. So from the time I was about 6 months old until I went to kindergarten, I went to this preschool at the Methodist Church in my home town. Generally speaking, I have fond memories (which start at about the age of 3) from this preschool and of the kids I met there, but this is where I was first told I was black. Before I tell you how that unfolded, I need to point out a few things:
  • I was christened at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church—not a United Methodist Church and not the church that ran the preschool I attended
  • My mom's family is United Methodist, not AME
  • The AME Church was founded by blacks amidst racial discrimination at the hands of white Methodists. This tension culminated in an event in which white Methodists physically removed black Methodists who were on their knees praying. Established in 1787, the AME Church became the first independent denomination founded by African-Americans [1][2]
  • When I was born in 1988, 201 years later, there was still no integrated United Methodist Church in my hometown
  • There were significantly less children at the AME church, as well as less resources, therefore they did not have a preschool
  • During the four years I spent at this preschool, there was only one other black child there; she is a year younger than me and we are still friends
Now, for what happened. I was about four years old and one of the (white) girls from my class approached me and out of the blue said, "I'm white and you're black." I thought she was referencing literal colors. So I did what any good friend would: I took her to the Crayola box, pulled out a black crayon, a white crayon, a peach crayon, and a tumbleweed crayon, and then showed her which colors did and did not match our skin tones. I was deeply concerned, because you have to know your colors to enter kindergarten and clearly she did not know her colors. I don't know if my teacher watched this interaction and then told my parents, or if I told them myself (the little girl was my dad's coworker's daughter), but somehow these events were relayed to my parents who began "the talk" in which they explained to me that I am what society calls "a black person."

To this day, I don't know why she felt the need to inform me that I was black. It seems that it meant something to her and I can only imagine that's because of the context in which she picked up the concept.

The After School Program

Once I started elementary school (at the public school), some friends of the family convinced my parents that the answer to after school care was an after school program at the Catholic Church. They each had a daughter who attended the program and I knew those 2 girls well because they took piano lessons from my grandmother. Since our families were close (to the point of us claiming to be related most of my childhood), my parents enrolled me as well. We were the only black people in the program.

Since the 2 girls I knew were 2 years older than me, we were supposed to be in separate classes. I'm not sure what prompted the beginning of this practice, but every day, they would casually sneak me out of the line going to my class and into the line going to their class. The teachers had to know—if not there are bigger questions that need to be raised—but they never sent me back to my age group. I made friends with a few of the white girls from their class and the guys let me play video games with them (but only if I played as Peach 😒).

One day, neither of them were there. I was 6, and I was scared to sneak myself out of line to go to the big kid class. Besides, what if the big kids were only nice to me because there were two other big kids "protecting" me? So I stayed in my line, and for the first time, I went to my class with the other 6 year olds. We were sitting at a very long table and one of the girls in the class was making her way around the table. When she got to me, she stopped, looked me in my face and called me a n*****. I'm not proud of what happened next, but I'm going to tell you because it's what happened.

By that age, I understood what the word meant (my first time hearing it had been 2 years prior, fortunately not at a Church), so I punched a girl who was mentally disabled. I didn't know what mentally disabled was, and truth be told, she probably didn't fully understand what the n-word was. The adult in the room saw the whole thing and recounted the story to the director. There was no "he said, she said" about it. The girl didn't deny calling me the n-word; I didn't deny punching her. When our parents showed up, my dad and her dad almost got into a fight. Her dad was, understandably, concerned that his daughter had been punched. My dad was, understandably, concerned as to why a 6 year old mentally disabled girl not only knew the n-word but also knew enough to know who to direct it toward. Her dad called for me to be kicked out of the program. My dad argued that if they kicked me out, they should also discipline the girl who called me the n-word. As is so common with people today the director didn't want to "offend" anyone. She didn't want my parents to get mad that she wasn't disciplining and condemning racism, but she didn't want to upset the white man who's disabled daughter had been punched.

So it came down to the moment when adults expect you to be remorseful and apologize. Since she was mentally disabled, they didn't expect her to understand what she had done was wrong, but they expected me to acknowledge my wrong in punching her and apologize. "Shiree, what do you have to say about this?" Clear as day, I can hear myself say, "I bet she won't call anybody else a n*****." I had no remorse. I didn't feel bad about punching her until I met a (white) boy with cerebral palsy and saw kids picking on him. It took me understanding what it actually meant to be disabled to realize that I hadn't understood that she was mentally disabled in that moment, and just like I didn't understand her condition, she was just saying something she'd been taught.

I can't honestly say I would have done something differently if I had known she was disabled, because 6 year old me was impulsive and hot tempered, but I can say that in hindsight, I think the director should have disciplined both of us. Instead, she chose not to offend anyone and agreed that I would always go to the older class so we would never cross paths again. She failed, and my parents withdrew me from the program by the end of the week (as soon as they set up an alternate).

VBS at the White Baptist Church

Once I started elementary school, I favored my dad's Baptist church—it was across the street so I could go even if my parents didn't, and my cousins who were around the same age as me also attended. The Baptist church I attended was all black. The white Baptist church is less than a mile up the road from the church I grew up attending. I rode the bus with the kids who went to the white Baptist church (some of whom called my cousins and I the n-word on the bus). One of my best friends from elementary school, and one of two people to hold a sleepover that my parents actually allowed me to go to, went to that church. Her parents and my parents were volunteer fire-fighters together. My AP English teacher went to that church—she graduated high school with my mom and taught my older cousins when they were in school. The people who attend that church have lived in that community for well over 100 years. I know, because my family has been living there in the same community for the same 100 years—the Church has even been declared a historical landmark and has a plaque commemorating its age.

It's very possible that some of their ancestors owned mine.

Because I had friends that went to the white Church, they always invited me to Vacation Bible School, and my parents would take me. Their VBS never overlapped ours so I went multiple times—but I've never been to a service there and they never accepted an invitation to come to our VBS. Black Baptists and white Baptists don't go church together.

Baptist Funerals

As I said, the families in my community have been there for generations. Everybody knows everybody and everybody's parents grew up together. So, when someone died everyone knew them. Everyone comes to pay respect. Everyone goes to "the other" church to attend the funeral. But on Sunday morning, black Baptists and white Baptists don't go church together.

Voting at a Baptist Church

The polling place for my precinct is the white Baptist church less than a mile from the black Baptist church I grew up in (it's much larger so that makes sense). The people who man the polls are people who go to that church, because the people who go to that church are also the community. There were exactly 4 Democrats at that polling place when I was a child—my mom, my dad, my grandmother, and my aunt. Sometimes I went with them to vote, and often there was a problem. Usually it was because they didn't want my 80+ year old grandmother (who had cataract surgery and grew up in the era when neither women nor black people were afforded much education) to have assistance reading the ballot. When I turned 18, I became the 5th Democrat on their roster. I voted there twice, and both times I had a problem. The first time there was "an error" and my name wasn't on the roster. Despite me showing them both a valid voter's registration and ID, I had to go to the county voting office and get an official letter from the county confirming I was eligible to vote. The second time, I had filled out an application to vote absentee because I thought I would be 4 hours away in school. When I discovered that I would be home, I canceled the absentee ballot, went to the county office to confirm, got the official letter/documents, presented them at the polling place and was met with opposition. This time a phone call had to be placed (since I already had the documents verifying that I never received an absentee ballot).

White Visitors at the Black Baptist Church

Once, a white couple who was new in town accidentally came to our church instead of the white church. There was an audible gasp from them and stunned looks from us when they entered. They did not stay and they did not come back, because black Baptists and white Baptists don't go church together.

College

I gave a little history regarding the split between the Methodist and AME church to point out the irony of my preschool, now I want to dive into the history of the Baptist church. The only thing I learned from Baptists themselves about sub-denominations within the faith is that Missionary Baptist Churches are most likely black,[3] and Southern Baptist Churches are most likely white. Unlike the Methodist Church, Baptists don't have the same hierarchal structure. There isn't a council that votes to make all Baptist churches integrated and then fires pastors who disobey. At least, Missionary Baptists don't. When I left for college at 18, I had never seen an integrated Baptist Church. The closest thing I've seen is a token person who is there because of interracial marriage/dating.

Despite having predominately attended a Baptist church from the time I was 5 onward, when I went to college at 18, I proclaimed myself a Methodist and looked for a Methodist church to attend. It had nothing to do with doctrine. I was afraid of walking into the wrong Baptist church. From a technical standpoint, the Methodist Church was already integrated when I was born. By the time I was a pre-teen, that trend spread into my hometown. At one point there was a Methodist Church with an all white congregation and a black pastor. When I left for college, Methodist churches seemed safer. That sentence that I just wrote, that should not be a sentence. At no point should a church that is following God feel unsafe.

Did you know that when given the chance to speak out against white supremacy, the Southern Baptist church did so with controversy?[4] It was not an unequivocal, unified, one accord, condemnation of racism. Despite the New Testament giving clear examples of a multiracial Church—in the first round of converting non-Jews, there was an Ethiopian and Roman (Acts 8; 10). Of course, that makes sense when you consider that the Southern Baptist Church split from the Baptist Church because Baptists in the North fought to free the slaves. They didn't acknowledge this or change their stance until 1995. It took another 20 years for them to call for reconciliation.[4] For reference, I graduated from college in 2010.

Thoughts

This is not what this Christianity is supposed to look like. You cannot claim to love God and hate your fellow humans. Most people know that, but you also can't claim to love God and idly watch some one else mistreat your neighbor. Do you think Christ would have watched someone disrespect and abuse another person in His presence? Did He not stop them from stoning a woman caught in idolatry (which was lawfully punishable by death at the time)? Did He not offer entry into the kingdom to a Samaritan? Did His disciples not convert an Ethiopian? How can the true body of Christ be silent when injustice is all around them? In the rest of the series I want to talk more about the "church"'s connection to racism in America historically, and what the Bible says about the nature/response of a true Church.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things should have been done without neglecting the others.Matthew 23:23 CSB

References

  1. Dennis C. Dickerson. "Our History". The Official Website African Methodist Episcopal Church; visited June 1, 2020
  2. "Richard Allen ". PBS; visited June 1, 2020
  3. "What is a Missionary Baptist Church?". GotQuestions.org; visited June 1, 2020
  4. Judith Valente. "Southern Baptist Pastor Confronts His Own, Church's Racial Past". NPR from Illinois State University. June 22, 2017

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About

Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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