As children we are taught to be tolerant and inclusive. It is in our very nature (well, for most of us at least) to reject the idea of being exclusionary. Yet, not quite a year ago, I found myself deeply missing the segregated churches I grew up in. I missed Negro Spirituals and Black History programs. I missed how black pastors related the trials of the Israelites to the trials of black people today. I missed the fact that the people at city hall fighting for justice where the same people sitting in the congregation. I missed the unity that comes from shedding some aspects of diversity.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back
Last May, after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and George Floyd, mayhem ensued. I don't mean the riots. I mean the conversations between members of "the church." We were 2 months in to COVID, and where the church was already struggling to maintain meaningful communication, the fracture of race and culture became truly apparent. It felt like every day some non-black church member was saying something insensitive. Leadership was quiet and when those of us with a short fuse (like myself) chose to speak, we were reprimanded. The ire I felt culminated with me blurting out that I no longer wanted to attend a multicultural church and removing myself from all church communication.
I thought I was reacting in the moment. I thought a month would pass, and the feeling along with it. I thought I didn't really mean it...
Months passed, and to my surprise, I ended up in a few more heated conversations. I didn't feel any different, and realized I actually do miss attending an all African-American church.
The History of Racism and the Church
The western church (re: Catholicism and its offspring, known as Protestantism) is responsible for racism. Europeans twisted the curse of Canaan into a non-existent curse on Ham and attempted to legitimize the mistreatment of Africans based on this fraudulent interpretation. From there, we saw "devout" Christians torture, maim, brand, rape, and otherwise dehumanize black people. From Europeans whitewashing the people discussed in the Bible during the Renaissance, to white Americans refusing to let blacks worship in the same spaces, to the KKK, racism and Christianity in America are almost synonymous. I did a three part series going over some of this history along with my personal experiences last year. I'm linking them below instead of repeating myself.
Previous Blogs on Racism in the Church
The Colorblind Church
Instead of admitting to the role white America has played in racism, there is a push to leave it in the past. Instead of white pastors openly admitting that the white man pictured in churches and homes across the world is not Christ, they defend those who don't want to part with the tradition of breaking the second commandment to honor some random European man. Instead of addressing white flight, pastors ask minority congregants to make sure they invite their white friends. Instead of uttering a truth that might offend one group, we stick to sugar coated messages that don't challenge anyone. And while churches are fighting desperately to create these diverse congregations to show they are colorblind, black youth are leaving God because the message they need to hear is too much for the white people who put us in this position in the first place.
A Lesson In Colorblindness
I've known for a long time that homes owned by black people appraise for less than similar homes owned by whites. We're not going to derail the post by getting too deep into that (I'm sure you're already confused as to why I brought it up, just go with me for a minute). If you're curious about the validity of my statement, read up on some of the recent incidents involving the appraisal of black homes.
I'm currently in the process of selling my house to move and for the first time, had to assess the "blackness" of my home.
There was a portrait of an African woman I painted with my friends that needed to come down, as well as a professional painting of a black Southern Belle. Of course any and all personal photographs of me or my family. Just as I'd tucked away all the photos, a book on my bookshelf caught my eye: How Long Til Black Future Month. Scanning the shelves, I saw enough black literature to open a library. So I started removing the obvious ones: Is Christianity the White Man's Religion, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Autobiography of Malcom X, a collection of African folk tales, everything by Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni...
As I struggled to move the heavy box to the garage, I passed my DVD collection. I stopped to remove the obviously black DVDs from the shelf: The Boondocks (season 1-3), The Barbershop, First Sunday, Eve's Bayou, For Colored Girls..., Drumline, Stomp the Yard... It was too many to fit in a box. So I loaded the shelf back up, and stacked Disney movies in front of them. Then placed a decorative candle on the now empty Disney shelf.
I thought I could finally relax, so I went to my bathroom to take a relaxing bath. There I was greeted by my bonnet, the various oils and moisturizers for my afro-textured curly hair, the wide tooth comb and wooden-handled brush... This was obviously the bathroom of a black woman.
Every where I looked my house testified to the fact that I am black. Even after removing as much as I could, there are still things that made it into the staging (e.g., the poodles that decorate my house which are actually a reference to my sorority, which has non-black members but is a historically black sorority). In the end, I could not completely separate who I am from the space I live in without getting rid of everything.
As I stared at the house that only represented a fraction of me, I felt empty and unsettled. It no longer feels like home and wash day means I have to trek all the way to the garage to dig out my deep conditioner. As I reflected on the inconvenience, I realized my life is like this house.
One of the posts above talks about my experience with racism in the church, but it doesn't detail all my experiences with racism—we might need a book for all of that. Nonetheless, these traumas, hurts, lessons, and conversations have shaped who I am. It is from these experiences that I have the boundaries I have. It is from these experiences that I react the way I do. It is from these experiences that I value this or that. It is from these experiences that this passage hits differently than when you hear it...
When I approach the throne of YHWH, the Most High God, those experiences come with me. YHWH was there when I watched my grandmother panic over the possibility of white men taking our family's land. YHWH was there with me when little white kids were calling me a n*****. YHWH was there with me when my Asian aunt told me she was glad her half-black daughter didn't have hair like me. YHWH was there when my white teacher said I'd end up pregnant or in jail because that's what happens to black youth. YHWH was there the Asian department chair told me I didn't have what it took to earn a PhD (and YHWH walked across the stage with me when I earned that PhD). YHWH was there when I learned to love my hair. YHWH was there when I learned not to shrink myself into a corner trying to blend into the whiteness around me. YHWH understands my blackness, my woman-ness, my Americanness, my singleness...
And sometimes YHWH has a message just for me.
“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains, and go and search for the one that is lost?
Leaving the 99
A few weeks ago, I watched a sermon that spoke straight to my heart. Seven men and women of God spoke on the last seven things Christ said before He died on the cross. Each message was tied into justice and the black experience here in America. The speakers were black, the audience was black, and the message was specifically for black people. It ranged from a reminder about forgiveness, to a warning about protecting our spirit. There were messages and nuggets of truth that anyone could (and should) appreciate, but the core of the message was a message of hope for the down trodden souls of black America. It was a reminder that YHWH is our YHWH too.
As I listened to the sermon, I realized that was what I was longing for. I wanted to hear that message that God had for me in my time of need. Contemporary churches love to sing "Reckless Love" and belt out the line about Him leaving the 99 to search for the one, but we often forget we're not always the one. In a society where certain groups of people are being mistreated, abused, and belittled, those groups are the people God is going after. He's going after the black person longing for justice. He's going after the people in the LGBT community with questions. He's going after the Asian person scared to step out of their house. He's going after the women who have been abused. He's going after the immigrants who were locked in cages. He's going after the refugees that survived brutal wars. He's going after the poor/homeless, the drug addict, the orphan, etc. And that message may hurt your feelings—it may hurt my feelings—because maybe we didn't do enough for that group, maybe we are part of the reason that group is hurt... But it's not about us, it's about the message for the one.
Finding Love in Diversity
Most of my friend circles have been characterized by diversity. Even here, in South Florida where 90% of my friend group is black, there is diversity—some are Jamaican, some Haitian, some Bahamian, and some Canadian. It is amazing to learn about different cultures and to experience the world through someone else's eyes. It is equally heartbreaking to experience trauma in the midst of people who refuse to acknowledge the trauma (or the history of that trauma). You cannot obstruct the message for the one because the 99 aren't ready to admit the church has played a role in the suffering of the one. A year later, and I understand where that longing is coming from. I can't say what type of church I'll seek out when I move in 3 weeks, but I can say I want to belong to a body that isn't afraid to leave the 99 to go after the one.
References and Footnotes
- Julian Glover. "Black California couple lowballed by $500K in home appraisal, believe race was a factor". ABC 7 News. February 12, 2021
- Debra Kamin. "Black Homeowners Face Discrimination in Appraisals". The New York Times. August 25, 2020
- Mount Sinai Church. "The Seven Words of Justice". YouTube. April 2, 2021
- No one is perfect; we're all human. If I gave a sermon, my human-ness would creep in as well. The only reason I'm pointing out this particular nitpick is because it's about doctrinal truth and since I'm "promoting" the sermon, I need to point out what I disagree with doctrinally. Good Friday is tied to the pagan Easter. Passover was last week (March 28). Even if the Bible asked us to celebrate "Good Friday," based on Biblical doctrine, it should occur before Passover and would have been last week.