As an African American, God has always been apart of the culture of my family. We held hands and prayed before every Thanksgiving meal. We shouted “Thank God” when something went our way. We “swore to God” when we were telling a lie and the truth. We listened to Kirk Franklin and the Family. We went to a Baptist daycare center that showed us how to do nightly prayers. Black Jesus with the dreadlocks greeted us every day in the foyer. But there was an unspoken fear of going to church in my family. The judgment and the feeling of not belonging always stuck with me after our once a year voyage on Easter Sundays.
I didn’t grow up in the church, I grew up in poverty. I didn’t read the bible as a child, I read Word Up magazines and tore out the pages of Immature and hung them on my walls in the ‘hood. I didn’t have an old church going grandmother who wore white gloves and drug me to Sunday school. I had a cursing granny who tore me a few food stamps from the book and sent me to buy hot pickles and a box of Dominoes’ sugar for the spades game. My father didn’t play the piano, he smoked weed.
What I know about the church, I know from seeking it out myself as a teen. We lived across the street from a church on the northside of Milwaukee during my teen years. Before the pastors left the city in a scandal that rocked the community, I used to visit the teen’s group quite often. I was bored and the kids seemed to have it all. So I joined. I remember the youth group leader’s wife drove into the church parking lot one evening in a cream Cadillac. I’ll never forget that car because even as a teen if you called “bingo” on that car, you won. She was a fair black woman with long, jetblack permed hair and a college degree she wore on her sleeve. She seemed to me like she had it all. She had a husband who kissed her softly on her cheek in public. She had two children, a son and a daughter. She always had fresh Jet magazines on her car seat and most of all she lived in the suburbs. Wearing a big beautiful hat, she winked at me one day and I followed her across the street. I joined the youth group soon after. The youth group was less about me accepting God and more about belonging to a community of teens whose parents were middle-class and aspirational figures for me. They all had fresh clothes and new shoes. They spoke like we spoke but there was no doubt in my mind we lived in different places. I just wanted to be around them. And so I did. Every Wednesday night, I would sneak into the last hour of “power hour” and then join the youth for church. When I was alone at night, I would talk to “God” about my dreams, the goals I had for myself, and all the ways I wanted to be free.
I don’t know if he ever responded.
Much of my college years were spent in the South, so church was commonplace. I mean, you could party all Saturday night, but Sunday morning you had better be in the church pews. I learned all the songs, how to pray, and I even joined the college ministry from time to time. It was apart of my culture. I loved getting dressed up and I loved to see the people all dressed up. I missed church when I didn’t go and I loved the messages of hope, solace, and prosperity. In those church pews, I felt like I had arrived.
I don’t think my mother knows, and she’d be shocked to learn I’m sure, that I spent some of my early days as a faith based community organizer. I learned more about the power of faith and traditions there then I had ever learned before. I found out so much about how faith could usher people into a realm of social justice. How ground shifting it could be to center your faith in the middle of justice. I was moved. And I was sold.
In my twenties, I attended Alfred Street Baptist church in Alexandria, VA outside of Washington, DC. What a dynamic experience that was. It really helped my contemporary understanding of the lessons in the Bible. Alfred Street had traditions but what I loved most was that the pastor talked about real issues and social justice. I needed to be at that place to help me make sense of all the injustices in the world. Much like my work as an organizer, Alfred Street had sold me less on church and more on faith.
My mother, who has since gone on to be saved, sanctified, and humbly filled with the holy ghost, calls me some Sunday mornings to see if I’m going to church. The truth is, here in Brooklyn, I’m rarely at church. These days, Ta-Nehisi Coates is my pastor and Janet Mock is my choir. I’m so consumed with my questions of church and the commitment to the church community, that I bypass the opportunity every time. I’m also a serious progressive. I’m an unapologetic latte liberal with some revolutionary tendencies and I have some serious concerns about the phobias that are justified in the churches I've visited. And the very thing that drew me to the church, is what has kept me away.
And while my mother probably thinks that I don’t believe in God and I’m raising some kind of heathen in my stinky Brooklyn apartment, my faith has never been more solid. I rise every morning in a meditation of gratitude. Every time I see the sunrise, I am reminded of the magnitude of God that the world cannot control. When I arose in the bush of South Africa to see a mighty elephant, I probably said my most ernest prayer. I know from wince I came. I don’t bless my food before I eat it and I’ve never said I was blessed. But I am no less faithful to the notion of a higher power guiding my life and ordering my steps. And although I haven’t read the Bible in too many years, in my time of need and sorrow, I think of the verses that calm me and still my beating heart. Every time I say amen, I mean it. I mean it with so much intentionality. And every breath I take, I know that to whom much is given, much is required. Although I have some questions about church and God, and the wordly acts of the Godly people, there’s not a Negro spiritual karaoke contest I could ever lose. Maybe my being unchurched has my mother worried for my soul, I feel alright with God.
And most of all, I still have an unbinding reverence for my people’s devotion to faith that has carried us from slavery to freedom. And that will never leave my life.