For years I attended what is probably one of the most diverse churches in the nation. It’s led by a white senior pastor, who spent a year as one of a handful of white students in a newly integrated public school in the south. They have a rainbow of faces in the sanctuary and even on staff. In a world where churches are highly segregated, I had found an exception. But I stopped going to church regularly in 2015 before foregoing church altogether in 2016.
This was not an easy decision, but it was a necessary one. The congregation and faces on the staff page of my church’s website were diverse, but the culture wasn’t. I had spent almost a decade learning the ins-and-outs of white evangelical Christianity. As 2015 faded into 2016, it was clear that meant I was expected to strip myself of the identifier I am most proud of: black woman.
When Heaven Doesn’t Come Down to Earth
I am well versed in navigating predominately white spaces as a black woman. I instinctively knew that asking too many questions or pointing out racial and ethnic gaps in the church experience wouldn’t be well received. The style of music was mostly Christian contemporary worship music written my white musicians. The majority of the books in the book store and even the Bible studies were written by white authors. The church’s conservative evangelical ideologies often failed to take into consideration the cultural difference, despite the congregation being made up of mostly people of color. That kind of observation wasn’t welcome. For this church, “biblical Christian living” meant assuming white evangelical culture.
I began to realize that the version of Christianity I was gleaning from required people of color to forfeit parts of themselves in order to be the good Christian. We pledged our allegiance to the kingdom of God, which left little room for concerns about day-to-day hardships and tragedies.
I spent years devoted to a group of people whose idea of salvation was strictly concerned with my eternity and not my humanity in the here and now.
Silence in the Church
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed walking home from his neighborhood store. His killer, George Zimmerman, was ultimately acquitted. My church did not respond.
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died at the hands of New York City police officers for selling loose cigarettes. The police officers involved weren’t punished. My church did not respond.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. His uncovered body lay on the hot pavement for 4 hours. Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting. Protests erupted from residents of Ferguson who had been unjustly targeted and over-policed by law enforcement for years. My church did not respond.
The death of Michael Brown was all I could handle. For days, my heart broke over and over as I watched live streams of police armed with assault rifles, tear gas, and military tanks rolled through black neighborhoods to combat protestors. There had been no prayers of lament in my church service for the lives of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, or the countless other black men and women who died at the hands of police around this country. Maybe some of the white brothers and sisters in my church were silently crushed, but I was left in awe by the number of church friends who went on with their life as if nothing was going on in the world. Meanwhile, my heart was filled with grief and hopelessness because of the lack of justice for the victims with whom I shared a racial kinship.
Where my church was silent, personal prayer, close friends, and social media filled the gap. I found solace on Twitter as black people from around the world grieved at the news of another incident of police brutality.
When the Speaking Is As Hurtful As the Silence
I watched as white church members and other Christians voiced their unwavering and indiscriminate support of law enforcement. They justified why each and every black victim got what they deserved for “not complying” with the police. These were the good Christians who marched for unborn babies because pro-life. These were the people who were called to love thy neighbor and do for the least of these. Yet, when the time came to follow these biblical commands, there was nothing. I was left wondering, if it had been me or one of my boys that had been killed by police, would these same people I worship and serve with every week question our ability to comply with law enforcement? If I were killed, would it be clear to a watching world that my black life mattered to them?
As the summer of 2015 was approaching, our young adult ministry was gearing up for a summer of serving communities around the city. One event that was scheduled involved honoring police for their service. Several black and Latino leaders that I served with had justifiable reservations about interacting with police at that time, as did I. I suggested that our ministry pastor use this as an opportunity to listen to and address the concerns of his mostly black and Latino leadership team regarding their feelings about police brutality. My suggestion was ignored.
When Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners in their church on June 17, 2015, my church finally responded. They responded by showing a video of the surviving families of those who were killed offering forgiveness to Dylann Roof meer days after the shooting. We weren’t mourning the victims. We were reminded that even in the face of great tragedy, we should be quick to forgive and pray for Dylann’s salvation. It’s no secret that black people are expected to forgive and move on when tragedy strikes. We’re not afforded the luxury of mourning or even being angry, especially if you are Christian. After that video, I walked out of the service.
It was clear that there there was little attention given to issues that concerned so many in the church. Black and Latino people made up a large majority of my multicultural church’s membership, yet little had been done by church leaders to support those who were hurting. Little was done to acknowledge systemic methods of oppression, discrimination, and inequality. While there would be entire sermons and conferences rallying around human trafficking or the pro-life movement, there was no call to action from my evangelical church for police brutality against people of color, mass incarceration, segregation in schools, or our broken immigration system. There was no room for a social justice gospel in my multicultural evangelical church.
Voting Their Conscience?
By the time the 2016 presidential campaign season was in full swing, my relationship with my evangelical multicultural church was strained, and my faith in Jesus Christ was shaky. I watched countless hours of the news as then presidential candidate Donald Trump antagonized, criminalized, and dehumanized people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled on an almost regular basis.
I watched as faith leaders flocked to his defense and heralded him as God’s appointed for the highest office in the land. I watched as church friends silently shared articles on social media that alluded to their support for him, while others bravely and boldly showed their support for him and an almost violent disdain for others. It was no secret that evangelicals overwhelmingly support Republican agendas because they consider themselves the political party of morals and family values. Yet, it was almost mindblowing to see Christians readily cast aside any level of discernment or concern for their neighbors because Donald Trump promised to support conservative Christian values and religious freedoms. I had always thought those values and freedoms included caring for the oppressed. The eighty-one percent didn’t seem to think so.
I looked back on all my years of being fully immersed in the church, only to have many I considered friends or mentors reveal that deep down, their political affiliation meant more than my humanity. I was not prepared to find out that someone I considered a dear friend voted for Donald Trump. A white friend who knew my fears as a black mother raising black sons in this country, who was well aware of our mutual friends’ undocumented status and the constant anxiety they felt, and who despite “doing life” with people whose skin color and circumstances were different from hers, still voted for Mr. Trump.
These series of experiences interrupted my faith in exactly the way I needed. I had been sold a version of Christianity that is more concerned with power and influence than actually living out the gospel. And this interruption of faith gave me permission to doubt and even be angry with God. It forced me to deconstruct the scriptures for myself and lean into the Holy Spirit regarding my identity, what I believed, and what no longer fit. While I do miss some aspects of the church and will probably return sometime in the future, for now, I’m being reintroduced to the Jesus who has always been on the side of the oppressed, who gave authority and purpose to women, who was on the forefront for social justice and who would gladly welcome those from foreign lands.
Cover image by Julio Casado.
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