To be black, Southern and unchurched
I call my mama and grandmama every Sunday. Sometimes my aunt (grandmama’s sister) and Big Mama (mama’s grandmama on her daddy’s side) get thrown into the rotation as well. It’s a tradition I picked up in college in order to keep consistent contact with my family in the midst of a hectic schedule. One question that’s often asked on these calls is, “Did you go to church today?” Now, I’ll be honest.
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In the South, going to church is as common as watching television or going to the bathroom. So naturally as a native Alabamian, I was right in the middle of that tradition. When I was younger, it was an enjoyable part of the weekly routine. We would wake up Sunday morning to whatever breakfast grandmama had cooked. We would always pray before leaving the house: “Whatever is bound in heaven, be bound on earth. Whatever is loosed in heaven, be loosed on earth.” Among other things. Then, we would drive over to the next town where our church was located and be back home between 12:30 - 1 p.m. Like most Southern black boys who lived in their grandmother’s house, I had no conception of going to church being optional. It was only a matter of did we want to leave early enough to go to Sunday school or get an extra hour of rest on Sunday morning. So I went, sang in the choir (badly), starred in some church productions and learned some scriptures along the way. I never asked questions because I didn’t know that I could or should. I also think my relationship with my grandmother at that point kept me from thinking ill of anything that she insisted I do.
But I was never given any reason for going to church outside of it being something that I “should do.” I generally understood what one was supposed to get out of going (spiritual fulfilment). But I also felt like even when that fulfilment wasn’t there, I was still supposed to fill the seat. It was in my early adolescent years when I began to become interested in being “a good Christian.” This was after my sister, mother, and I moved out of my grandmama’s house. We adopted a new home church, located in the greater Birmingham area. What I liked most about the church was the teen ministry, which allowed me to skip out on the sermon every couple of weeks. Although I enjoyed being around my peers, I have to admit that there was a lot of shaming going on in teen church.
“Y’all ain’t gon' praise after all God done did for y’all? We shouldn’t have to tell y’all to stand up and clap your hands.”
“We found a used condom up here. Were you the one using it?”
“AIDs is a modern-day leprosy as punishment for immoral sexual behavior. That’s why there’s no cure.”
Oh. Okay. That’s why.
We were once told that we should be able to explain why we believe in God/The Bible in a succinct, articulate manner.
“I can tell you RIGHT NOW why I believe in God. What about YOU?”
Because I wanted to be a good Christian, I used Google to help me find an answer to a question that I didn’t want to admit that I was unsure about. I wrote the best answers in the cover of the Bible I used for reading in the church: “Consistent message over dozens of writers and hundreds of years;” “New Testament fulfilment of prophecy;” “martyrs don’t die for something that’s not true;” etc. I wanted to be prepared in case I was quizzed. This question plays a big role later in this story. Despite the unnatural pressures that existed in this class, I still (mostly) enjoyed going. I even joined the spoken word ministry after we were basically told that being a part of church ministry gave us more merit in the eyes of God. During my complicated, but mostly good relationship with teen church, my mother was growing disillusioned with the pastor of the church. She thought him greedy and irresponsible with the hearts and minds of his people. This judgement was based on actions like scolding his members who gave relief money to Haiti but did not tithe in church to his satisfaction. Nothing will raise the blood pressure of a southern, black preacher quicker than tithe talk. She experimented with other churches here and there, but we attended that church fairly consistently throughout my high school career.
Upon arriving at college, the search for a new church home began within my second week on campus. I didn’t want to say so then, but really any church would’ve worked so long as I had an answer for mama and grandmama on Sunday. Back then, I would’ve told you I was searching for spiritual fulfilment and a relevant message because that’s an acceptable, good Christian answer. I started attending a megachurch in Brentwood, TN with a few upperclassmen, mostly women, mostly white. The church was enormous, had a triple threat of pastors that alternated each Sunday, and was my first introduction to gospel violin — really. In retrospect, I can say the primary reason I enjoyed going to this church was the relationships I built with my traveling companions.
“Good morning Josh! Did you slow grind last night?”
“So like, do you ever experience black rage? We’re learning about it in my Prison Life class.”
“Are we gonna do Commons brunch after? I have soooo much work to do today.”
Ironically, I have very little memory of the sermon content from my time going to that church.
College was an interesting time for me.
It was a time when I chose to unlearn everything I had been taught up to that point and figure out what I believed for myself. Are people inherently good? Does revolution require violence? Do I really want a wife and kids? Is Beyonce really THE Queen B? Once the people I went to church with graduated after my sophomore year, I started recalling questions from the past. What kept swirling around in my mind was this question I had been posed as a post-adolescent in teen church, “Why do you believe in God?” In my youth, I was taught that I should be able to answer this question. But at that time, I knew there were right and wrong answers to the question. I knew that having complex feelings about the subject would lead to doubts about my faith, which in the context of where I come from is inextricably tied to your character. But I also knew that the primary reason I believed in God was because someone had always told me to. How could I be a responsible, independent adult (who still got claimed on his mama’s taxes) if I was not articulate as to what and why I believed? I became more open to conversations that questioned the foundations of Christian faith. I witnessed faith leaders make a mockery of the issues I cared about regularly (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) all accompanied by rumbling shouts of “Amen” and the ever present, “Go on, pastor.” I was also exposed to other religious traditions and practices that expanded my conception of what it meant to be faithful. I began to feel more and more out of place and uninterested when sitting in pews.
Even in my continuous phase of unlearning what I’ve been conditioned to believe, admitting my ambivalence about the church, and slight skepticism about faith has proven extremely difficult. And it’s not because of some abstract attachment I have to classically-designed buildings led by holy men with sanctified egos teaching from a text they consider the only authority. On the contrary, it was what all that represented: My mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my great grandmother, her great grandmother who was most likely a slave. I didn’t and still don’t want to disappoint the folks who helped shape me as a person by instilling values they learned inside stained glass windows on lightly cushioned pews. Their faith informed every aspect of their lives including how they raised me... Obedience is better than sacrifice… I prayed that the Lord would grant you wisdom and comprehension before you even started school.. Say grace before you eat… Come on in here so we can read these scriptures before you go to bed… Make sure you pray about it, Josh… Your name is biblical, so every time I call you I’m saying Salvation... Would it not be close to treason for me to question or reject that? The truth is; I’m more than a little unsure of what exactly I believe. I’m more than a little uncertain of what happens when we die or if I even care what happens. I’m over sitting in churches that are complicit, either through their silence or blatant contempt, with systems intent on destroying my people. But more than all that, I’ve grown weary of making temporal, financial, spiritual and emotional investments that prioritize anyone’s happiness but my own.
And I want to make it clear that this is not a diss to church folks. Some of y’all are the best people I know, and some of y’all ain’t. It’s like that. But I can’t continue to feign conviction to please others, not even those I’m closest with. I’m sure my girlfriend would love for me to be with her in church on Sundays, but she also knows how bad I am at hiding my discontent. So I don’t go and she understands. Breaking up with the church is something I come to more peace with every day because I know in my heart of hearts it is not a rejection of the values I was taught, rather a reinterpretation. I’ll end with an example.
I used to visit a maximum security prison in Nashville. Students would join inmates for a town hall discussion on mass incarceration. The inmates weren’t shackled. Many of them were very intelligent and could articulate their condition better than anything we had ever read about it. However, the vast majority of them were going to die in prison for committing a heinous crime, usually in their youth. I remember one student interested in advocacy asking, “How do we separate the good prisoners like you guys from everyone else?” I was slightly embarrassed that she would ask that, but the response showed how necessary that interaction was. Instead of taking that opportunity to promote themselves or deem the less refined inmates as unworthy, they simply said, "there is no difference." And once we start insisting that there is, placing more value on some lives while leaving others to languish, we abandon the essence of what ultimately makes us human.
If that ain’t church, I don’t know where else to find it.
Proximity to God is crucial to my soul, but I don’t need a hollow, perpetual Sunday-morning appointment to see the divinity in what the world has condemned. And I just want that to be respected. Amen.
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I’m from Leeds, Alabama and recently graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. My writing ranges in topics from love to racism to awkwardly stumbling through young adulthood. Music has strong influences on my writing, especially hip-hop, jazz and soul. My goal with my writing is to infuse these distinct, yet connected African-American art forms to make work that people can really feel. I currently work as a community organizer in Jacksonville, Florida with Interfaith Coalition for Action Reconciliation and Empowerment (I.C.A.R.E). Check out my blog here.