I grew up in a black church.
Services were long, songs were loud, and the people were spirited. Looking back on it, I lacked the perspective to really appreciate the experience for what it was, but now it’s something that I reflect on with fondness; I met Jesus there, made friends there, and learned the importance of being around people that look like you, and understand your experience. But as we all know, you never really appreciate things until you no longer have them.
My early experience in “the white church” was completely different. Services were shorter, songs were less showy, and the people weren’t charismatic in the way that I was used to. But even with the stark differences, my time in that world helped make me who I am, and for that, I’m thankful. But as any person of color in a predominantly white space will tell you, things tend to get very real very fast.
I still remember when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. I remember feeling like we had jumped this huge hurdle, and that a million doors had magically been opened; I was younger, and at a point in my life where optimism flowed much easier than it does now. As you can imagine, the last place that I expected my joy to be squashed was at church, but that’s exactly how it went down. That following Sunday, there was no acknowledgement of history having been made, and there was little mention of praying for the new President in a way that seemed genuine and kind-hearted. Instead, the vibe was something that you would expect to experience at a funeral for a loved one who had gone too soon. For me, this was the moment when the sweet tea of the white, Southern Baptist world began to go sour.
In the coming years, I would have other experiences that made me wonder about the people around me who claimed to love Jesus with all their heart, soul, and mind. Naturally, things got particularly complicated in the years after Trayvon Martin’s death, but I was in college at that point, so I watched most of the backlash unfold on social media. And with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I began to see pushback from white Christians that felt disingenuous. For a crowd that proudly declared their belief in the sanctity of life, I saw little regard for the lives of black men and women who died for seemingly minor offenses. And all along, there was this idea that speaking out would be “divisive”, and ultimately, against the will of God. It seemed like black people were supposed to grin and bear it, and continuously offer forgiveness, all while being ignored and overlooked. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of rhetoric in the last few years, and while I do understand the importance of unity, I don’t agree with the idea of turning my cheek so that someone else won’t have to come to terms with how their actions-or lack thereof-affect me.
At this point, you’re probably wondering where this is heading, and if you’re not wondering, then you’re probably bracing yourself for whatever it is that you think I’ll say about the 2016 Presidential Election. And for the sake of time, I won’t mince words-I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in our officials, I’m disappointed in how we, as citizens, treated this whole process, but most of all, I’m disappointed in white evangelicals who supported a deplorable candidate in an effort to appear morally superior. Regardless of how many sideways remarks you threw at the Republican nominee, your endorsement was a clear sign to the rest of us that you’re willing to overlook quite a few “-isms” so long as one or two issues line up. I was talking about it with someone a few weeks ago, and I used the word “pageantry” to describe what I see as a huge issue within American Christianity, particularly here in the Bible Belt. The buildings are there, the committees are there, and the loud opposition to social issues are there, but hang around long enough, and you’ll find white supremacy at the underbelly. It’s in the tiny, offhand comments. It’s in the reactions to key issues that arise. It’s even in the treatment of other religions, particularly Islam. But most notably, it’s in the endorsement of an individual who marketed a presidential campaign on white paranoia, and the idea of taking a progressing country “back”. It’s all there for those who are willing to look, but it just so happens that those who are willing to look are often outnumbered by individuals who would rather gloss over things.
At this point, I’m tired of cute phrases that roll off the tongue, and offer no sting to the ones who have to speak them. It’s pretty cruel to expect love and grace from people who keep getting looked over and told to keep their opinions to themselves, but that’s where a lot of black Christians are. We want unity, but that can’t happen while white supremacy take precedence in the house of God, and pushes those with power to rally behind individuals that alienate the rest of us.
Remember how I talked about my optimism, circa-2008? I’m glad to say that a good amount of it is still there, especially for the American Church. Maybe it’s because I belong to a fairly progressive house of worship that’s more focused on lovingly pointing people to Jesus instead of aligning with political parties. Or maybe it’s because I see how many in my generation are starting to deconstruct social issues like racism and sexism. I see a silver lining, and that makes me hopeful, but it’s absolutely not something that will make me dance around issues in an effort to make people comfortable. As a black man, my main issue is with white supremacy, but there are so many other grievances that also need to be acknowledged. There are issues that many of you don’t even know exist, and if the results of the election aren’t a sign that it’s time to stop silencing people, then I don’t know what is.