As a person of faith, I honor and respect a lot of different religious traditions, but I find myself feeling at times uncomfortable at events in Black communities where Christianity (a very specific kind of Christianity) is assumed.
My first encounter with this was when I lived in Central New York and worked for Colgate University
. One of my jobs was to meet with various student groups and to get them connected with the Africana and Latin American Studies Program. They had several different groups geared to serve black students, and as I was barely older than they were, I was very much looking forward to getting to know them. I did end up making some good connections, but at the beginning of every gathering they would pray. I like prayer, I find it very comforting, but the way prayer was utilized in those gatherings did not feel unifying or holy.
These groups were never meant to be exclusive, religiously or otherwise, but rather were created for students to be able to gather together to express their commonalities. After one particularly long winded prayer to Father God, I pulled the president of the club aside to begin a dialogue. His response was that while he appreciated me addressing him directly, for him being Black and Baptist were synonymous. It was made clear that I was welcome to attend the meetings and that he wouldn’t “hold it against me” that I was unchurched. But I didn’t feel very welcome. It made me wonder, not for the first time if I was just a breed of my own…not Christian enough to be Black, too feminist, too Midwestern, too nappy. All the ways I have felt ostracized from other Black people made me wonder if I would ever feel at home in what was supposed to be my community.
I grew up attending the Episcopal Church in a predominantly white community in Middleton, Wisconsin
. The people in my congregation were really friendly and welcoming. They couldn’t sing very well, but I never held that against them. Over time I grew to appreciate the Sunday ritual of communion, liturgy, incense and candles.
But I was that kid that always had questions, like how was Mary a virgin if she was visited by a “Spirit” and then became pregnant. And what about the other Mary? It seemed to me like she and Jesus had a thing going on. Did they ever marry? Did Jesus have kids? I was never trying to be blasphemous, but I had a healthy curiosity and an intellect that led me to believe that not everything I was being taught made sense. The older I got, the deeper my questions became.
Fast forward past college, to my first job out of school, I became a teacher in Japan
. I lived in the middle of nowhere, about 2 hours by train from the nearest Episcopal Church, so I began to visit the Shinto Temple
near my home. By the time I came back to the States, my spirituality had changed. I wasn’t Buddhist, but I didn’t feel fully Christian anymore either and I set about trying to find my way.
Six years ago, I visited the Center for Spiritual Living with a friend. It was kind of an intense experience, but there was something compelling about it. From there I began to learn more about Religious Science (not Scientology) and New Thought. Founded by Ernest Holmes, Religious Science began more as a series of lectures about spirituality than as a church. But now it has become a series of teachings that draws on information from a variety of different religious traditions for the purpose of helping people to find their own personal path to God as it has helped me. I will be the first to admit my church is very woo woo, but it works for me.
I have found many different communities to belong to, some with people who look like me and some not. As a Community Organizer, I find myself traversing the city often to attend meetings for various community allies. Still almost always when at events sponsored by Black owned businesses, someone’s pastor is quick to lead us in an opening prayer. These prayers are always explicitly Christian and patriarchal. With such a large population of East African Muslims in my city I wonder if am the only one to be put off.
Am I the only one who wants to be in Black space and feel like my religious identity is accepted and respected even though it is different from that of the majority? If we have to pray, can’t we pray in different ways? And what about those people who are agnostic or atheist? I spend a great deal of my life building community and spaces of inclusion only to feel excluded in what is supposed to be my own community. Thoughts?
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, YA fiction aficionado, afro-punk, international educator, and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. You can find her most Tuesdays at the Seattle Poetry Slam or maybe just being nerdy at her favorite bookstores.