I’d have to say the most anxiety-laden moment in a Black person’s experience at a predominantly White church is when the person in the pulpit says, “Turn and greet your neighbor and tell them you’re glad they’re here.”
Black person: Will they say hi? Will they look me in the eye? Will they shake my hand? Will they smile at me? Do they see me? Are they hoping I’ll not turn around? Do they know how petrified I am right now? Am I welcome here? Am I safe?
I’ve spent well over 2/3 of my life in White church services and 13 of those were in a mid-size contemporary, “Evangelical,” Southern Baptist-“esque” church in the South. The majority of those years and services were grossly unpleasant. I didn’t realize until I got out and moved to Denver how much anxiety, confusion, depression, and actual trauma I had caked onto my soul. I gave myriad excuses for white church folks’ advertent and inadvertent choices—“Oh surely he just conveniently dropped something on the floor right after he shook everyone else’s hand around me and before he had to shake mine.” Or “Perhaps she has a sore throat and didn’t say hi or smile at me—for the 6th year in a row.” Or “Maybe THIS year they will acknowledge Black History Month..Maybe leadership thought BHM was March and not February..cuz it do be changin’ months every year.” Or “I should have been more forthright when signing up for the get-together at XYZ’s House. I know I signed the paper and they said they’d call all the people to give directions to the house. Now everyone is talking about how fun it was and I’m the only one who will have to lie—again—and say I had a “ton of homework and a test the next day.” Or “I wonder why no one is walking through my door as I stand here as greeter. I even wore my prettiest dress today. Must be too windy and the other door WAS 5 feet closer. No one wants to walk an extra couple meters to enter my door and shake my hand.” And then there’s the countless “those people” comments said from both parishioners and pulpits. How, if at all, can I fit in somewhere where my heritage and melanin is not represented? Do I belong here? Am I wanted here? Am I just tolerated? Where is me in church?
After all, churches and teachings like the one I grew up in and under connected the Great Commission verse found in Matthew 28: 19-20 where it says, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations” to Christopher Columbus and the “missionaries” who decimated entire continents, murdered, enslaved and did their “Christian duty” to bring people to “Christ.” But in actuality, it wasn’t Christ at all, but rather cruel subjugation to racist megalomaniacs and the essence of evil. I could never wrap my head around what I would hear in Sunday School and Vacation Bible Schools as a young one when they said, “England wanted everyone to know about Jesus so they came over in boats to teach people about God.” Seemed so genuine until you found out their teaching tactics included burying Natives in soil, pouring honey down their airways and watching as ants ate them from the inside out. And then offering to baptize and “make disciples” of those who just watched their loved one murdered in such creatively inhumane ways. Or when church teachers would say something like, “We should be encouraged and challenged to live like the founders of America—Great Christians—and risk everything to move to a new foreign soil, work hard to build a land, and create employment and a happy place for everyone to live.” Was that what y’all discussed as you whipped the 3/5ths humans on your happy plantation? Or was that what y’all talked about when people who look like me and my brother were maimed and lit on fire for your viewing pleasure as you enjoyed Sunday afternoon brunch and discussed the preacher’s sermon?
Can we just not?
When I left, I had what I thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to recreate me in a brand new town. I didn’t HAVE to go to church. I would actually be in the majority up here in Denver if I didn’t. But I didn’t want the toxic and racist white church environment to be my last and final stamp on my heart. I didn’t want their “Jesus” to be the Jesus I would tell the world and my future children about. So I gave it One. More. Chance.
Because of my white church experiences growing up, I am not surprised by the undying and blind faith and allegiance of “The Evangelicals” to #45. People ask me all the time if I’m bothered by what I see in my country as a Black person. I’m HELLA bothered and 100% not surprised. I grew up in church circles with a complete absence of anything non-White—done intentionally and unintentionally. I lived, was “friends” with, attended Christian school with, crossed paths at Christian homeschool conventions with, and sat in pews and contemporary church seats with those who had and have no regard for people outside of their circles, cliques, sanctuaries, and periphery of Whiteness.
Several have asked why I didn’t just join a Black church. I have a few brewing ideas, but have not processed this enough to speak on or put my ideas out into the interwebs. Yes, I get fed up and just want and need to be around “me” in church—and I sit in the pews of Black church to rejuvenate my soul and epithelial layers with those sick bass lines and complex drum beats and preaching that only a Black preacher can orate. One big reason is that I want to be a bridge between cultures and ethnicities and I can’t be that if I am surrounded by those who look and think just like me. Also, how will White church folks’ perspective and ideologies be challenged if they never cross paths with melanated church folks? Catch me in about 5 years and I’ll have some more conclusions and a more comprehensive answer for you.
People ask me regularly why I didn’t say anything growing up. Answer: I had no agency, no power, no platform, no voice, and no context for what I saw, felt, heard—and also for what I did NOT see, what I did NOT feel, and what I did NOT hear. I thought I was the crazy one and if I just tried just a little harder, maybe just maybe someone would shake my hand and smile at me during the turn-and-greet. Maybe this Sunday would be the day someone would actually see me. And accept me for me.
Fast-forward to my first Sunday in my sanctuary in Denver. I found my safe place, my church, and people who followed, spoke like, hugged like, listened like, and smiled like the Jesus I read about in the Bible. I had almost given up hope on the church because people that I deeply cared for and knew for YEARS showed and continue to show their vile and acidic views towards the “other”—and the crazy and unfathomable part is I am fully and statistically the “other.” But of course, “You Jenaya are different. We aren’t talking about you when we talk about them. We don’t see color. You’re just like us except you’re Black. You’re like the Black version of us. You’re the Whitest Black person I know!” And one of my personal favorites—“We don’t understand why there aren’t any Black people here in our church. If you brought some of your friends, that would be great.”
Hell no I won’t bring my friends!
I have lost many White “friends” since being vocal about what it’s like to be Black. And I get it. If I were y’all, I wouldn’t want my platform and my entire way of life challenged by an “other” or a “those.” I’d get mad. I’d respond in private messages in all caps demanding apologies from me for being rude and calling out your Whiteness. I would most definitely not try to consider that perhaps there is more than one perspective and PERHAPS there are indeed 2 Americas—the one that you live in and the one I live in. And instead of doing some research and sitting in cognitive and psychological dissonance, I would most definitely crawl back into my safe space and leave you to the wolves of an economic, legal, educational, religious or “Christian,” and social context and system that leaves me and my people damned.
As I close. First, I am 100% not interested in having conversations that start with, “What did I do back then that hurt you?” Dredging up all of the traumas is more damaging for me than it is helpful for the one asking. I can if I really REALLY have to, but I don’t want to. It hurts. A lot. Instead of asking, “Was it me that made you write this?” Keep reading. I have suggestions below for you. Second, I am not writing because #45 is in office and is contributing to my PTSD of being Black in America—although he is and does daily. My thoughts are non-partisan and have nothing to do with reaping hot coals on the mouths of Republicans. I specifically in my writing have not written about party lines because Whiteness supersedes the warring two-party American system. Trump was not in office when that lady hid her purse when I sat down next to her on her pew. Trump wasn’t in office when not a single Black or Brown theologian was referenced in my church where I was a member for over a decade. Nor was Trump in office when White parishioners thought they were really doing something scary and admirable when they went to play basketball with the “others” in the hood and came back after one afternoon “transformed” because they didn’t realize how good they had it and how sorry they felt that “they” didn’t have money. Cool, folks.
Is my church a fully inclusive space where I as a Black person know I am safe? Absolutely not. Yes, it is the most safe predominantly white religious space I’ve been a part of. But 1) I am not all Black people and therefore cannot speak for every Black person’s encounter with every parishioner that doesn’t look like them. And 2) There is no single place that exists on this side of heaven for a black person. It is hard to be black everywhere. But am I in a white space where leadership and regular church folks are willing to ask the hard questions, face their ugly white truths; strategically do the hard work of tearing down hegemonic Whiteness, and dare to be different and an advocate for black and brown folks? Absolutely.
So what now, white church people? I am 100% not interested in reading a plethora of “OMG Jenaya, I had no idea! I’m so sorry you went through that. You seem so sad. Those people sound terrible” comments. That literally helps nobody and does not a damn thing. I have said this time and again publicly and in-person and I’ll say it until I am in my grave.
- If your church is not talking about race and social injustices in this year of our Lord 2018, Shame. On. Them. There is no reason for any faith space to not be talking about how to bridge gaps, fight, weep, and strategize for the have-nots in this world. At this point in time, you are intentionally blinding yourself and those in your congregation if are not dialoguing and coming up with an action plan for how your circle of influence (your church is you’re in leadership. Your neighborhood, family, MOPS group, small group, etc.) is going to change its corner of the world and create safe spaces for Black and Brown folks. No. Reason. Fight me.
- Listen to the “other.”
- Weep with us because our America is vile and has never wanted us—me, brown skin, non-White people—here.
- If your church sounds like what I’ve described, make a loud and obnoxious fuss. Challenge the Whiteness you see in your place of worship.
- Read a book and literature written by people of color about what it’s like to be Black or Brown in America, about Whiteness, about Blackness, about racial tensions to expand and turn your paradigm upside down.
- Take note of your surroundings. Do you see people of color? If so, how have you engaged with us? If not, why not?
- Listen to your words in conversation—are you affirming of everyone?
- Suck up your pride and have honest conversations with POCs and ask the ones you know when (not if) you have hurt them with your being and thinking and implicit or explicit Whiteness.
I have a dimming hope for White people in America in general. And by “White people,” I’m referring to those who intentionally and/or unintentionally align with Whiteness. This ideology is complicit in the literal murdering of bodies melanated like mine. And for the White people who think “If y’all would quit talking about race, this country would be better. Y’all should peacefully protest and be friends with us and happy because you’re in the best country in the world.” You’re wrong. This train of thought is continuing the genocide. A POC can yell and scream and make memes and forward y’all articles and give analogy after analogy and our message will get only so far—maybe a quarter inch or so. It takes the people with institutional power and agency to move and shatter the system. White folks are the only ones who can make significant strides in abolishing institutional racism and Whiteness. Black folks can make a fuss, but we can’t do much. We didn’t create the system.
And if anything, the Christian church should be the place that is leading the change in America, fighting racial injustice, and seeking equity for all. But it’s not. And my question and bafflement is, “If y’all aren’t fighting, seeking, and leading this overhaul of a divisive and crushing system, then what the hell are you doing?”
White People—White Christians—do better. Do more. Make a scene. Flip tables. Stand nose-to-nose with authorities and legislators who create policies that are clearly made for and support Whiteness and shun the have-nots. Use your platform and demand justice within your circle of influence. Jesus did all these things. Be like Jesus.
As always, I am forever willing to walk with you if you are committed to the journey towards becoming a White ally and advocate. Ask me if you need some ideas, more dialogue, or resources. Cuz I have PLENTY.