If you go to a large gathering of Black folks, say a funeral or a graduation, more often than not there will be an acknowledgment of Jesus Christ through prayer and song. Next time you’re at one of these events, sneak a peek around the room during that time. You’ll likely see a couple of folks shifting around awkwardly. Heads bowed in respect, but visibly out of their element and anxiously awaiting the return of the ceremony to a more neutral territory. Chances are those folks are non-Christians: very awkward and sometimes lonely club of those who for whatever reason don’t belong to the approximately 85% of African Americans who belong to a faith that claims Jesus as lord and savior.
As a lifetime member of this subset of Black America, I have a complicated relationship with the Black church. For starters, I think it would be incredibly unwise for any Black person to deny the debt of gratitude our community owes to the church for the work it has done for our people. From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, our Christian houses of worship and their members have done a great deal to fight for our rights and provide needed services ( childcare, homeless shelters, rehab facilities, etc.) to our people. I first visited my now alma mater on a college tour organized by Trinity Universal Church of Christ, led by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Growing up in Chicago, I always admired him along with a handful of other preachers for being outspoken advocates of the needs of Black Chicagoans.
The impact of our churches on Black culture (or perhaps I should say, the influence of our culture on the church) is a great one and I am not immune to that either. I’ve certainly hollered out “Amen” and “Lawd!” or felt the need to “testify”. Though I’m not a subscriber to the main idea, as someone who is interested in who we are culturally and creatively, I see a lot of the beauty of Blackness in the church and I can appreciate that. The church has given many of us the opportunity to shine creatively though song and dance and though I don’t particularly like Gospel music, I am well aware that without it, a lot of my favorite singers would have never honed their craft.
I won’t get all the way into my reasons for not accepting Christianity, because I don’t think they have much relevance here. However, I will say that the proselytizing I get from Christians has been more of a deterrent than any sort of incentive to reconsider my beliefs. I don’t always feel that I’m given the same space to embrace my views that some of Christ’s followers demand for themselves. I’d never think to say to a Christian “You know, you should really consider quitting the church and trying to see the world my way…” and I’d like to be shown the same respect.
What’s worse is that people tend to assume I’m Christian for no other reason I can think of other than because most Black folks are. I’m totally okay with being asked “Are you religious?” or “What is your religious background?”, but do you know how awkward it is to explain that you aren’t a Christian when someone asks “Do you have a church home?” Oftentimes, the next question is “Are you a Muslim?” which seems to be a respectable excuse to some folks and a barely passable one for others.
There is a loneliness that sometimes accompanies being outside the religious majority. As a Black Nationalist and feminist, I’m certainly used to having feelings that are left of center. But even folks who dig my politics have been known to serve the serious side-eye when they find out that I don’t worship Jesus. In White publications, I see articles asking ‘could you date someone of a different religion’, but with us, it’s questions over dating non-Christians or Christians who don’t attend church regularly. I also deeply resent being referred to as a ‘non-believer’, as if the only ‘belief’ that counts is in the Holy Trinity.
When an old episode of Aaron McGruders’ The Boondocks lampooned Tyler Perry, I couldn’t help but to wonder about the cartoonist’s religious background. I couldn’t find any substantial information online, but between the way he fried Perry’s “relationship” with Jesus and some of the more subtle jabs he took at the Black church in his comic strip back in the day, I get the impression that he’s like me. With the way his Perry-esque “Winston Jerome” character and his followers used Jesus as an excuse for some seriously questionable behavior, McGruder managed to capture how…forgive me for not finding a gentler word…ridiculous some of our Christian folks can look to those of us outside the religion (and probably to a lot of people inside as well).
While I realize that the Black church is not monolithic nor are it’s followers, there are certain recurrent themes that have emerged from that group that I take issue with (including the lack of acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage and pushback against keeping abortion legal). It also drives me insane when people refer to the Bible during debates about things that effect the lives of people outside of Christianity. I realize that Black folks and Christians are not hardly the only groups of people to behave in this way, but they are the only ones with whom I have had this experience.
I’m grateful for many of the things Christianity has done for our community; others leave me shaking my head. And while I am glad to know that so many of my people find happiness and peace through this religion, I simply wish that other people’s faith had less bearing on my own life and that I wasn’t presumed to be a member of that faith just because a lot of other folks are. Unfortunately, the ‘separation between church and state’ mandate of the Constitution doesn’t get much run in the Black community.