Reclaiming My Dignity

Alexis Smith

Dignity. I remember the first time that I encountered the concept of retaining, maintaining, and protecting my dignity in majority culture (read: white Evangelical) churches. It was either during a Pass the Mic or Truth’s Table podcast. I felt this new idea on a level so deep that it scared me. I knew that even considering these ideas would be disruptive and that it would start to reveal exactly why I had felt uncomfortable in church for the past decade. I just wasn’t ready for that. 

My discomfort motivated me to start making an honest evaluation of my current church and the organizations and ministries in which I had spent the last ten years. Although I wasn’t ready to grapple with the implications that these spaces had regarding my sense of dignity, my discomfort with this concept signaled that something was amiss. Something didn’t feel right, but I still wouldn’t even consider leaving my church. 

I grew up in a family that didn’t “church hop”—no matter how much drama erupted, we stayed. As such, the concept of “leaving loud” was contrary to my understanding of what it meant to be part of a church family. The idea of leaving also scared me because I knew that if I sat with the truth, I would have to leave. I couldn’t stay. Not at the expense of my dignity. 

So I cut my feelings off. 

I didn’t want to be divisive. 

I was committed to a multiethnic church. 

And they love me, right? If they can see my dignity, certainly they can also see the dignity of people who look like me…right

I thought that if I stayed and spoke my truth and shared my work, they would see my dignity and see the dignity and value of my community. 

Yet, I found myself feeling pause. During prayers, sermons, and conversations, some things gave me pause. The books that I saw on certain people’s bookshelves gave me pause. 

But I pushed my feelings aside and tried to soothe my disquiet. 

They love me so they wouldn’t support things that are harmful to me, right? Their silence can’t be complicity…right

Then came the Summer of 2020. 

Covid-19 and the repeated assault on Black bodies in the street at the hands of white nationalists and the state showed me the answer to those questions. I knew that I had to make a move. I could no longer compartmentalize my feelings and my convictions. Loving me did not preclude my white church family from upholding rhetoric, policies, and people that wouldn’t hesitate to see my Black life destroyed.

Their carefully worded statements and hollow calls for repentance, healing, and unity began to grate on me. Their calls were never full-throated and always came with a caveat. I saw otherwise intelligent people refuse to recognize nuance and complexity. I witnessed people fall into the bottomless pit of conspiracy theories. 

I could no longer sit and suffer in silence. I could no longer continue to sit with white nationalists masquerading as radical revivalists. At one time, I believed that their version of revival included justice, tearing down oppressive systems, and rebuilding a redemptive future. But I learned that our understandings of oppressive systems and a redemptive future were vastly different. I realized that I could not sit with them and maintain my dignity. My conscience wouldn’t allow it. This wasn’t a “chew the meat and spit out the bones” situation. Counterfeits had been exposed. 

I also felt a sense of regret. Regret for staying after the first Sunday when no one acknowledged the tragedies at the border. Regret for staying after the first time a Black person was brutalized on camera, and no one asked if I was okay. Regret for staying when they presented a whitewashed version of history that ignored the history of oppression and genocide at the foundation of our country.

My time and energy could no longer be theirs. My commitment to that local church and a multiethnic body could not and would not come at the expense of my dignity. My dignity would not become another casualty of white Christian nationalism. It was time for me to reclaim my dignity. And so I left. 

On the other side of leaving, my hope remains in Christ. I know that he has great plans for his Church. I also know that the years spent in my former church were not wasted. Although I experienced tremendous loss, I gained dear friends who love the Lord and care about justice. My friends give me hope that one day, others might be swayed.