Why I Left the Black Church 18 Years Ago & Why Returning Was Imperative
Two years ago, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 the “Year of Return.” Akufo-Addo welcomed African-Diasporans back to the motherland for self-discovery and renewal while being presented with economic opportunities to invest in Ghana, including options for dual citizenship. The Ghanaian president’s “Year of Return” coincided with the 400th anniversary of when the Transatlantic Slave Trade shipped our African ancestors to the United States for an unconscionable life of race-based chattel slavery.
Meanwhile, in an effort to spur a national collective awareness of our African forefathers’ origins in the U.S., Nikole Hannah-Jones published the highly-acclaimed, New York Times 1619 Project commemorating our arrival to America and its modern-day vestiges. After listening to Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project podcast episodes some time ago, and thinking about the fact that August is the commemorative month, ironically, I was shook.
Here’s why: August 2019 would not only mark the timely release of Hannah-Jones’ award-winning tribute to the legacy of chattel slavery, or President Akufo-Addo’s inaugural “Year of Return” campaign, but it would also coincide with my year of return to the Black church.
Exodus to the Multi-cultural Church
I grew up in the Church of God in Christ where excellent youth leaders taught me scripture, discipled me, and cultivated my love of singing in gospel choirs. But after earning my bachelor’s degree, I started attending a Black Baptist church alongside my newly-wedded husband. Unfortunately, that experience was short-lived after the pastor silenced a Black woman during a church-wide business meeting and commanded her to sit down. It was classic misogynoir and something collapsed in my soul that day. We left that church immediately and that event marked our prolonged departure from the Black church for the next 18 years.
After leaving that church in 2003, we immersed ourselves in what became the densely populated multi-ethnic, color-blind, word of faith, charismatic church context, at the height of the prosperity gospel wave.
At the time, we held tightly to attending churches that “looked more like Heaven” where the only color that mattered was red: signifying the blood of Jesus and its power to automatically forge an equal spiritual footing among people groups, and instantly neutralize racial disunity.
In hindsight, I implicitly believed that the White-led, multi-cultural church context was more pleasing in God’s sight serving as the clearest solution capable of achieving racial reconciliation. But over time, I began to witness a condescending attitude toward racially-homogeneous churches for being the reason why Sunday morning was the most racially segregated day of the week without qualifying the circumstances that historically led to monocultural churches, particularly for the Black church.
It became common to hear church leaders say things like, “I don’t want an all-White church or an all-Black church” which annoyed me because White pastors would never acknowledge the impact racism had on the formation of Black churches, showing a gross lack of racial awareness.
The Age of Mike Brown and Donald Trump
In 2013, my family relocated from a culturally diverse metropolitan city in the South to a majority White Midwestern city. We were insistent on finding a church similar to the one we left behind. Our mission was accomplished as the church met the following criteria that we were accustomed to: front-line worship band, children’s church, welcoming people, a pastor with more of a teaching-style of preaching, and solid attendance by other people of color.
For the last 6 years, we gave of our time, talent, and treasures to a White-led, multi-racial church in the Age of Mike Brown and Donald Trump.
In this worship setting, Black and Brown believers were hyper-visible on the worship team, but we were also active in prayer ministry, youth services, discipleship, and benevolence. At a minimum, the lead pastoral leadership appeared sincere in their efforts towards acknowledging racial unrest and a host of other racial injustices. The lead pastor occasionally would dignify the disproportionate numbers of Black lives murdered by police officers from his platform. As an inclusive gesture, African-American and Latinx vernacular and sentiments were appropriated as viable marketing strategies within the church culture. The church mastered inclusion “softball,” but somehow when the rubber met the road and the opportunity came to help peacefully resolve a racially-insensitive incident head-on, the lead pastoral leadership completely unraveled at the helm of cultural competence and racial reconciliation.
As a care pastor in the church, a Black woman expressed to me that she did not feel comfortable attending church and would not be in attendance that Sunday. She explained to me that a White church member posted a certain video on social media.
The video featured Keith and Kevin Hodge, also known as The Hodge Twins. In the video, the Hodge Twins are speaking in a minstrelsy-style voice to mock Black people appealing for reparations for slavery among other condescending rhetoric and jesting. The lead pastor called a meeting to address the incident. He invited several Black women who were negatively impacted by the video (and by the comments of other church members defending the woman’s post and her supposed intentions).
The lead pastor was on-track by listening to the group of Black women upset about this racially-insensitive incident and the white woman’s half-baked apology and “dirty delete” of the whole post after “suddenly” realizing the vulgarity of the video. Naturally, before leaving that gathering of Black women, we spoke with one mind expecting a follow-up meeting after the offending church member’s actions were addressed by leadership. A month went by and we heard nothing. I decided to approach the pastor for a follow-up meeting because we felt ignored. That meeting commenced with a deflating update by the pastor riddled with white comfort and appeasement. There was no plan to help bring the offending church member to the table to talk and address the racialized incident.
During the follow-up meeting, I asked the pastor about his vision towards improving race relations in the church. instead of answering my question, the pastor verbally accosted me telling me I had no influence as far as he was concerned. I would soon learn that the pastor harbored negative feelings about how I approached him for the follow-up meeting, among other things.
Year of Return to the Black Church
I was left disoriented and unable to contribute further to the discussion about improving race relations in his church. I became socially withdrawn in disbelief of the pastor’s harsh behavior towards me, uncharacteristic of anyone’s expectations of a spiritual leader actively working towards racial unity. From that point, I let my silent tears speak for the rest of the meeting to make space for the other Black women to voice their concerns. These series of events, including my family being told a week later that the lead pastor thought it was best that we find another church, set the stage for our return back to the Black church – definitively.
If I’m brutally honest, my whole being wanted to stop going to church altogether – indefinitely. I did not want to be bothered with the church routine in the emotional and mental state I was in: disoriented, angry, regretful, ashamed and offended that my Black family, in a city with a Black population of 4 percent, was pushed out of a White church with no repentance, repair, or accountability from the lead pastor. But, not attending church was an elusive option for me because I am a part of a family unit.
How would my husband manage the weekly discomfort of his wife’s absence while visiting other churches? How do we make our daughter understand why mommy is socially withdrawn on Sundays? So initially, I forced myself to visit other churches with my family to avoid falling away from our routine of church attendance, but it caused significant distress than healing. My soul could not stomach more of the same cookie-cutter types of church experiences.
At the same time, I alienated myself all those years ago from the Black church to attend churches that “looked more like heaven” and that were more resourced. So here I was ousted, estranged, and displaced from church at a moment in African-American history where we should be celebrating how far the United States has progressed since the first African slaves were brought to this country in 1619.
It took time, observation, courage, and humility, but we made it back to a predominately Black church. We arrived depleted, but not empty-handed. Our current church home is where we need to be in this current political and spiritual climate where leadership and the majority of the members, by virtue of shared experiences, understand the historical and contemporary impact of racial injustice while holding firm to the profession of our faith.
We are building new relationships and reimagining new areas of ministry where we would like to serve to build the Kingdom of God. But most of all, we feel spiritual safety. We returned bearing 18 years’ worth of giftings, talents, wisdom, and tools to help strengthen our new church family, even as we’re experiencing inner healing from our previous church experience. We rest in the blessing of God gracing us with an inevitable return to the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of the Black church – our year of return.