Note: when I use Church with a capital C, I mean all Christian folks er’where, similar to the Muslim concept of umma (community).
The La Salette shrine in Attleboro, MA.
My upbringing was conventionally Christian in many ways. Church every week, vacation Bible school and Christian camp in the summertime, being subjected to the Left Behind series…yeah, the whole nine. I taught Sunday school for several years and got involved in campus ministry in college, and even now, I read books on Christian theology and secretly love Hillsong.
All of this is to say I have been socialized such that I know how to operate in evangelical spaces. And I can do so without people knowing, necessarily, that I have lots of problems with the Church. Like, serious problems: theological, ideological, and historical problems.
For me right now, the most glaring of these is that most white evangelicals don’t understand that their understanding of what it means to be Christian is decidedly modern and Western; that contemporary Christian identity only congealed in the last few centuries. And when I show up in evangelical spaces, by and large, people don’t understand that Blackness and Indigeneity are not new. Now, I am a New World phenomenon; but on both sides of my lineage, I come from ancient, pre-Christian people. People against whom the West continually weaponizes the faith. What’s worse, most white Christians aren’t even aware that the West co-opted Christianity and codified the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth—a poor Jewish mystic crucified by the power structures of His day—into narrow, exclusivist, and oppressive religious doctrine.
Like I said: serious problems.
The worst of it is that I actually really dig Jesus. Ugh! If only Christians listened to what He had to say about enlightenment, radical love, humility, and service! If only I could be a Christian and not feel like a traitor to my ancestors who suffer at the hands of white Christians and their kkklancestors! I mean, really: is it possible that I pray to the same God as Roger Williams did? And did he pray to that God as he captured and sold my people into slavery?
The short answer is that the work of Christianizing Europeans the world over is blasphemy of the highest order, a horrific perversion of Jesus’ ministry. But by and large Christians don’t know the history of the Church’s complicity in all manners of wonderfulness such as colonialism—much less that Jesus would flip many tables if he were to see some of the hot messery in the Church today.
Many Christians in America are just beginning to grapple with these difficult histories. This sounds good in theory, but in praxis the conversation tends to be as reactionary as it is remedial. Such work around race tend to be ahistorical and couched in feel-good, fandom Jesus colorblindness. To claim that the Creator doesn’t see color and loves everyone (but hates queer people??) is a decidedly American cop-out entangled in a web of nasty ironies—namely, that the construct of race is the default modality in this country. To add insult to injury, after engaging in half-baked conversations about race, Christians usually go right back to espousing ideologies straight out of the Dark Ages. And we wonder why so many marginalized groups want no parts of Christianity.
When I am in evangelical spaces and the topic of race comes up, I’m mindful to not take on the emotional labor of white folks. People of color did not create race. And every time white folks profile us, marginalize us, and kill us with no consequences, they make it about race. I do know for sure there are several tenets of Western Christianity that I just can’t get down with: patriarchy, the demonization of queer folks and people of other faith traditions, mission work in the 10-40 window as a vestige of colonialism.
So what does it mean for me, unequivocally Black, unequivocally Indian, to show up to church on Sunday morning? What does it mean for me to navigate evangelical spaces that normalize cishetero whiteness while othering everybody else? I’m still sorting that out. But I do know that I will not forfeit my cultural identity in order to be read as a good Christian by white folks.
Ultimately, none of this is easy, and I’m very blessed to be part of a supportive church community where I can wrestle with these questions; and in so doing, I realize there are no neat answers, at least not on this side of glory. I may well not be able to reconcile all of my issues with the Church as an institution. I may always feel caught in this nexus of history, assimilation, and colonialism. But it is precisely in that tension that I encounter grace. The Lord is working it out and making a way. I’m reading Richard Twiss. I pray the Lord’s Prayer in Natick after I smudge. Am I a cooning NDN, a heretic, the type of acculturated Black hoteps in Harlem rail against? Probably not. Just a Providence kid full of nashāuonk (Spirit) trying to find space for herself. Axé.