The God Gap

What's missing in my life--and the human rights movement.

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I was raised Baptist and spent more time in church than I thought any normal adolescent should. As soon as I left Atlanta and landed in Washington, D.C., I was determined to take full advantage of my new-found freedom. One of the first choices I made as a freshman at Howard University was choosing not to go to church. Although this would not turn out to be a permanent separation, the infrequency of my church attendance made it feel like I was always a visitor and never a member.

After finishing at Howard, I got wrapped up in the heady days of the Free South Africa Movement. There were daily demonstrations and arrests at the South African Embassy, and economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. I worked at both the Washington Office on Africa and the American Committee on Africa. The faith community was absolutely essential to these organizations and their work. I studied James H. Cones’ Black Theology and Black Power.

I delivered activist Sunday sermons in pulpits no less renowned than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. I snuck into South Africa to attend meetings at the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches and learned invaluable lessons from the likes of Rev. Frank Chikane at his house in Soweto. I was living my life in the midst of a loving ecumenical community that was unwavering in its support for human rights, both at home and abroad.

Now that I have an 8-year-old son and love a man who makes his spiritual practice a priority, I am reassessing my relationship with organized religion. As I move from one who manages to make it to church on at least the Christian high holy days to one who attends church more regularly, I’ve concluded that my Sunday morning yoga classes aren’t enough. While I find immeasurable peace with this weekly ritual, I am at a point where I want to make more explicit the link between the human rights work to which I’ve committed my life and an institutionalized spiritual practice honed by regular church attendance. Simply put, I need more.

Part of this desire has to do with a gap in the human rights movement of which I am a part. Many of the more visible and vocal people with whom I do human rights work view religion with disdain. The tolerance at the root of human rights principles gives way to absolute intolerance for those who choose to take a moment just to bless their food before they eat. Perhaps this is because many of us are concerned about how religion is often used to justify human rights violations.

Maybe it’s because some of us were raised by parents who just weren’t into the church thing. Maybe it stems from the mistaken belief that opposition to all things mainstream and institutionalized is inherently radical. Maybe it’s a function of the rise of the Religious Right and the erroneous belief that all Christians are conservative. Whatever the reasons might be, it’s clear that this attitude marginalizes those of us who are neither agnostics nor atheists, but rather have been drawn to human rights because it jibes with our Christianity – it provides an answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Those of us who have no problem with God have remained silent for much too long in the face of this intolerance of the faithful. The truth is, if the kind of disregard we face from our activist peers was expressed by those with whom we shared no common secular agenda, we would be out on the streets protesting and boycotting. This religious intolerance is not part of the history of the most successful human rights movements in this country.

From abolition to Black Liberation, the church has played an important role in providing not only a spiritual basis for larger movement agendas and objectives, but also an important site for organizing. Without a similar type of religious mooring, this current iteration of the U.S. human rights movement risks being a movement without foot soldiers drawn from the pews of churches regularly attended by many of the most dispossessed.

Today’s movement is one that is increasingly alien to many within black communities. It is a movement disconnected from the grassroots folks the religiously intolerant claim to support as long as their faith remains closeted. It is a movement that is often too arrogant to accept people where they are, without belittling spiritual succor and the concept of church as home.