I have a confession: Apparently, I need Jesus—or so I’ve been told.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?” The grinning eyes of my cab driver inquire through the rearview mirror. I cringe. The gospel music I’d been enjoying a moment before suddenly feels invasive. I’m literally trapped in a conversation I’m never interested in having. So I lie.
“I’m a Buddhist.” For whatever reason, it feels better than saying, “It’s none of your business.”
The funny thing is, I used to have Jesus. All the time, every day. As the daughter of a divorced mother who’d fled fire-and-brimstone Baptist culture for the ritual and restraint of Catholicism, I spent my early years in Sunday Masses and carefully pressed schoolgirl uniforms, educated assiduously by the nuns at St. Thomas the Apostle Elementary on Chicago’s South Side.
I remember the candlelight in the massive church on the evening of my baptism and, more vividly, the dress of shimmering white taffeta that my grandmother made for my First Communion. To this day, a whiff of frankincense conjures memories of genuflecting, kneeling and dipping my fingers into the font of holy water at the entrance of the sanctuary. Mine was a childhood of Palm Sundays, Ash Wednesdays, Good Fridays and Easters that occasionally fell on my birthday, as this one does.
I was secure in the rhetoric and rituals of Catholicism—until my mother announced to a 9-year-old me that she was leaving the faith.
“Will you go to hell?” I whimpered, terrified for her immortal soul. She explained that she’d been studying other philosophies and was opening her mind to the possibility of reincarnation. But though her spiritual path was leading her elsewhere, I was free to chart my own.
Phew. I could remain a Catholic and pray for my mother’s escape from eternal damnation.
But now most Sundays were spent accompanying my mother to the New Thought Christian gatherings and meditation workshops that replaced the sacrament and incessant up-and-down of the Roman Catholic Mass. On others, I’d sit firmly pinned between my grandmother and great-grandmother in the pews at First Baptist Congregational, a sea of bobbing and bedazzled hats between us and the pulpit, listening to sermons and music that were a far cry from the Latin incantations of the priests.
And so it was until years later, when the principal of my elementary school, the formidable Sister Reginalda, asked me—before my entire class—why I hadn’t been attending church. I explained that my mother no longer attended.
“Well, then, you’re no longer a Catholic,” she said decisively.
I remember the shame washing over me. That was it? Just dismissed … from the only religion I’d ever belonged to? What about baptism and Communion? I was only a couple of years away from confirmation. Had I been excommunicated?
But that moment brought a revelation: A faith that accepted me conditionally was not my home.
So at age 11 I began my own spiritual journey, with no set destination except a communion with God, whose love is unconditional. It led me neither into the metaphysical explorations of my mother nor to the black Christian tradition of my grandparents. My faith was firmly rooted in my individualism. Today I’ve yet to commit to a “church home,” having decided that God is everywhere, religion is constricting and worship is a practice best done privately.
I’m not alone. While a 2009 Pew Research poll reported that 8 out 10 black Americans consider religion “very important” in their lives, an informal spirituality poll of my Facebook community revealed a range of belief systems, from born-again to atheist. But the most common was “spiritual, but not religious,” a designation now so clichéd, it’s garnered its own Wikipedia page.
When I asked why most had rejected conventional religion, the answers felt quite familiar:
“I was traumatized by growing up in one of those churches where ‘the Devil’ was around every corner. I wanted something inspiring.”
“I’ve done my time.”
“Catholic school successfully knocked any religion out of me with vigor. I find most religions to be poisonous.”
“It’s my experience that Black churchgoers are some of the most judgmental, preachy and hypocritical people I’ve ever encountered in my life.”
“The only thing the same at every church is TITHE.”
“I’ve seen the ugliest things done to people under the guise of religion. I’ve felt closer to God on a yoga mat.”
For those who have chosen nondenominational paths to God, there is often an innate distrust of organized religion and, accordingly, of those who subscribe to it. So when a theologian friend recently invited me to a gathering at an estate on Lake Michigan’s South Shore (just remote enough so no one could hear me scream), I was admittedly hesitant.
But I went, I saw and I listened. I even sang and danced as the evening evolved into a typical black house party (albeit with the occasional gospel sing-along). And as the lone secularist in a room full of religious academics, I felt strangely at home. Far from the judgment, conditions, homophobia and patriarchy I’d long associated with religion—and, most disappointingly, the black church—I found myself surrounded by a new wave of theologians: predominantly female, and all invested in evolving the narrative of black Christianity for this generation and those to come.
I asked them: Has the black church fallen out of step with societal needs, unlike generations past, which worked in tandem with the civil rights movements of the time?
For the Rev. Dr. AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor of African-American studies and women’s gender and sexuality studies at Penn State, the answer to any spiritual salvation is inextricably linked to the fight for liberation as a whole: “In liberated and liberating churches (which are unfortunately not the majority even among traditional black churches), there is a theology and ethic that supports ‘helping folks get and stay free’ at its most basic level. … But I am not of the belief that any marginalized group needs to take on the work of those who have made the choices to benefit from the injustices that have gotten us to this point of moral depravity.”
“I totally understand why people leave the church,” said Candace Laughinghouse, a doctoral student in theology and ethics at Chicago Theological Seminary. “I have experienced a lot of hopeless situations of betrayal and spiritual abuse by ministries that want to exploit your gifts until you are unable to give anymore. … For those that have experienced this and worse, I would encourage them to find a community that loves them to healthier self. In fact, we can use the experience as a voice for those who feel too intimidated to speak out against the same abuse.”
As one who deeply values evidence and logic, I wondered how they felt about the Bible as the literal word of God.
The Rev. Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw, a professor of religion, was definitive: “I rarely interpret the Bible literally because I approach the text as a product of a particular social context written with particular ideological goals. As a believer, I am able to balance what I KNOW about the Bible with what I FEEEL about the Bible. … The church can offer a space of belonging and safe exploration for those not looking to be ‘saved.’”
Is that still true in the era of Donald Trump? Does the church still offer a space of belonging? “If evangelical support of 45 changed the perception of Christians in general, it casts a negative light on this group,” Russaw responded. “The overwhelmingly evangelical support for 45 affirmed what many of us who traffic in religious spaces already knew: People leverage the biblical text in ways that are not always life-giving for people in groups that are considered ‘other.’”
As a self-identified “other”—even in this conversation—I was prompted to consider what I missed about my childhood faith and what I may have missed out on in years since. I still love cathedrals and the smell of frankincense, but will I find myself in a church this Easter Sunday? No. But alongside my birthday, I will celebrate the rebirth of my respect for the church.
Most important, I was grateful for this conversation with new friends about reworking the old belief systems that have compelled so many to look outside of the church for God.
In her inaugural and much-lauded novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison wrote, “Love is never any better than the lover.” Those words inspired an analogy from one of my online acquaintances, a self-proclaimed “proud Jew”:
“I guess religion is never any better than the person practicing it.”