I write to you not as a theologian but as a parishioner, a follower, and a friend. I acknowledge that while the “church” is made up of each of us; it is also the institution to which I address today. We, the body of Christ, are called to such a time as this. Unrest, pandemic, joblessness, and hopelessness are at our doors. What do we do? Do we bury our heads in the sand? Ignore the movement in the streets, sheltered in place behind stained glass windows? Surely not, our call our responsibility is to see. To act. And to respond.
There is only one thing by which Jesus said the world would identify his disciples. Is it our voting stance? Our picket signs? Or indignation to low morals? No, you need not read far in the Scriptures to see it is love. Jesus said it is by our love that the world will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). We are to love as He loved. Now let’s get real, Church. Are you – hold – are we willing to sacrifice for one another (John 15:13)? Are we willing to ask tough questions, hear hard truths, and then adjust?
What does it even mean to love the way Jesus loved? I ask this question personally. As a black woman, what does it mean to be loved by God? For me, it means God sees me—as He created me. God saw Hagar who had a child but no hope; Jesus saw and spoke to the Samarian woman at the well; God allowed Rahab, a prostitute, and Ruth, a Moabite, to be included in the lineage of Jesus, the Messiah; an angel came to Mary and said, “Blessed are you; God has seen you” (paraphrased). While the God Who Sees sees everyone, for a Black woman, who is hardly ever seen by society, it is life-giving.
Black women hold a constant duality. We must be women—and Black—giving allegiance to both, but oftentimes are not equally accepted or welcomed by either group. I became keenly aware of my sex before I was aware of the value of my race. In her poignant speech “Ain’t I A Woman?,” Sojourner Truth timelessly explained the intersectionality of how black women are not often seen as women. Born as an enslaved woman, Black women in her time were forced to work hard all while enduring the pain of separation from their families, children. She said:
“I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” She juxtaposes this with the experience of white women. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
In an interview with The Atlantic, Monique Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, said:
Black women and girls must often navigate through a landscape that reinforces multidimensional stereotypes and debilitating narratives that negatively impact how black femininity is understood. Implicit racial and gender biases may also inform how we read the behaviors and actions of black girls and women, and how all of this comes together to guide whether black girls are safe in their communities and whether they have access to quality employment, food, housing, and education.
The Gospel states that we are made in the image of God. For a Black girl, I don’t know if there are sweeter words. We are often told we are made in all the wrong images; too fat, too slim, too dark, hair too nappy, hips and nose too wide. But to hear, “You are welcome; you are dearly loved; you are seen; you are valued” is incredible.
For this reason, the concept of a loving God that cares so much for us He gives up His life is attractive. To redeem the world and people He loves, God is willing to pay immeasurable costs. He pursues justice but has mercy. He is full of compassion and slow to anger. He aims to set the world right without famine or disease. Above all, this He is a God Who Sees. In Genesis 16, Hagar, desperate and alone, described God as El Roi, the God Who Sees Me. What if in our time of swipe left, social isolation, high anxiety and suicide rates, there was a God who sees—me? And you?
In the movie “The Color Purple,” Celie (played by Whoopie Goldberg) has a long and arduous life where she is abused as a girl, abused as a woman and seemingly forgotten by God. Celie goes through much of the movie unloved and unwanted.
In one memorable quote, Mister (Celie’s husband and rapist) says to her:
“Who do you think you is? …Look at you. You’re Black, you’re poor, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all.”
“I’m poor, Black, I might even be ugly. But I’m here. Dear God I’m here.”
Throughout the movie, Celie begins narrations with “Dear God…” But she never asks for anything. She never prays in a traditional sense. In fact, she talks to God as if He is a silent pen pal in a far-off country that neither cares to nor can help in her situation. “God” is tantamount to writing “Dear Diary.”
Black people’s experiences in white churches can be similar. By refusing to see Black people as people in the white evangelical church and by refusing to acknowledge their own whiteness, many Black congregants can have an experience like Celie; feeling unseen and alone.
How do we as the Church see and truly love one another? We start by acknowledging where we are. Repent, now, from how far we have fallen and turn back to Him by doing what is right by our neighbor.
We must acknowledge that we have been more stewards of lives. In 2018, I visited the slave castle in Ghana. The place is haunted. The ocean crests at its walls, fishermen still line its shores, and everywhere is the vestiges of hundreds of years of pain. There are deep bunkers below the earth where there are just slivers of light. The women slave quarters were closer to the living quarters so they were easily accessible for pleasure. There is a sign that reads: “The Door of No Return.” It is here the enslaved people that crossed this threshold never came back. Atop this structure, there is a church. So while the enslaved people were being raped, beaten, and shackled together, the churchgoing slave owners sang of salvation in the Great By and By. Their steeple looking over the ocean and seas, looking literally right over the bodies that made their privilege possible.
Moses has this similar kind of opportunity. The Bible is silent on Moses’ early life and so I will take only a brief bit of imaginative license. But the Hebrew people were enslaved. He would have seen this. They were forced to endure the work of building an empire. He would have seen this. There is no evidence anywhere that Moses had to work alongside the Hebrew slaves. All indications are that he was raised in the luxury of Pharaoh’s daughter’s home. He would not have known hunger, homelessness, or prolonged discomfort. There is also no indication that Moses (but for his own action) had to leave this life. He could have contented in his heart to love the Lord, pray for those suffering, and live his good, Egyptian, dream life. He could have looked out (like the slave owners in Ghana singing hymns) seeing an empire but never the bodies that made it possible.
Now, think about your church, your ministry. Are there bodies that made it possible that you are ignoring? Did your beautiful new sanctuary come at the cost of class and racial gentrification? Do you see the people you serve? They are not your charity. They are your brothers and sisters. In Acts, the people of The Way would share everything. They brought it all so no one was hungry and no one was unseen. Is this your church community?
Hear me clearly on this, this letter is not a guilt trip, it is a wake-up call. The Holy Spirit is alive and well. He can lead you at all truth. I implore you there is work to do. There are people to see and love. Get busy doing it and put your offenses aside. If the Church gets this moment in time wrong, we will lose all relevance and credibility. Today, the Church is the last place many people look for morality or a sign post of rightness or wrongness. It is simply seen as a tool of oppression.
We can change this. MLK is noted as saying, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Our beloved community, and our beloved country, needs us. Our voices are needed to say, “Black, brown sisters, you are made in the image of God. We see you. We love you. We will work with you to ensure your life matters to everyone. And we are with you. We are one.” This is how we usher in the multitude that John saw. The great multitude of ALL races together crying, “Holy.”
The place of my biggest wound is where God saw me and met me. To be seen but not seen at all. The God Who Sees… saw. me. Will we choose to see those around us? And if the answer is yes, how will we choose to see those around us? How will we act? How will we respond?
Althea Holford is a member of the National Community Church. Holford is a graduate of GW Law School. She has an unyielding commitment to improving educational opportunities for students. She currently lives in Washington D.C. and most importantly, is a reconciler.