I separated myself from you in late 2012. Until this summer, I had not stepped foot in my home church since November of 2013. I jokingly state that I anticipated catching fire upon entry, but thankfully I departed uncharred. When I last spent time in church in 2013, it was for a funeral. If you were to ask me when the last time I attended a service was, that answer is “sometime in 2012.” Fast forward seven or eight years, I went to gather history and memories to consolidate for posterity. While I am no longer a part of you, you still hold a special place in my past, and the depth of your history deserves to be acknowledged.
The root of my decision to leave you was that I saw you as an obligation. I had to attend because my mother had to attend, because my grandfather had to attend, because his mother had to attend, because my great great-grandfather was one of the creators of our home church once it grew into more than just a shed in someone’s backyard. Unlike other family members that were “allowed” not to attend, or peel away without hearty conversation, my decision was met with furrowed eyebrows. In the winter of 2012 I finally gathered enough resolve to state that I no longer wished to be tied to Christianity; while the root of that decision was obligation and lack of interest, my exposure to other religions and your behavior over the years, has helped me peel back the layers as to why I hadn’t developed a connection.
As far as documents and memories show, Methodism has been a part of my family’s life for at least a century. As I have spent time this summer documenting the Black history of my home neighborhood – a place where nearly a dozen Black families have called home since just after emancipation – not one elder has been able to say why we are Christian. However, they did note that though we gained some things with the change from an African Methodist Episcopal church to the [white] United Methodist Church, it was not without loss. Networks of clergy have formed conferences and parishes happily spent time expounding upon the perks of joining but were reticent in detailing the loss of ownership of buildings, buildings that were built with salvaged and crowdfunded materials by the bare hands of the stewards and congregants.
The now revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that there is racial segregation in Christianity. It is worth noting he described a specific time on Sunday morning as, “the most segregated hour.” It appears it is lost on some that there has always been segregation in the American Christian church. A practice that began as an imposition, a way to “civilize,” colonize, and instill fear, was revolutionized into a place to channel hope for freedom, shelter for legal and community business, and a tool for survival.
You are not for me what you once were for my ancestors. And while I felt obligated to you, it has become increasingly apparent that you do not feel an obligation to me.
I know that I am not alone in my experience, and of having the opinion that the room to question and challenge church leadership is abysmal in churches. It could be argued that questioning the Reverend’s interpretation and approach to a scripture used for the sermon is seen as an affront, rather than someone looking to deepen their understanding of the Word. Given the variety of versions of the Bible, I would think the request for discussion and analysis would be welcomed, as it indicates personal investment and opens the door for the leader to apply what they learned in seminary to good use. My first and secondhand experiences at multiple churches have shown me otherwise. They have shown me that one should not dare question the acumen of a minister. One should not inquire as to how their life either kept them to become a vessel of His teachings. While I understand that the acquisition of the degree(s) and title commands reverence, my perception is that it required my view of religion to be narrow. I could not accept such a requirement if I am expected to cultivate a genuine relationship with the God of my understanding, so my relationship has been nurtured outside of Christianity.
The closest I have felt to being understood was in watching the series Messiah last year on Netflix. Knowing that there are dozens of people out there in the world willing to create social commentary that challenges people to think critically about the portrayal of Prophets, and how Christians and the “Christian nation” that is the United States would act when faced with their return, had me completely engrossed. The maintenance of a false image of Jesus, marginalizing structures, and predatory fiscal practices based in colonial business structures does not leave room for people like me to consider returning. The overall lack of acknowledgement of contradiction in translations of the Holy Bible, paralleled with the other two major monotheistic religions and the lack of investment in non-religious efforts that will reduce the gap in [my] quality of life does not show me that the clergy and patrons are invested in repairing past and present harms of the Church.
This lack of investment and concern is not new. As Black communities worked to build their own places of worship and the size of the congregation grew faster than they could build, their white brothers and sisters in Christ did not open their doors for their weekly programs or offer them (gratis) space to fellowship in the name of the Lord – instead, they charged them unnecessarily exorbitant prices to rent space that was otherwise unused. Instead of hastening integration and loving their neighbors as themselves, they opted for Plantation Jesus.
While they did that, some African Americans walked a parallel journey. Diving deeper into a religion, a structure, a business, that thwarts the appeal of diving into the spiritual practices from which we have been disconnected. We’ve upheld what we have acquired over generations as if only Christianity offers the truths we should know. As if the history of seeing the church as a home, starts only with the decision to create that communal entity. As if there wasn’t a belief system for our individual ancestors to place their hope and faith, before Christianity.
With the path both communities have chosen, neither should be dismissing the chance to be part of mending the unequal weights and false scales (Proverbs 20:10, 23). Grace, mercy, and the thirst for justice should be on “full display” from the Church as it navigates moving toward the society it preaches God wants for all His children. Jamar Tisby talks about the racial past and present of Christianity in his book, The Color of Compromise. Within and outside of religion, Black people have been compromising for centuries. The time for Christianity to do so has come, gone, and returned. I’m hesitant to say that compromise is what we should be aiming for, but I do know that we should work toward something together.
Reparations and the restructuring of systems looks different depending on the type of community (urban, rural, suburban, etc.), the ethnicities (Indigenous, Black, Asian, white, etc.) wherein the people reside. Equity gives people what they were denied, what they need, and is only a cousin of equality. My organization, Reparations4Slavery.com, examines how individuals and local communities can engage in meaningful repair. The Church is the steward of millions in America and needs to step into the space of advocating financially for the poorest and marginalized individuals in our capitalistic society. The Church must step into its calling for those who still call it home. We’re all on a journey, but we should also all be open to focusing on our ability to fully connect with one another and repair the damaging legacies of decisions that continue to cause harm every passing day.
Briayna Cuffie is a Strategist, Civil Servant, and Advocate. She is a proud Annapolitan (Maryland) and stands on the shoulders of the multiple generations of elders that shaped her decision to work at the intersection of race and politics. Briayna is an avid reader and podcast listener, student of Indigenous histories, and works with her business partner to expand the conversation around reparations. But most importantly, Briayna is a reconciler.