Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.

1.

When the mothers of the church got to casting out demons, they’d set their massive weathered bibles in our tiny laps and tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” And we wouldn’t. We’d clutch those King Jameses in our trembling hands and we’d wait out the after-service exorcisms.

We were children of parents who spoke in other tongues, danced themselves to ecstasy, prayed themselves apoplectic. The adults addressed the devil directly sometimes, told him he couldn’t steal their joy, demanded back the years he had stolen, the relationships he’d severed, the health he’d destroyed.

They told us we were waging a war unseen. We’d best be prayed up and gird ourselves against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in high places, miscellaneous, but terrifying minions from hell.

We believed them.

2.

I talked to a friend from that childhood church a few years ago, one whose parents, like mine, were on leadership staff there. That one of mutual friends had died suddenly, young and wed and parenting, still zealous about his own faith, was the reason we’d gotten in touch at all. We were trying to make sense of it.

I was thinking of how late we would stay after service as kids, waiting for our parents in the semi-darkened sanctuary, security volunteers posted, yawning, at the entrance and exit doors, all but the most fervent among them, longing to head on home.

“Do you ever think about how we were raised, how different it was?”

I was asking as if gazing back at something we’d survived. I was asking as a woman who considers herself logical and rational now, but who also still hopes for heaven and shivers at the thought of hell.

I wondered if he remembered the bibles in our laps, the prayer warriors and their wrinkled hands, all those conversations about demons conspiring to lure us away from our Lord.

He was calm when he answered. “All I know is that without being raised that way, I’d be dead or crazy now.”

My grip on the phone loosened. He didn’t say any more. But the weight of a dozen secret, sidestepped disasters walled themselves high behind his words. I couldn’t push back, even if part of me wanted to.

I believed him.

3.

We welcomed the white folks in. And over the years, they came. Some poor and some polished, they came. We broke bread with them. We prayed for them. Aware of what we guessed might be their discomfort with our traditions, our language, our liturgy, we sometimes went out of our way to assuage their unease. We laughed alongside them. Thought nothing of it.

They rarely stayed.

4.

I needed time away from church because it began to feel too much like a house of superstition than a respite reserved for communal worship. I did not want the strength of my faith to be predicated on the material blessings I stood to gain by believing. I just wanted to believe. Even when babies were killed by those closest to them. Even if those professing to share the same faith as mine committed unspeakable acts of violence. Even if I never earned more than I did at my poorest. I didn’t want to think that by tithing or praying I was somehow more insulated from harm than my neighbor, that my church attendance or my own unfocused stabs at righteousness would protect me from worst of life’s fates.

John the Baptist was beheaded. Four girls burned. As have countless crosses. Myles Munroe and his wife died unexpectedly in a plane crash, on their way to work for their ministry. Our Christian friends and relatives contract diseases from which they die as often as they are healed. We are not all spared. And what good is our belief if it can be shaken when God doesn’t step in to prevent the calamities we don’t think we deserve? What good is our faith if we base it on the dollar value of the bills we place in an offering bucket or on uttering a certain combination of words during prayer? What makes any of us think we will never have to stare down unimaginable despair, simply because we’re devout?

I needed a God who felt all the more real when the world was at its worst. And to test that He was the one I had vowed all these years to serve, I thought I had to get away from all the other Christians who sought to define Him for me. I had to interrogate what I questioned, what I doubted, what rang false, even after a series of itinerant preachers echoed it during revival.

There comes a time when faith can no longer be absorbed secondhand. Wheat — what you alone are certain you believe — and tare — what you’ve been taught but have never bothered to question — must finally part ways. And the voice that exits your body in prayer must be clearly recognizable as your own. It cannot mimic your mother’s or be tinged with the sweetness of Grandma’s clichés.

This is your life. You alone will answer for it. And the only voice you’ll be able to access then will be your own.

I wandered a while on a long stretch of road, the light on its path possibly dim at turns. It took entire years. I left markers along the dirt, not entirely sure I wouldn’t find myself returning to them.

5.

My meandering days were numbered when I had a child. It was clear to me as she ripped her way out and the nurse rested her in my arms: this girl was not the work of her father and I alone. She had not gotten here by sheer force of my bodily effort. She was not a result of mere biological function and, because of this, part of her would always be unknowable to me. I’d need help then, to reach that part of her. I’d need a mediator whose presence among us was also not the mere work of mortal hands.

The church friends I made as a child are still, by and large, still fervent about church and faith. Even the ones I wouldn’t have guessed would be. Most of them are parents. They are raising their children the way we were raised. They are doing this because it works. If they, having ventured away from our sacred, if cloistered, community, and having seen and survived the darkest days they’d known, and having found themselves right back in the house of God , alive and there to tell, then so would their children. Most of them.

This is reason enough to return. This, and days like this one, when the words to explain how this happened, where and when it happened, could not possibly come without divine intervention.

6.

7.

Before the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel in Charleston, SC, I had been inching ever closer to God. He came at church on Sunday, when the pastor told us, “You have to cope before you can conquer,” and later asked us to turn to our neighbors and declare, “I am raising my faith to the level of my fight.” He came though a long conversation with a friend that night. We prayed for one another. No. More accurately, he prayed for me and I stammered a few well-intentioned words in return. But he told me that God did not feel the same way about my faith as I did. He didn’t see it as feeble, flagging, inadequate. He didn’t consider it something I was “struggling with.” I am not a case study in what it means to falter. My faith has been sufficient, even when it’s seemed small, even when I’ve had a hard time voicing it. It’s been sufficient because I wouldn’t let it go. It’s a seed and, as such, it retains its ability to grow.

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

There is no greater lesson to be gained for believers than to keep believing, right next to those with whom and for whom you would not mind dying. We are what we need most, now and ever.

8.

Yesterday, I sang a worship song. I haven’t done that, unprompted, in a while and I’ve never recorded myself singing one. I am glad to have that moment now, when freedom feels like such an improbable farce.

I echoed the words of a popular tune, one that the congregation had crooned in church on Sunday. I sang that I’d withhold nothing. I meant it and cried as I often do when I sing a prayerful song and every fetter falls and I feel — however fleetingly — free.

I sang it twice.

Hours later, nine other people who likely knew and sang that song and whose hearts promised the same, lay dead just feet from their church’s altar.

Here, Lord, is my desperation.

Here, Lord, lay my anger.

Here is the love I hope won’t not kill me.

Here, my longing for retribution.

Here, the depth of my unforgiveness.

Here, my hopes for their souls’ safe passage.

Here, my desire to see them again, in a life beyond this often terrifying one.

Here, every doubt I have about what was and what is, and what’s still to come.

I deny You nothing.

For Bobbi Kristina.

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I hope there is a meadow and treetops without end where you are, the grasses beneath you so thick they catch and hold the voices calling out to you from your bedside. I hope you hear your mother, too, ululant on the wind. You are not alone; hear the voices. You are not alone; tell your demons. You are loved, even by us, the fickle, cruel-faced public. You are loved by the Maker you may be poised to meet. Wherever you are, girl, I hope you are climbing, and from an uppermost perch, I pray you can see clearly the truth of who you are.

We remember the girl you were, the woman we prayed you’d become — even if the becoming itself would’ve required a miracle. Instead, the miracle is that you’ve held out as long as you have. Instead, the miracle is that you still have time.

Over the years, we lamented your odds, raised as you were with parents whose wealth often waylaid their efforts to keep lucid and clean. We rooted for you in spite of them and rooted for them, in spite of themselves. We are still rooting.

But I also understand where you are: someplace distant and exacting. You are hanging from a limb that you are no longer gripping. The snag and the crack are conspiring. Soon that limb will turn you loose. There’s no telling where you will return. Perhaps you will be here, awake, surrounded. Your father weeping, your siblings sighing, your truest friends deeply relieved. Or you may open your eyes elsewhere, a flatline braying in the breeze.

I am unbiased. I believe you should float toward the sounds that bring you greater peace. I believe you should be where you feel you most belong.

I was 14 when you were born, the embodiment of your parents’ frenzied, fully public love. You were born under the glare and pop of flash bulbs, the light too harsh for your soft brown eyes. You were pulled toward center stage with pride, and you stood under the beam of your mother’s spotlight. But you were always timid there, waiting where she asked you to, unsure, but echoing the words you were told. It was clear that she wanted to build your confidence. It was also clear that you would’ve preferred those lessons to be meted out in the privacy of someplace sacred and silent.

I remember worrying, in those moments when it was most obvious that your parents were unwell. You were a family, laughing, traveling, spending. You were a family, unraveling. We all worried over you, some of us even voicing unkind predictions. Armchair clairvoyants that we we were, we saw your future forging itself with sorrow.

But this is not what any of us wanted for you. A tub, a tomb, like your mother’s. There are other ways to get back to her. There are other ways to get back at her. I wish you’d found the healthier ones. And maybe you may find them still.

If there is, in fact, a meadow, if there are towering trees and voices in the grass, if there, you can understand how much you are wanted, how imperative it is for you to be well, then where you are is where you should be. And when the bough breaks, may the arms into which you fall be loving, baptismal, and warm.

The Antithesis of Faith.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. — Psalm 42:11

1.

The grocery cart is an ice floe, every row of overpriced food an isle to be sailed past without much autonomy. To be underemployed is to live without oars; I turn where the tide and the wind allow. Often, I think of You as the Wind: favorable, then fierce, and at times, capricious. This is difficult to admit as my eyes glaze over at the cost of four quarters of butter, as I grip the cart’s handle in abject panic, as I calculate the total in my head. In those moments, I do not want to feel tossed or untethered or tested. I do not want You to be as impossible to grasp as a gale.

For so many other believers, You wouldn’t be. For them, when there is too little left to budget, You become the multiplier of fishes and loaves. Right there, in the long stretch of frozen meals, You fill their hearts with manna. For them, You’d become a testimony bellowed into a microphone, echoing through a revival tent: It was only at my poorest that I learned You own the cattle on a thousand hills! It was only when my own hand was empty that I could accept the provision in Yours.

I am supposed to sing a reassuring song about the physics of faith (when praises go up, blessings come down).

But this is not where I live.

It isn’t that I don’t believe. I do. Of course I do. It is a logical step for those who create to believe that things much larger than themselves have also been created. And it is necessary for those who understand guilt to believe in the work of atonement. I feel ill at ease imagining a life over which I must assume totalitarian control and sicker still at the thought that whenever and wherever we die, our stories end. No, doubt has rarely been the deterrent.

2.

Every once in a while, we went hungry. Those were the lonely years, when we lived in an oversized and underfurnished house, and the congregants of our church considered my family to be spiritual stalwarts: the husband, pious and devoted; the wife, fiery and dynamic; the daughter, creative, aloof. For them, we were emblems, were ministers. For them, we were a comfort, a mirage of peace and safety when, in their own homes, destruction felt imminent.

But they never knew how often our home felt combative, despite the absence of physical aggression, how at the sound of the husband’s ticking engine in the driveway, the daughter crept into in the darkness of her room on the third floor. They wouldn’t have understood the way she stared at the pacing shadows, two dark and darting foot-falls, scuttling like rodents and obscuring the yellow slit of light from the hall. They couldn’t have imagined what it was to feel imprisoned by someone else’s prayer or how it could throw into turmoil the daughter’s concept of who You were.

The husband would leave within a year of those last instances, when he took to praying in tongues outside the daughter’s door as though he was an asylum guard in charge of a girl possessed, and when he called her out of that room once to ask if she was “bringing evil into his house.” These were the last of many years they’d spent locked in an epic battle, each round fought when her mother wasn’t home, each accusation a dagger, a wound, a scar that would, in some small way, shape the woman she would become.

Before he left, from time to time, he would neglect to buy food for three. He ate at home less and so did the mother and daughter. The contents of cupboards would thin; the shelves of the fridge emptied. It was preparation for the months to come, when the daughter would begin to support herself and the mother with the money from her work-study checks and her summer jobs in retail and reception.

The mother would tell the daughter that You sent her home after college to help her through the divorce. And the daughter believed. For four long years, she believed–just as she’d secretly wondered, after hours of listening to her stepfather’s prayers, if she had, inadvertently, brought evil into their home.

They’d each seemed so confident.

This is, I suppose, what happens when some children come to know You through their parents. It begins as a tangential acquaintanceship; we understand that we need to know You but let our parents do most of the talking. We trust their instincts, their judgment. It never gets personal until it needs to, until we need You–but by then, we’re struck by our own uncertainty of who You really are.

Are You a God who believes our enemy when he insinuates that we should be exorcised? Are You a God who plans our purpose and only reveals it to people other than us? Or are You the other things we imagine You are: mind-reader, romantic, redeemer, refuge, lighted path?

3.

It began as an atom, a nodule of resistance nestling inside me like a pebble at the base of a well. I didn’t feel it, even after I sensed it growing, never acknowledged it as I scrawled small notes onto church bulletins or wept openly, not over Your goodness but because You were so chatty with others and impossibly silent with me.

When I tell the story of how I became a single mother, I do not start it here, with the atom. But these are the particles inside it: a profession of faith at the age of eight; a number of folks advising me of the various ways I should let You use me; modest clothes and earnest gestures, tepid prayers; a semblance of sound morality; the realization that most of my faith felt merely mimicked, followed by a waning trust in others who insist that they’re speaking on your behalf.

No. Indeed, doubt was never the deterrent. The antithesis of faith, for me, has always been hopelessness.

I felt the least hope when I believed You’d decided You would only tell others what I needed to do with my life. I waited to hear You say that I’d finished fulfilling Your promise to my mother, that I was free to go discover the other things You’d placed me here to do. But with every year that passed, this pardon seemed less plausible. Maybe it wouldn’t be me You told at all, but my mother. Maybe You’d sent the message and I missed because I didn’t know the sound of Your voice. Maybe I’d never know it. Maybe there was no voice, but only the bible, and all this time, I should’ve been decoding that for answers.

It wasn’t even not knowing. It was the fear that I’d never know, that I’d been betrayed or duped or terribly misguided, that I still am. It was when, every time I tried articulating any of this, all I got in return was, “Did you pray about it?”

There’s a desperation, a terror, in the idea that the God of my fathers (and mothers) is all that there is. Who You are to them is not who I need You to be, for me. But for the longest time, who You were to them was all I believed You could be.

And this is how I came to make a few choices of my own: a master’s degree, a teaching career, a well-intentioned courtship turned secular, and several years later, the baby, the hunger, the jobs that pay pennies, the re-turning of my face toward the Wind.

It’s still true I do not like being tossed and that, despite our long history, confidence in Your intent to rescue me isn’t my first response to hardship. I am still working hard to maintain hope, to believe in the unheard as well as the unseen. But if this is who You are, I will not resist the gusts. May they carry me closer to You, may I glimpse Your face in the dust that dances up and stings the eyes. Be the gale, and I will be Your feather. Be my reinvention, and I will teach my daughter to know You for herself.

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

Make Haste.

I am often afraid, though Your word says, “Fear not.” I have been told that my fear offends You, that my anxiety is a rebellion You cannot abide. I am told that I am not to rely on this brain You’ve given me, so limited in its purview, so primitive in its ability to decipher; but instead, I should relinquish the boundaries of my own intellect and allow Your presence to invade that which my instinct tells me to protect and to closely guard.

I do not know, I do not know, I do not know what I know.

So, come. The kingdom I’ve erected is crumbling. I am willing to let You reign. I will quit the deteriorating palace and take residence in a hut at the foot of the hill, until You re-establish all that my hand has failed.

This does not mean I will be an unquestioning subject. It will be difficult to see all my work dismantled: the education I fought so hard to attain, through debt and jobs worked well after midnight, to finance what exorbitant loans could not; the home I scraped up just enough to rent, by teaching twice as many courses as a full-time professor, at three different colleges, while sleeping on the sofa of relatives; the car I waited 13 years to own, 13 years to be able to drive, after droves of attempts at earning a license.

These will not be easy losses. And though I know that I only attained these things because You allowed me to, I still do not want to let them go.

It is terrifying to trust. And it is terrifying to plead into the silence of a dark room for deliverance from a disaster of my own making. I do not like the idea of needing things I cannot supply for myself. Basic things: food and shelter and transportation. It is too cliche a fate, to be pressed into trust by the vices of under-employment and poverty.

But if such pressing is what is required, I submit myself to the stocks.

We have been here before. And I know that we are here again because I did not learn how to trust You implicitly the first time. We are here because there is a point You need to make. We will come here again, and again, if need be; we will return to this isle as often as it takes me to accept that I am not You.

On this isle, there is a scripture in the sand, just beyond the reach of a rising tide. It is the first I ever learned, the one I hoped I’d never truly need, though I recall and recite it for even the lightest afflictions. It is the one I’ve never needed quite as much as I need it today:

Make haste, O God, to deliver me. Make haste to help me, O Lord.

I learned it when I was eight, and somehow it still carries me. It is the raft and the oar, when I am tossed from the oceanliner into the sea. I say it when reason betrays me and the sky closes under Your eyelid and the water of an unrelenting rain is all that is keeping me alive.

Hurry, it says. And wash me back to the shore of choice. I will choose differently, this time. I vow I will choose only You.