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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.