They’re wondering what happened to us, the youth leaders we left behind, the deacons and prophets who watched us sing solos with the children’s choir or mumble through recitations in Easter pageants. They do not feel that they’ve failed us. They think that we have failed them.
But we remember the day T.J. dropped dope in the men’s bathroom when he was fourteen and fatherless. We remember Eugene and Damont being gunned down before their twentieth birthdays. We remember the Park Heights cats with stony eyes and priors who rushed the stairs leading up to Youth Church, looking to jump Raheem. We remember the succession of girls whose bellies began to swell and recall how naively they loved, despite prophetic words and without prophylactics (because advocating teen birth control meant advocating sin). We still hear your voices hardening as you discussed them, as though all their adolescent missteps reduced them to footnotes in a series of cautionary tales.
We don’t believe our crises of faith are own faults. We also don’t blame God. We blame them. We looked at them, worshipping the man who preached on Sunday, laying their rent money at his feet. We watched predatory lenders devour them whole before the ink on their signatures was dry, because they believed that God said they’d have a five-bedroom manse in two years’ time if they only exercised their faith. We longed for them to catch us sneaking out to the empty house of the dingy-drawered boy down the block, but their eyes were cast too far heavenward to foresee our courses derailing.
When we think of them, we think of the little boy, whose Mom was minister of music. We see him, looking like a miniature preacherman in his colored suits and matching neckties when he was no more than nine. He was a little eccentric and thoroughly bright-eyed, centrally involved in their youth programs. We do not know what they did to him, but the walls of their sanctuary could not contain his dreaminess, so he simply sought other walls. Their programs would not accommodate his artsy nature, so he emigrated to some northeast college’s Black Bohemia. He will not return to their church and now lists “Hov-ism” as a religious view on Facebook. These days, he rebels against suits, like they’re inanimate fascists.
All we wanted was their affirmation. All we needed was assurance that they were right, that their lengthy list of restrictions formed the ladder rungs to heaven that they seemed to believe they did. But we would come to discover that their threats and demands may draw people to their churches, but fear of hell cannot keep them there, not when they’re dealing with mild facsimiles on earth already.
We wonder why they are not more like their God, why they insist that what perfection has eluded them is well within our grasp, why they consider growing up in church as we did “a benefit” they were denied. The irony of a “sanctuary” being as alienating as theirs is not lost on us. We can no longer buy into salvation as a meritocracy. We cannot accept that our inevitable mess-ups make our Savior less accessible.
And so we disperse, taking countless routes away from them. Our only criterion is that our destination in no way resembles the origin they gave us.