We are leaving our church. We attend a predominately white United Methodist Church in our community. The fellowship is very active with 3 Sunday services, active ministries for children and youth, and a whole host of other thriving ministries. We’ve been attending for over 2 years, having been members for over a year. We knew what we were getting into when we joined. That there would be no gospel music, no black history month program, and no “unapologetic blackness” was acceptable. No one would touch me on the shoulder and say, “Girl, where do you get your locs done?” (Although some have complimented my hair, others have asked that dreaded question, “Is that all yours?” Yes damnit! Yes!–but I get that question from black folks too. I usually smile and say just, “Yes” sans the “damnit.”)
Before choosing this church, we visited others, some predominately black and some predominately white. We settled on this body because it had life, and, though big, the church still managed to have a homey feel. Most importantly, we felt that it was a place we could all be fed spiritually and where our daughter could be involved in the various programs for her age group. We initially felt welcomed by most people. As we became regular features at Sunday worship and Wednesday night services, the pastors began asking us to serve in various capacities. Eventually, Larry ended up serving on the Afterschool Ministry Board and as a Needs Assessor for the Cancer Ministry. I joined the choir and was delighted that the then Minister of Music chose a pretty diverse array of songs. He has since moved away to be closer to famil. Vashti joined the children’s choir. By the time we joined the church, many were surprised we were not members.
I’ve blogged about two experiences linked here and here that caused us to feel uncomfortable. Is it possible to feel exposed and invisible at the same time? “Invisible Exposure” sort of sums up how we feel. At times we perceive that we are actively ignored by some. We were doing all in our power to forge ties and build relationships, but without much reciprocation. I worried about my very precocious, Vashti, who is known to speak her mind. One of the children’s choir helpers relayed two instances that gave me pause. During choir practice, the children were learning a song about the biblical story of Joseph, who was so hated by his brothers because their father’s favoritism towards him, that they opted for selling him into slavery in lieu of murder. After years of trials and exile, Joseph became elevated to a ruling status and in a position of power over the very ones who enslaved him. Vashti raised her hand in choir and drew parallels between that story and the plight of blacks. The choir director disagreed. The assistant who happened to be black told me about the exchange and how it caused her to really think about what Vashti said. The second incident occurred during the general election season. During prayer time, Vashti asked to pray for the democrats and Barack Obama. The director did not grant the request because she didn’t feel that politics was appropriate for church. I am not clear on this detail (I was not present), but the director said, either in the hearing of the kids or just in the hearing of the woman relaying it to me,”…and besides, I am for McCain.”
These incidents were disheartening especially since they involved Vashti. I want her to be in an environment where her personhood and questioning can be nurtured not squashed. On the one hand, I want her to learn that there is a time and place to speak truth to power. On the other hand, I don’t want her to second guess herself to make others comfortable, and inevitably muffle her courage to share her opinions.
Being an active participant in a worship community has always been important for me. It is difficult for me to simply atttend. My educational credentials and extensive knowledge of religion and theology make disengagement pretty impossible. I can’t be an empty cistern looking to be poured into every Sunday. There is a need and desire to exchange, to be poured into and to pour into others and my environment.
Incidentally, the assistant pastor contacted me to inquire about our absence the last couple of Sundays. I earnestly shared my thoughts. She expressed being heart broken by my experiences and was quick to ask me to offer suggestions for how the church could be more welcoming. My first suggestion was that they actively recruit people of color in visible ministry roles. She lamented that they made an effort to increase diversity, but that they had difficulty getting qualified applicants. DANGER! DANGER! Will Robinson! Sirens went off in my head because that is the “canned”, “off the shelf” answer whites give. I suggested that they be more strategic in recruiting minorities and that they partner with multicultural organizations or churches in the area. I also brought up the idea of continuing education courses at local seminaries for the ministers. When I later e-mailed her the books on this issue, I also included a link to a resource rich website from the General Commission on Race and Religon of the United Methodist Church. The fact that she didn’t know that this existed was very telling. I performed a simple Google search and voila. She also asked if there was anything she could do to make us reconsider our decision to leave. I didn’t answer that one. She counseled that we should pray and discern God’s will. She also said she understood if we decided to leave.
Honestly, she really didn’t make much of a sell for us to stay. It seemed she jumped too quickly to the well wishes. I would have been willing to have a face-to-face meeting about this. My e-mail to her was full of suggestions that bespoke of someone who could really help. Whenever, my seminary training came up in polite conversation, I would get strange looks, even stranger gazes when my answer to their inquiry about which seminary I attended, was Princeton Theological Seminary. I am skeptical that there is any real commitment to a multicultural church there. Why would there be? If the administration was committed to creating an open community, there would be a lot of flight.
The logical next step for us would be to look for a multicultural/multiethnic church. Viable ones are rare and when they can be found, they have the mega church quality that has repelled me. I can’t stomach going to a mega church with CEO pastors and self-appointed bishops. These churches don’t have a since of being grounded in any sort of history.
So we are back out there, without fellowship, but not really in search of a church home right now. The fissure of separation is too new for us. Vashti still attends the afterschool ministry and will continue for awhile. My heart does break though. My soul does long to join others who are invested in and willing to struggle for the creation of the beloved community Dr. King dreamed about and the kingdom of God coming with power proclaimed in the Gospel of Mark.