“If folks would get themselves in line with God’s word, then Black lives would matter…we wouldn’t have all of these out-of-wedlock babies and we wouldn’t be talking about same sex marriage.”
That was the warning a Black male pastor issued his congregants and us new visitors at a service late last year. His logic subsumes that reading the Bible will make police stop killing unarmed Black Americans, men stop raping and degrading women, and anti-gay and anti-trans organizations stop erasing LGBTSTGNC folks. Except we’ve tried prayer already. And, I’m certain oppression doesn’t only happen to people who don’t have their lives “in line with God’s word.”
This Black male pastor, speaking specifically about the killing of Michael Brown, turned the narrative of oppression into one to chastise Black youth and perpetuate respectability politics. He later called a sex worker in the Bible, the “President of the Kitty Kat Club.” As expected, his use of the Bible to demean women’s sexuality was met with laughter from his congregants. His words confirmed two things for me: first, I wouldn’t be joining, and second, the Black Church still can’t productively address social justice issues which matter to many Black women.
Looking for a Black church – since we recently moved to the area – has resulted in Sunday after Sunday of oppressive, hateful, anti-queer, anti-gay, and misogynistic language from Black Pastors. What used to exist in public has become the “new normal” within God’s holy sanctuary.
When I visited another church, a pastor declared that young Black men should “be careful of these pretty young girls. They know exactly what to say and do to get you caught up." As he detailed an itemized list of recommendations for young Black men to avoid "baby mama drama" and “tempting women,” I awaited his laundry list of advice for young Black women seeking healthy romantic relationships. It was only fair for him to acknowledge them too, right?
Well, that part never came. Instead, he launched into a tirade about how Black women, like a swarm of piranha, chase after talented, attractive, young Black men, preying on them, having sex with them with the intention of "trapping them,” making these poor Black men “statistics.” He charged Black women with that. All of that. From the pulpit of his Black church.
Sadly, Black male preachers aren’t the only ones selling variants of White heteropatriarchy, anti-Black women rhetoric, and Black LGBTSTGNC subordination from the pulpit.
Sitting in a large Black church a few weeks ago, a visiting preacher explained that it was prayer and giving to the church which would “deliver” families from an assortment of evils like young girls having extramarital sex, boys doing drugs, and committing crimes…and kids being gay. In the typical Black Church way, she categorized homosexuality with the usual suspects Black churches use to control behavior. In her sermon, homosexuality was akin to committing a crime. Her homiletics were met with uproarious words like “Yes!”, “Amen!”, and “Preach!” Her words, shrouded with hatred, deception, and malice, were met with blind approbation.
I was raised in this type of hostile church environment. Growing up, my pastor often referred to trans women as “men pretending to be women.” The congregants would laugh heartily every time. When I wore my basketball gear to choir rehearsals and dressed in gender-nonconforming clothes to church on Sundays as a high schooler, I was warned by ministers and staff that “being a Black boy isn’t that easy.” And, I may want to just “stick to what God made me.”
My six-feet-four inch frame was seen as threatening to an existing gender hierarchy in the church. To move me back “in line with God’s word,” I was told that my gender expression was somehow not how God made me. Therefore, me being me was somehow antithetical to His intentions for me.
These anecdotes and gendered sermons have become synonymous with “The Black Church.” I use this term colloquially not to say that all churches with predominantly Black leadership, staff, and membership are the same but to draw on the conception of the Church as a living, breathing institution. It’s an institution which continues to adapt to the changing landscape of social justice while managing to remain intrinsically anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-queer, and anti-sex in general.
It’s the messages from the pulpit which push Black women out of the church whether they are cis or trans, lesbian or straight, queer or gender nonconforming. My church life was defined not only by who was in the pews but by who wasn’t allowed to be there.
Dr. Saidiya Hartman, acclaimed literary scholar and Columbia professor, details the physical sites of oppression affecting Blacks in her work Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. In it, she notes that acts of subjection did not only play out in legal frameworks or codes making Black people inferior to Whites, they were reinforced and reproduced in physical spaces. They were “performed” rather than enforced. Following her analysis, I find that the pulpit in the Black church has become a site of subjection for non-White, non-cis, and gender-nonconforming folks, especially Black women. This is so prevalent that it has become part and parcel with the way Black church leaders unite their flock and address modern social justice issues, like the rallying cry that #BlackLivesMatter.
Rather than operating as a site of liberation and collective action as it has in the past, much of the Black Church now acts as a mechanism of White heteropatriarchal systems of oppression. It thrives on the demonization of people whom University of Chicago professor and 2014 Kessler Award Winner, Dr. Cathy J. Cohen, note are considered “different from our normal.” Black queer or socially deviant groups are the bodies on which White heteropatriarchy and supremacy are reproduced and the Black Church is its alderman.
My family may never find the Black Church we are looking for. I refuse to raise my children in a congregation that subscribes to the belief that our collective action and concern should only be reserved for those who contort themselves to fit a narrow – nearly impossible – definition of righteousness. Where these churches cherry-pick the Bible’s underlying message of love, I choose to raise my children embracing a love for all Black bodies. I am teaching them that all Black lives matter, not just the ones in the church pews.
Seems that, as those pews become increasingly empty and filled with only the “right” kind of sinner, pastors will change their messages. Until then, I will be an imperfect sinner with no church home but confident in the fact that God loves me just the way I am.
Jenn M. Jackson is a writer, mommy of 3, politics scholar, and recovering misanthrope. Find her on Twitter: @JennMJack, check her resume website, and read more from her at her blog.