I call my mama and grandmama every Sunday. Sometimes my aunt (grandmama’s sister) and Big Mama (mama’s grandmama on her daddy’s side) get thrown into the rotation as well. It’s a tradition I picked up in college in order to keep consistent contact with my family in the midst of a hectic schedule. One question that’s often asked on these calls is, “Did you go to church today?” Now, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I lie. I don’t really always feel like explaining all the different reasons why I ain’t trying to be in the sanctuary like that. I’m lucky that I have a job that sometimes requires me to go to church because it limits my dishonesty and the guilt that comes with it. But I’m tired of the guilt and the lying. It’s time that I own the fact that church just ain’t for me.
In the South, going to church is as common as watching television or going to the bathroom. So naturally as a native Alabamian, I was right in the middle of that tradition. When I was younger, it was an enjoyable part of the weekly routine. We would wake up Sunday morning to whatever breakfast grandmama had cooked. We would always pray before leaving the house: “Whatever is bound in heaven, be bound on earth. Whatever is loosed in heaven, be loosed on earth.” Among other things. Then, we would drive over to the next town where our church was located and be back home between 12:30 – 1 p.m. Like most southern Black boys who lived in their grandmother’s house, I had no conception of going to church being optional. It was only a matter of did we want to leave early enough to go to Sunday school or get an extra hour of rest on Sunday morning. So I went, sang in the choir (badly), starred in some church productions and learned some scriptures along the way. I never asked questions because I didn’t know that I could or should. I also think my relationship with my grandmother at that point kept me from thinking ill of anything that she insisted I do.
But I was never given any reason for going to church outside of it being something that I “should do.” I generally understood what one was supposed to get out of going (spiritual fulfilment). But I also felt like even when that fulfilment wasn’t there, I was still supposed to fill the seat. It was in my early adolescent years when I began to become interested in being “a good Christian.” This was after my sister, mother, and I moved out of my grandmama’s house. We adopted a new home church, located in the greater Birmingham area. What I liked most about the church was the teen ministry, which allowed me to skip out on the sermon every couple of weeks. Although I enjoyed being around my peers, I have to admit that there was a lot of shaming going on in teen church.
“Y’all ain’t gon’ praise after all God done did for y’all? We shouldn’t have to tell y’all to stand up and clap your hands.”
“We found a used condom up here. Were you the one using it?”
“AIDS is a modern-day leprosy as punishment for immoral sexual behavior. That’s why there’s no cure.”
Oh. Okay. That’s why.
We were once told that we should be able to explain why we believe in God/The Bible in a succinct, articulate manner.
“I can tell you RIGHT NOW why I believe in God. What about YOU?”
Because I wanted to be a good Christian, I used Google to help me find an answer to a question that I didn’t want to admit that I was unsure about. I wrote the best answers in the cover of the Bible I used for reading in the church: “Consistent message over dozens of writers and hundreds of years;” “New Testament fulfilment of prophecy;” “martyrs don’t die for something that’s not true;” etc. I wanted to be prepared in case I was quizzed. This question plays a big role later in this story. Despite the unnatural pressures that existed in this class, I still (mostly) enjoyed going. I even joined the spoken word ministry after we were basically told that being a part of church ministry gave us more merit in the eyes of God. During my complicated, but mostly good relationship with teen church, my mother was growing disillusioned with the pastor of the church. She thought him greedy and irresponsible with the hearts and minds of his people. This judgement was based on actions like scolding his members who gave relief money to Haiti but did not tithe in church to his satisfaction. Nothing will raise the blood pressure of a southern, Black preacher quicker than tithe talk. She experimented with other churches here and there, but we attended that church fairly consistently throughout my high school career.
Upon arriving at college, the search for a new church home began within my second week on campus. I didn’t want to say so then, but really any church would’ve worked so long as I had an answer for mama and grandmama on Sunday. Back then, I would’ve told you I was searching for spiritual fulfilment and a relevant message because that’s an acceptable, good Christian answer. I started attending a megachurch in Brentwood, TN with a few upperclassmen, mostly women, mostly white. The church was enormous, had a triple threat of pastors that alternated each Sunday, and was my first introduction to gospel violin — really. In retrospect, I can say the primary reason I enjoyed going to this church was the relationships I built with my traveling companions.
“Good morning Josh! Did you slow grind last night?”
“So like, do you ever experience Black rage? We’re learning about it in my Prison Life class.”
“Are we gonna do Commons brunch after? I have soooo much work to do today.”
Ironically, I have very little memory of the sermon content from my time going to that church.
Read the full article at Blavity.com.