Much of my self has been transforming and growing, and let me tell you, this shit has not been easy or lovely. It’s been downright hard. In this journey, lately, I’m finding myself in a very strange predicament – a Black, southern woman, who has become increasingly agnostic at exponential rates.
In other words, most people I grew up with, associate with, or are family probably thinks I’m going to burn in eternal flames.
Being Black and Southern is to Christianity, as peanut butter and jelly is to sandwich, it seemed to me growing up. It just is and there was no other way to be. You went to church each Sunday, sometimes Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. You didn’t deny it, you didn’t question it, you didn’t do ANYTHING, really, it just happened to you. And poof, this is who you are.
Religion serves as a grounding place for humans. It is a key component of a civilized society. We need it. It brings meaning, faith, and understanding to many of us. It helps us explain things that have no explanation and keeps us morally accountable. It is deeply spiritual for many of us and we are moved by it in ways that are not easy or meant to comprehend. I don’t look down on those who are deeply religious; I think each person’s faith contributes heavily to the person’s identity, and at its best, religion, is a source of love and connectedness.
But it isn’t something I resonate much with anymore. I am not sure when I first decided that Christianity was not for me, and when that developed into most religions not being for me, but I do remember when I was first exposed to the idea that perhaps my God, wasn’t the only God. I was in 7th grade and we will call him Mr. M, a red headed, tall, man, charged with teaching a bunch of unruly middle schoolers about history. He chose to teach us the history of religions and my world was rocked. I could not understand how millions, billions of people were going to hell because they did not have faith the same way I did, and how a loving God could allow that. Of course my church hushed me, my community reinforcing that these were not the ways of God, and my developing mind did not know what to do with that.
I was again exposed to different religions in my junior year of high school. I was selected to attend a selective summer leadership camp. I still remember one of my favorite activities was called Vespers, and during Vespers, different people from different faiths came to speak to us. This was the first time Muslims, Jewish people, atheists, Quakers, Hindus, etc. were actually humanized for me. I saw people, good people that I liked and admired and thought were smart and most of all, not hell worthy, in front of me. I was again confused that these people could go to hell. I was exposed to people who did not believe people went to hell or in redemption through a savior. I was also first exposed to antisemitism and Islamophobia, by teens, who yelled at the people, asked very insulting questions like “but aren’t you going to hell?” and I was astonished. My mind couldn’t totally wrap its head around what was going on, but I knew it was wrong, very wrong.
In college, I started my journey at a small liberal arts college, Queens University of Charlotte. I loved this university primarily because of the authenticity of my professors. Looking back now, this was very rare, the way they challenged us to think more deeply about social justice issues, build empathy, expose us to life different than ours, and push us to really take charge of our own growth in these areas. Everyone may not have been convinced or reached, but I was primed and ready to receive it, and that education opened my mind even more broadly. I learned about the origins of Christianity and other religions, I went to services from other backgrounds, I learned that gay people, were in fact, not dirty or shameful, and that neither was my black skin, or “ghetto” high school. I also learned that there were plenty of people who did not believe any of that was true, and it was an important to be an advocate for the voiceless. I was growing and at the same time outgrowing many things. And Christianity, particularly the judgmental, often hypocritical, and overly damning, version I’d be exposed to, was not fitting me well at all.
These are my earliest pivotal memories that began to sway my mind, but there were many other small memories. I have always been curious, quirky, and questioning. I would follow my mother around for hours and say “why” and I think that this is one of my gifts. I also don’t think a god I serve would make a mistake and so this must be who I am meant to be.
I also have a penchant for shame. I am easily shamed and my early exposures to religion as a girl were filled with shameful moments. From watching a young woman walk down the aisle while a preacher showed that see, women, can detour men from their purpose with their simple walk, from shaming for not complete forgiveness and embracing of a perpetrator, from hearing the shame from a man who declared he still had feelings for men, but is just doesn’t date at all because he will burn in hell, from shaming about not enough money for the collection plate, from shaming that as a woman, in some way, I was the origin of damnation, from my curious mind being seen as a curse, one that goes against god, Christianity for me was a very shaming world. The promise being that if could figure out how to be “good” I could have eternal life. This never made much sense to me, but I was afraid of god’s wrath and so I never questioned it, until much later, and even now, it is scary to do.
I recently read “On Healing Black Girl Pain,” a story about a woman’s career, family, love, and spiritual journey. She talks a lot about Christianity in the Black church and she hit every one of my thoughts. Our stories were actually very similar in MANY ways, but i’m focusing on the religion part here. She talked about the role of Christianity in the US with slavery, the way it has been both damning and redeeming for us as Black people, the hatred espoused by some in name of Christianity (which I don’t think necessarily is what Christianity is) and her complicated appreciation of it – from afar. I agreed on just about every point she made. She helped me find the voice to write this initial post. She gave me permission to explore spirituality in other ways.
Lately, I’ve been looking at Buddhism, Unitarian practices (which feel really good to me), humanistic approaches to spirituality, and other religions in order to understand and inform who I am. It feels good, overdue, and is an important of my journey. But it is scary and something that I have never known and have no road map to follow. And of course there is always the voice that what if you’re all wrong and are going to burn in flames? And I don’t have an answer for that at all.
One of the scariest parts of exploring agnosticism and broadening my spiritual understanding of myself is other Black people and southern people, and especially the combination. The Black community is deeply rooted in traditions of faith and for good reasons. I am deeply rooted in the Black community, and so this piece of difference makes me feel very afraid of being ostracized, talked about, looked down upon and misunderstood, while you all pray for my damned soul, with mutterings of “Bless her heart.”
But this is my truth.
I’m not really sure how to relate to people in this area. I grew up in the church just as much as any of my Black friends, and I love the community and understanding of this very complex system of the Black church. It feels like going home, but home after you’ve been away for a very long time and you’ve changed a lot, and no one else quite understands the new you. So familiar, but isolating at the same time. And there are not many Black agnostic people I know, none that are very open anyway or that aren’t hardcore anti organized religion, which isn’t quite where I am either. I have a deep respect for all religions and people who practice them, I’m just not sure what or if any of them are for me. If you’re reading this, I ask for patience and empathy, or at least understanding, that this isn’t an easy post to write or divulge about myself. And I haven’t arrived here lightly or without much thought. I’d love to share my spiritual journey with you all ongoing, but am also very afraid of being judged because it will likely not end in a traditional or familiar view of Christianity.
I don’t know where I will land. I just know I believe in a god, the connectedness of the universe, and faith, love, and courage. I believe kindness and empathy reign supreme, and what is encouraging to me, is that when we peel back the layers of any religion or spiritual practice without dogma and egos, that seems to be a common thread. And so, I feel these values puts on the right path. Except in instances of when religion is used to perpetuate hate, discrimination, and oppression