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I was raised Catholic in churches where my mother and I were often the only two black people in attendance. The loneliness and isolation of this was compatible with other parts of my peripatetic childhood — church as a location for community and comfort was not a familiar concept to me. This made it easy, as I grew into womanism and feminism, to stop going to Mass.
I wanted a church where I could experience God’s love for me as a woman and as a woman of color. In the cathedrals and churches of my youth, men were clergy and bishops and cardinals. Women were church mothers and silent nuns, heads bowed. Where, I wondered, were the communities of faith that allowed women to be proudly and unapologetically themselves, as God made them?
W.E.B. Du Bois said that the church usurped home as the social center of black life. Faith is a distinct part of the social, cultural, psychological, and emotional heritage of black people, and it has no parallel in any sphere. When or if black women decide to leave, they are cutting off a major source of connection, community, and heritage.
“The Negro Church means the Negro Woman”
I was lonely without church, and I longed to be a part of a black church for years, but I could not find one that matched my progressive beliefs or made space for women more equally than most. I felt rudderless, even as I would try other denominations and faith traditions, including the Yoruba tradition, Buddhism, and nondenominational megachurches.
A 2009 Pew Research Center report noted that 40 percent of all African Americans identify with Baptist denominations within the historically black tradition. Most of my family was part of that 40 percent. Only 12 percent of African Americans surveyed reported being unaffiliated with any religion.
Then there was this:
African-American women also stand out for their high level of religious commitment. More than eight-in-ten black women (84 percent) say religion is very important to them, and roughly six-in-ten (59 percent) say they attend religious services at least once a week. No group of men or women from any other racial or ethnic background exhibits comparably high levels of religious observance.
That makes black women sound like martyrs. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing, but it is a repetition of an old narrative. Black women are often praised and maligned for being strong beacons of faith compared to black men, who lag behind us in educational attainment and professional achievement. Black women are always asked, all but required, to support black masculinity in ways that are rarely publicly reciprocated. This largely one-sided relationship has its origins in the church, despite the fact that black women are the lifeblood of black churches.
In 1915, Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote for The Crisis, “The Negro Church means the Negro Woman. Without her, the race could not properly support 500 churches in the whole world.” Then, there were 40,000. “She is not only a great moral and spiritual asset, but she is a great economic asset.” Black women have always comprised anywhere between 65 and 90 percent of membership in black churches — institutions where they are largely excluded from the religious polity.
Whether I was visiting my sister’s church or that of a friend, when I attended black churches, I felt like I was almost at home. The music, the ecstasy; it all connected me to a spiritual resting place with fellowship and tradition that is impossible to find anywhere else. Religion that began in slave communities is the only ancestral tie American-born blacks have to something like a family tree. But black churches, like many of their white counterparts, perpetuate the notion that women should stand by and support their men as those men exploit their labor and ignore their aspirations to serve as leaders in the religious polity.
Another layer of silencing
In her fantastic 2010 book Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion, Bettye Collier-Thomas points out that there was a time when black women leaders were all but required to be church members — from Sojourner Truth and Rebecca Cox Jackson to Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Fannie Lou Hamer. There would be many others, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Septima Clark, and Dorothy Height. How could they be such popular leaders and accept the way women were disregarded?
Why do many black church women continue to accept second-class citizenship in the institutions they have literally built and sustained? The answer to this question is complex and difficult for many to understand, especially outsiders and whites, who tend to see race and gender as discrete subjects and who often hold blacks to a higher standard than whites. However, for black women, including those who consider themselves to be feminist, this is an issue of wholeness. It goes to the heart of who they are and the importance of family and community in their lives. Being female is only part of black woman’s identity . . . race has taken precedence over sex . . . separation is not an option.
So, black women throughout time have added another layer of silencing to our lives in exchange for community. We experience the threat of racism outside our community and sexism within and without our communities. At the altar of God, too, we are told: women should be silent in the churches.
Even from your brothers, maybe especially, everyday sexism is just as maddening as racism. The silence demanded of us is deadly, especially when you consider the impact it has on our very lives. Black women accounted for 64 percent of new HIV cases in 2010, for instance. Without a discussion of shame, stigma, and sexuality, our lives are imperiled constantly.
Blending Catholicism and the black church
This kind of benign-looking, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” everyday misogyny was still prevalent when I began working as a religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman years ago. That and a few other things caused great consternation: the ongoing exodus of young people from mainline Protestant and evangelical congregations; the growing number of unaffiliated, cafeteria-style spirituality buffs who are sometimes equated with the spiritual-not-religious cohort; and those pesky feminists and their calls for equality for women from the pews to the pulpit.
But black millennials are not leaving the black church, at least not en masse. As African Americans have gained economic, social, and political parity in some ways with whites, they still lean on the church as what Bryan T. Calvin at Relevant calls “a haven of both communal and spiritual encouragement.” Every time I tried to join a church, away from my family and our shared context, I found my heart hardened against the notion that any haven I would find would require using my money to support an institution that edifies men and silences women.
Thanks, but no thanks, I thought. I read spiritual texts at home. I ran so much that a rabbi friend considered the trail where I would go every Sunday my outdoor church.
Then, I lost my parents, in 2010 and 2012, respectively. That changed me in ways I’m still reconciling, but it mainly showed me how vulnerable I am without a community, even if I am still just learning what it means to live in one.
I had never experienced the beauty of blending that first faith tradition of my mother’s, Catholicism, with a traditional black church, but I finally found a good blend. When I left the South for the East Coast before Christmas, I sought a spiritual home for the holidays and found a church a few miles from my new home. When I spotted black altar girls — a first — I decided to join. My new church is not all a woman could ever hope for, but it offers me far more hope than the Catholic Church of my youth.
Some of my return to Catholicism was fueled by the promise of Pope Francis, who still seems a bit tone-deaf on women, but at least he has reminded us that the church doesn’t need to spend so much time discussing abortion or sexuality but rather working for social justice. How will we alleviate poverty together? Homelessness? Those are the right questions for a community to be asking of itself.
I am a contrarian and a bit of an introverted loner, a writer through and through. Sometimes, belonging feels like a betrayal, like it might be bad for my work. But as a black woman, I am fully aware that I don’t have the luxury, time, or energy to organize for change on my own, nor do I have access to another tradition or institution that is as powerful or unifying as the Catholic Church — flaws and all.