On Being Black and Non-Christian: Sometimes “Keeping It Real” Goes Wrong

“My fist point seems overwhelmingly simple: that the accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong. The chances are very great that if you were born in Pakistan you are a Muslim, or a Hindu if you happened to be born in India, or a Shintoist if it is Japan, and a Christian if you were born in Italy. I don’t know what significant fact can be drawn from this – perhaps that we should not succumb too easily to the temptation to exclusiveness and dogmatic claims to a monopoly of the truth of our particular faith. You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith that you are now denigrating, but for the fact that you were born here rather than there.”—Desmond Tutu

Christianity remains an influential aspect of the experiences of  many African-American people. As I was raised under a particular branch of Christianity myself, I still remember hearing stories from family and community members alike about how important the faith has been historically to the success and survival of African-Americans.

Popular narratives of  the greatness of “The Black (Christian) Church”  were a major part of my upbringing. I heard about its ability to empower, uplift, and build community among Blacks in America and beyond. But what about the experiences of African-Americans who are not a part of “The Black Church”? Because of my socialization, there was once a time in my life when I believed either that experience didn’t exist, or it was somehow wrong if it did.

However, my process of becoming part of that group highlights my belief in the need for more dialogue and action towards building a better sense of community and recognizing the experiences of people of color from a variety of beliefs.

Scenario: So two African-Americans meet in a parking lot:

“Need help with those groceries?”

“Goodness yes! Thank you young man!”

(drops groceries just inside front door)

“Thanks again. I haven’t seen you around here before. What’s your name?” 

(gives name)

“What’s yours?”

(gives name)

“It’s nice to meet you. I appreciate the help. You don’t always see things like that nowadays, you must come from a good family. You go to school?” 

“Yes, I do.”

“For what?…..social work!? What do you do?”

(explains…)

“That’s wonderful! We need more young black men like you doing positive things in the community.”

“What church do you go to?” 

“I don’t.”

“Why not?!!” (person’s disposition has completely changed at this point)

“Well I was raised in a specific kind of denomination, but got older and met people from different groups and had experiences that contradicted a lot of what I thought I knew before.  For me, I see that I can find different stories of how the world came to be, of how to practice faith & religion, or not at all across the country & across the world. I’ve had opportunities to meet people with different ideas, and I think that there are things we can all marvel at collectively as human beings, but I just don’t think I’m smart enough to own and name a single source of the answers to life’s unexplainable questions.”

“And you seemed to have so much going for you too.”

“You just need to experience life more. You’re young right now, you might think you’re invincible, but my God has a way of bringing you to your knees. You haven’t experienced any tragedy yet, but when you do, you’ll come around. My God is your God whether you believe it or not.” 

(closes door in face)

Not so micro microaggression complete.

When Keeping it Real Goes WrongThat was a real-life example of what can happen when “keeping it real” goes wrong, in this case with “keeping it real” meaning being honest about sharing a part of your religious (or non-religious) identity that is different from what is held up as being mainstream.

“What church do you go to?” 

As a person of color who does not identify as Christian, I’ve come to recognize the power behind that question. There’s power in the assumption, and power to dole out negative consequences depending on the answer, even in communities of color.

I’ve long since abandoned this practice, but can remember times when I used to be asked that question. Although it was a process that took less than a second, it would seem as if time would slow down, as I came to a crossroads. How would I respond? I’d think to myself as I weighed the benefits over the consequences.

 As I’ve written before, although I do not currently identify with a specific religious practice, my Christian upbringing allows me the privilege to being able to choose whether or not to blend in and protect myself from loss of respect, credibility, and rejection in social situations, differential treatment in working environments, and a range of other areas.

In this article that was recently published at For Harriet, another writer shares some of her thoughts after someone popped the question to her.

From For Harriet: Yes, I’m Black. No, I’m Not Christian

“….I’m somehow made uncomfortable by the question “What church do you go to?” when I meet new people. The assumption that I even go to a church assumes that I am Christian, and that assumption is inherently based on me being black.”

“Why not ask what mosque or synagogue or temple I go to, or start with “Do you go to church?” when asking a question like that? Oh right; because certainly there are no black Jews, and no black person would choose to be Muslim or Buddhist, and you know black people don’t play with “evil spirits” and black magic spells like those Wiccans do.”

“No, if you’re black, you must be Christian.”

“Christianity seems to be a generational thing in the black community; the child is raised on it because her mom was, and she was raised on it because her mother was. That’s fine, but why does that way have to be the right way for everybody else too? It’s a choice to stick with the religion you were brought up with; but why are the rest of us, who have chosen a different path to God/enlightenment, or perhaps have decided there is no higher realm to enlighten one’s self to at all, condemned for thinking differently?”

“To declare yours as the “only” way or the “right” way leaves no room for others to find their own path to their higher power, whatever name they choose to call it by….I remember thinking, what if that’s not what I want for myself? Why not just pray for your friends to find peace in their lives? Why not pray for them to find the path to God/enlightenment that’s most ideal for them?”

Sometimes “keeping it real” goes wrong, but it can also go right. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have some African-American Christian allies who have assisted me by disrupting dominant oppressive narratives about non-Christians when I’ve encountered painful experiences around the intersections of race, religion and spirituality, making room for an understanding and acceptance of my own lived experiences.

Although the consequences still exist, having allies in those times gave me victories I could put in my pocket that eventually helped me to be able to answer that question for myself more openly & honestly, and abandon the defense mechanism of blending in out of fear.

In our own communities, I think we have more work to do towards building a true sense of community closer to the ideal that I often heard about growing up, and one crucial step in the process is acknowledging the existence of other ways of living and being.

That’s one response, what’s yours? Are you someone who’s had experiences with inter-faith communication? I’d love to hear from you as well!

Ubuntu,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW

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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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14 Responses

  1. I’m always amazed (and excited) by the “what church do you attend” question. I often attempt to share my faith as a progressive journey that, at my current stage, is not about church attendance, but more about leadership, justice, and altruism. I often attempt to communicate the variety of observance practices that demonstrate my faith and make it active/practical. I often attempt to communicate my motivation as intrinsic rather than fear of punishment or desire for reward. Other times, I just state, “I attend the church of Pierre.” I came up with this in honor or friend of mine (my best friend) who is the grand example of self-sacrifice and community engagement. He runs an after-school program for teens. Promoting the church of Pierre gives me the chance to promote my friend and his ministry, a 5-day a week modeling and wrestling along with kids and their families. So, “what was that about one day a week again?”

    • Hey Michael,

      Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I get what you mean about your motivation being intrinsic instead of being motivated by fear of punishment or desire for reward. For me, that fear, judgement, and punishment based way of thinking was one of the things that turned me off. Even in the example I shared in my story, I felt sorry for the woman who, I thought, seemed to come from a perspective of seeing her creator as vengeful. That’s just an idea that I have not been able to adopt for my own life.

      I too practice leadership, justice, and altruism, and believe that those practices can be found in a variety of different ways of being and believing. Your “church of Pierre” idea is pretty cool too :) It sounds like a positive program.

  2. Mikel Brown says:

    I think this commentary is written by articulate, caring and intelligent person who I admire for their courage, generosity and sincerity of purpose. I think it also does a very good ob of representing a misrepresentation. Part of the misrepresentation begins with acknowledging and identifying as a “Christian” example things that totally anti and contradictory to. I cannot legally practice as a lawyer without completing required coursework or passing the bar exam. I could call myself a lawyer, but it would not mean much to anyone; most people would question what I was saying rather than questioning the law profession.

    I think also the concept of “Black Church” should be explored for context; it represents a socio-politcal perspective based on the exclusion and oppression birthed out of slavery. The term “Black Church” indicates not meeting the terms and conditions of “Christian”, just like the question “what church do you go to?” The terms and conditions of Christian are not met by either statement. I highlight these because I think their use creates opportunity for dialogue and developing a deeper understanding with the person using them, to find out what they are really trying to say; and to create greater awareness about the separation that is created by using them. This is also is contradictory to a doctrine of, “fishers of men” and “good news of the gospel of peace.”

    Finally, where I was born is certainly a major influence, but not a determining factor; I have a friend who is a practicing “Christian” who lives with a mother who is a practicing “Buddhist.” I have a nother friend who is a practicing “Pentecostal” Christian that is married to a practicing “Jehovah’s Witness” Christian. I know several who are close to me who were born in a “bad ndighborhood” of uneducated underachievers; yet they have achieved advanced degrees academically and excellent careers professionally.

    I think anytime we take things at face value for the sake of promoting a position, it creates exclusion and also is contradictory to dialogue based on research and critical examination for the sake or relationship building, social justice and peace among all humanity. After all, history says that Christ was killed by the ruling government and the ruling “church.” Grace, Peace and Love-

    • Thanks for your heartfelt sharing Mikel!

      I really appreciated your third paragraph where you shared your personal lived experiences with knowing people who maintain close relationships with people from different faiths. I think that’s a wonderful example and demonstrative of the type of community that needs to be highlighted more prominently.

      One of the things about dialogue that I really appreciate is that it allows people to come together and share experiences that neither may have had, allowing everyone involved an opportunity to learn something differently, and to do something differently with what they’ve learned.

      I also loved your point about how taking things at face value can be contradictory and counterproductive to dialogue and building relationships. I think in order for the process to be successful, it’s important to understand that taking things at face value is a “two way street”, and that we have all been taught misinformation (and may believe that misinformation) about people who are not like us, or whom we may believe to be unlike us.

      Getting to a more complete and inclusive truth is the reason behind my writing and my work, in which I share my own personal, lived experiences. This very personal piece is an example of that, and I hope my words serve to bring forth dialogue between people so that they are able to share their own lived experiences, and hopefully come to a better understanding.

      I’m not always able to estimate my reach, but I’m glad you shared your comment because it’s an example of the kind of exchange that I’m always hoping for.

      One thing that I’m constantly being reminded of in my work and in life is the idea that sometimes, validating one experience can seem to invalidate another. This can be even more damaging when it comes from people who are close to us.

      In this work, just as it can get tiring as person of color to have the role of “educator” thrust upon me to “educate” white people about white privilege, it can also be equally as exhausting having the impetus placed on me to “inform” people who are Christian or who say that they are Christian about aspects of religious privilege they hold regardless of the way in which they practice.

      Thank goodness for Christian Allies!

      In my own journey, I remain appreciative of Christian allies of color (for the purpose of what I’m writing about here) who practice their faith, but seek to understand the experiences of those who do not, and who are advocates for all people in the work of relationship building, social justice, and peace among all humanity.

    • I do like the idea of “lawyer” being compared with “Christian.” It seems consistent with knowledge, sanction, and action as opposed to mere labels. It would be nice if the world worked that way, but alas…

      • I think it would be nice too, but I think it assumes that there’s a universally held belief on what being a “Christian” means. There are many denominations that operate based on many different interpretations of biblical text.

        For instance, I was once a part of a denomination that believed that it is shameful for women to be preachers in the church, citing 1st Corinthians 14:34-35 and other verses as the proof, so It was refreshing to me to later on have opportunities to meet people who saw nothing wrong with women being able to preach. That is just one example, but there are many that highlight the lack of a universal interpretation.

        I think Mikel’s comments highlighting how the response I received in my story as being misrepresentative of what Christianity actually is, highlight one interpretation, while there are other people who hold other interpretations that might think that the person’s response to me was completely valid.

        As you’ve said, I think it would be great if there was a definition of Christianity consistent with knowledge, sanction, and action as opposed to mere labels, but the knowledge, sanctions and actions associated that definition and lifestyle vary for so many people.

        Both you and Mikel’s thoughts help to highlight how complicated this issue really is.

  3. JaeRan says:

    This was another thoughtful and wonderful article. I can’t personally relate to having people from my racial or ethnic community assume I subscribe to a particular faith but I have heard from some of my friends and colleagues that they’ve experienced these assumptions. I also really liked the quote you included from Tutu and will be sharing that.

    • Thank you for your comment JaeRan,

      Feel free to share that quote from Tutu! I’ve been looking for a way to share it for some time now, and when I read the article that I linked to in this note, It inspired me to share the quote, as well as some of my own personal experiences.

      That you can’t personally relate to having people from your racial or ethnic community assume that you subscribe to a particular faith is also a very important perspective that I’m glad you added to a topic that can provoke somewhat polarizing responses. It’s another perspective that needs to be acknowledged, and I thank you for sharing it here.

  4. geof says:

    I know I’m white, but I get these questions as a foster parent for medically fragile kids. I mean it’s not exactly something done to make money as one could make more per hour at McDonalds.

    After three years of Episcopalian school followed by 6 years of Catholic schooling and finally reading the bible cover to cover, I find I know enough of the religions to at least not sound completely uninformed. My answer usually starts with that qualifier before going into some variation on the following:

    “One of the parts of my Catholic teaching in high school I admire most was the schools willingness to teach about other religions. It was just enough to make me start to question what I don’t know. I honestly admire those whose faith gives them certainty, but alas my mind thus far has been left with too many questions to claim knowledge about the nature of God.

    I am left with a certain envy of those like my daughter who ‘know’ God. I would never question her after multiple heart surgeries and a stroke before the age of 4. If anyone should should know…She is lucky and wise in matters of faith. However, I am left with the scientific mind ever wanting to quantify the immeasurable.

    So until such a day as my questions are answered or left meaningless for me, I will continue to observe, ask and test often marveling at the comfort and insights afforded to the lucky ones of certitude in their faith. Until that day, I will continue to live as any God with whom I would want to spend eternity would want.”

    Yes, I am aware of the hubris in the response. I’m no where near perfect.

    • Hi Geof,

      Mikel’s comments about the need to explore the context and reasons behind the fact that the idea of “the Black Church” was born based from exclusion which stemmed from slavery rung very true for me. I think there needs to be national dialogue about the hows and whys of that subject.

      One of the things that I sought to highlight by sharing one of my experiences through writing this note, is that there are other perspectives, and other experiences that are often ignored or blown over in my experiences in some circles of color, but one that is also worth acknowledging and exploring if we’re going to get to the kind of strength of community that I was describing early on in my note.

      With that being said though, I appreciate you sharing your experience from your perspective. I think it’s great that you had experience with learning about other religions while in high school. In the context in which I was socialized, even thinking about the possibility of another faith being credible in the least was seen as sinful, so your experience with having opportunities to learn is great to hear.

      You’ve spoken of your daughter in this way before in some of my previous posts, and it seems as if you both honor each others beliefs in your own ways.

  5. Dee says:

    I enjoyed this article so much. It is the truth! I face this drama more often then not. It maybe even worse if you are a black woman because black women are really expected to be ‘up in’ church praising! Seriously, since relocating to a small town in Tennessee I’ve had this problem and its really annoying and I haven’t properly come to terms on exactly how to deal with it before the town’s people decide to burn me at the stake for my non-religious ways. Lesson learned: don’t move to a small southern town.

    –Have you found a church home?
    -I’m non-religious.
    –So you don’t believe in God?
    -I said I was non-religious meaning I don’t practice organized religion.
    –Well, you can’t serve two masters.
    -I’m highly educated and a world traveler but I have no idea what you mean. :-\

    • Thank you very much for reading Dee, and for responding. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed reading it. As I’ve said earlier in this thread, I’m not always aware of my reach, but I am glad that sharing my experiences has served to make a connection with you, and in turn, I hope you sharing yours here helps to give comfort to someone else who might be feeling alone, but comes to understand that they are not alone after all.

      It can be lonely, overwhelming and challenging to face this kind of exclusion on a consistent basis, and I hope to offer you encouragement as you decide what to do in terms of whether or not to reveal your true self to the people around you, as the power that comes with religious privilege can manifest itself in many ways personally and institutionally.

      I also hope to encourage you by sharing that while I’ve definitely have my own lived experiences of times where “keeping it real” went wrong in this context, I’ve also seen it go right where I have been met with acceptance, validation, and friendship instead of damnation and brimstone. Those instances give me comfort in knowing that not everyone will respond in that way.

      I really hope that you are able to find a supportive community of people you can trust and are able to feel as if you can be your true self.

      Thanks again for reading, and for sharing. Come back soon.

      Stay safe out there.

  6. louise says:

    I feel so much better after reading this article as I am dealing with this issue right now. When it comes to social situations, once I do not self-identify as Christian, I am immediately made to feel like I am lacking in the most important department, RELIGIOUS FAITH. I have been called “lost, confused, devil grappled,” and many other things by people and family. I’ve never believed that a person’s religion or faith based affiliation defines them. While I do not self-identify with any religion, I have developed relationships and learned from individuals whose spiritual beliefs span many dogmatic systems. For some strange reason, I have been encountering this issue now more than ever!! Being a college student makes it more difficult than in years past! I say this because now, when I’m engaging conversation with another student, somehow the social interaction veers directly towards Christianity, and then a Christian lecture begins and all I can do is smile and agree. Why? If I don’t, then there goes any possibility for continued friendly relations….I wish we as people would not judge each other, and atleast get to know another without the dogma attached. Is this request that difficult?

    • Welcome Back louise,

      I’m glad that you felt better after reading this post. Sometimes It can feel isolating when your voice and experiences are not represented, but learning about the similarities in others’ can be refreshing.

      I hadn’t heard many other people share their experiences with being Black and non-Christian, but after reading the article I shared in this note, it really inspired me to share some of my own.

      Hearing that you felt better after reading this article inspires me to want to share more of my experiences, because like me, I’m sure that there are others out there who are going through or have gone through similar things who need to know that they aren’t alone.

      I’m wishing you the best in school, because it was during my college years that I had opportunities to meet and learn from different kinds of people with different ways of being and believing, or not believing at all. Being able to witness the kindness in those folks contradicted the stories of doom and gloom that were often associated with people who did not identify as being Christian in the stories I heard coming up.

      It was also in college where I began to notice many more contradictions, and began to deviate from the unquestioning mindset that I was told to have.

      Bringing up those contradictions, and any knew knowledge I gained was, and still is at times met with resistance. That’s why I think it is so important to find support whenever and wherever you can.

      I can relate to your “smiling and agreeing”, but what I’ve found through my own self-reflection as well as receiving support from trusted people who care about me is that the smiling and agreeing, the hiding and pretending, the catering to that person or people who is condemning you or giving you the lecture comes at an expense to yourself. A very high, very painful personal expense.

      It is my hope that you are able to find the support you need to empower you to a point where you no longer feel the need to pretend any longer, but feel free to be yourself, just as you are.

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