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?”
“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?”
“That’s wonderful! We need more young black men like you doing positive things in the community.”
“What church do you go to?”
“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.
That 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!
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW