Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Valentine for the Black Church

Dear Black Church,

Your arms were the first to hold me after my parents, and your sanctuary was the first outing allowed after my birth. I still live with the memories of babies being passed from church mother to church mother, knowing that there were loved in the place that was a second home.

You nurtured me during my childhood, in Sunday school, during youth retreats, and tarry services. Somehow, while I was not even aware, the songs, traditions, liturgies, testimonies and stories of your presence became entrenched within me.  To this day, there are hymns that I can sing, scripture I can quote, pieces of sermons that I can remember implanted deep into my memory - all before I could even read or write.

You baptized me and taught me the way of holiness. You helped me to understand the seriousness of my faith and my commitment to love God and my neighbor. Your words both disciplined me, but also discipled me. I knew the fear and trembling that accompanies the righteous and fervent prayer of the saints.

In the arms of two Black churches in Brooklyn, one Baptist and one COGIC, I was loved by an extended family, and raised to seek after God’s heart. Images of people who looked just like me adorned the walls. As a child, I knew a Black Jesus, who was well acquainted with sorrow and suffering. Each Sunday, I was surrounded by the black and white portraits of church founders and church mothers, stern-looking deacons and smiling pastors’ wives. I saw me, my very own self, from the pulpit and in the pews. Even the smiling family on the church fan donated by the local funeral home stared back at me, reflecting back my brown face.

I am the proud daughter of the Black church and its traditions and foundations shaped me. The Black church sent me to college and graduate school; stayed with me through my first years of teaching and is even now with me as I navigate life as a tenured professor. When I am traveling or lecturing or somehow cannot be in a service on Sunday morning, I still feel incomplete, knowing that I need a chance, at least once a week, to sit in the presence with the saints.

I am the proud daughter of the Black church, whose fiery sermons, songs of lament, sacraments, and rituals have provided me with both comfort and catharsis. The Black church encouraged me to pursue my own vocational calling, because it had equipped me to hear the voice of God, to know when God was speaking into my life. The Black church helped me to know God for myself, and the God I serve today belongs not to my mother or father, but is my very own.

I, dear Black church, am your beloved daughter. But because I love you, I reserve the right, as James Baldwin reminds us, to relentlessly critique that which I so love.

I cannot love the way you wound your daughters and sons, silencing and shaming those who exist at the margins of an already marginalized community. I cannot love the predatory pastors, morally bankrupt theology, and hypocrisy which pervade both the storefronts and the megachurches. I cannot love the patriarchy and the hierarchy which negates God’s insistence that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.  I cannot love the version of prosperity gospel that leaves the pastor wealthy and its membership struggling to eat. I cannot love the version of biblical interpretation which only concerns itself with personal sin while structural oppression is killing us. I cannot love the church which tells young men to pull up their pants and young girls to lengthen their skirts while simultaneously ignoring the hell they are catching merely trying to survive. I cannot love the church which fails to challenge injustice out of deference to the white gaze. I cannot love the church which is more invested in being a social club than serving the least and the lost. I cannot love a church which has forgotten the very history of resistance upon which it was founded and built.

And so my challenge, in this love letter, is to sit in the tension of a tradition that I love and continues to give me so much, even as I refuse to support the ways in which that very same tradition wounds and destroys.

I love the sights, sounds, praise, and worship of the Black church. I love the comfort, sanctuary, and joy she gives.  I love the preachers whose rhetorical skills, biblical exegesis, and delivery are unrivaled anywhere. I love the rock solid foundation upon which you were built. I love your social justice activism and your defiance of white supremacy. I love all the ways that you have sustained Black people, all over the world. But in my love, I can reject that which does harm simply because the most important lesson that the Black Church taught me was how to love myself.

I am your daughter, with eyes wide open…

Yolanda Pierce

© Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Longing For A Feast

A beloved colleague gave me a Christmas cactus last year, knowing I have a green thumb and that I love having plants and flowers in my office. I did my research and figured out everything I needed to do to ensure that there would be flowers blooming in time for the Christmas season. The leaves of my cactus were green and bright and the soil was the right consistency. I looked forward to the beautiful flowers the cactus would produce; a way to brighten up my office in winter. Despite my best efforts, there were no blooms by the end of the semester. I even snuck away to my office the day after Christmas just to check and see. But there was nothing to see...just beautiful green leaves and healthy soil, but no Christmas blooms.

I understood it was just a plant. I understood that nature works on her own time frame and not by an arbitrary date on the calendar. But at that moment, the plant felt like a metaphor for my life: healthy, planted in good soil, but waiting and waiting for something special to bloom. A Christmas cactus can survive all kinds of adverse conditions, but it takes something special for it to thrive enough to produce flowers. I knew all about being in survival mode, but lacking that "something special" to feel as if I were thriving and blooming where I was planted.

There is a tension between the gratitude you feel to simply survive life's trials and storms, even as you still long for a state in which you can thrive. You can count your blessings, name them one by one...even as you enumerate unfulfilled dreams and wishes. You can be grateful for all you have in life...even as you pray for a life exceedingly and abundantly beyond what you dare to hope. You can appreciate the simple gift of bread and water...even as you long for a feast. And so I am sitting with the first lesson of the new year: giving myself permission to long for a feast; to long for abundance; to long to thrive instead of survive. I give myself permission to dare to ask for a riot of blooms and not just healthy leaves.

I returned to the office this week for the first time of the new year and noticed one lone bloom among the many stalks of green on my Christmas cactus. It may be the only flower this year, or one among many. Only time will tell. But I took this picture to remind myself to hope, to long, to wish, to dream, to desire. And as I minister to people throughout the year, I will be sure to ask them: what are you longing for, but dare not name, for fear that your dream will never bloom?

© Yolanda Pierce

Monday, December 8, 2014

If Advent Is Real...

It is during the Advent season when we pause in the Christian calendar to celebrate the birth of the soon-coming Savior. I love this moment in the liturgical cycle, because our hearts and thoughts are with Mary, the unwed, teenage girl chosen to give birth to the Christ child. I cannot understand Advent apart from Mary’s story: did she experience joyous expectation at the news of her pregnancy?  Did she fear the social ostracism connected to her unwed and pregnant state?  Did she lie awake at night and wonder about the path her child would walk? How did Mary deal with the daily dance between an all-consuming love for her child and an all-consuming fear of the world into which her child would be born?

This Advent, I am thinking about the mother of Tamir Rice, Samaria Rice. My thoughts keep recalling her 12 year old son, killed by a police officer less than two seconds after encounter; her frantic 14 year old daughter, handcuffed and placed in the back of the police car as she wails over her brother’s body; and Samaria Rice, as she herself is threatened with arrest when she arrives at the scene of her child’s killing. And I wonder, what would it mean for Christians to take the Advent story seriously?

If Advent is real to us, then the unwed teenage mother or the homeless veteran or the crack addict or the prostitute or the otherwise “undesirable person” in our society is often the one chosen as the bearer of God’s grace and mercy.

If Advent is real to us, then prophets like John the Baptist are being born, to declare that a new day approaches. But we ignore them because we don't believe that prophets can arise from a Ferguson or a Cleveland. We don't expect that our prophets will wear sagging pants and be armed with cell phone cameras.

If Advent is real to us, then we must acknowledge Mary as a mother who knew that the birth of her son came along with a warrant for his death. And so we grieve with all the mothers of black and brown children, who must give their children lessons about death before they even have a chance to live.

If Advent is real to us, then we celebrate the miracle of the season: the miracle that something good came out of Nazareth; that a Savior was born among the least and the lowly; that the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known came from the most humble of origins. And it should give us pause to think about who Tamir Rice or Aiyana Jones or Mike Brown or Renisha McBride may have been if they had simply been allowed to live.

If Advent is real to us, our hearts would break in grief at the image of Samaria Rice, or any parent anywhere, cradling the lifeless body of his or her child on a cold street; grieving a death at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve. Perhaps every time we send a Christmas card, with an image of Mary’s protective and loving embrace of the Christ child, we will be reminded that Tamir Rice was also someone’s beloved child.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Litany For Those Who Aren't Ready For Healing

Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.

Let us not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.

Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.

Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.

Let us not rush past the loss of this mother's child, this father's child...someone's beloved son.

Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.

Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.

Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.

Let us not offer clich├ęs to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.


Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.

Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.

Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.

Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.

Let us be silent when we don't know what to say.

Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.

Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.

Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.

God, in your mercy…

Show me my own complicity in injustice.

Convict me for my indifference.

Forgive me when I have remained silent.

Equip me with a zeal for righteousness.

Never let me grow accustomed or acclimated to unrighteousness.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

When and Where I Grieve

The tears started while I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly - expecting the flow to cease. But it would not. Tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I wept while folding the laundry and while trying to decide what to cook for dinner. There is a moment when you grieve that you can no longer make tears - instead, your silent cries are felt in the pit of your stomach or in the wordless moans that escape your mouth.

It is difficult to put into words what triggered this particular moment of grief. All I can explain is that the weight of being black in a world that hates black existence came rushing forward and I could no longer contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I could no longer form the right words to describe how it feels to wake up in a world where a police officer can brutally assault and rape black women, violate the terms of his bail, and yet again be released from jail a second time since the courts have determined that he poses "no significant threat" while he awaits trial. I no longer had the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of a murdered teen uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worse of the American tradition for lynching. I did not have the right language to express my horror at the multiple deaths of black women whose only "crime" had been to say no to sexual advances. I had no language in response to the horrors of racism and misogyny that greeted me each morning.

Our culture privileges words and texts. If you want to be taken seriously and considered intelligent and rational, you are asked to respond to horrific events with sustained textual or oral analysis. I had been doing my best...writing, when I was asked to write, and speaking and preaching, when asked to do so. I've lectured and written on the historical, theological, racial, and societal implications of several recent events. But while sitting in Barnes and Nobles, my words failed because my words were no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul...and my soul wept. The horrors had simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write and so my tears took up where my pen left off.

On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of "There is Room at the Cross," playing on my headphones. I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But on that particular morning, the cross represented a place where I was encouraged to grieve. Whatever the cross means in a person's own theology, we know that the family of Jesus and his disciples grieved the death of one whom they loved. We know that tears were shed at the death of a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader whose entire existence confounded Roman authority. The cross is a place where there is always more room for the grieving.

The foot of the cross is a place where I can grieve for all the deaths and for all the people that are "ungrievable." And so I grieve for the women whose claims of rape aren't taken seriously because they are sex workers. I grieve for those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. I grieve for the mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. I grieve for women who stay home rather than face street harassment. I grieve for those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. I grieve for parents who have to teach racial life lessons while their children are still toddlers. I grieve for black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening's news. And I grieve for those who do not have a community to support them while they grieve.

At the foot of the cross, or at the site of any of these lynchings, state executions, murders, or injustices, there must be a place to allow the tears to flow and the moans to escape. There must be a place - beyond words or sermons or essays - which allows the body to grieve. Before we can heal the land, repair the breach, or right the wrongs, our souls are crying for a moment to mourn. The grief is both personal and collective as we grieve for our own losses and for the losses of others.  But when and where I grieve, my heart, body, and soul insist that this space, this moment, and this loss must be acknowledged. I grieve because it matters. I grieve because even when my voice is silenced, my tears will tell their own story.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Theological Bankruptcy

In his groundbreaking work, God of the Oppressed, theologian James Cone describes moving to Detroit in the midst of a series of insurrections.  He noted the silence and indifference of white Christians to what was happening in urban centers across America in the late 1960's.  He writes that their lack of response to what was happening in their own nation "was not only humiliating but wrong. It revealed an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy."  Cone's words have never been more prophetic than they are today when faced with the deafening silence of American Christianity in the face of racialized violence.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when unarmed black people are murdered by the state and their killers shielded from punishment.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black grandmothers are beaten unconscious by law enforcement officers as they seek shelter across a busy highway.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black teenagers are gunned down like animals, but rushes to promote campaigns against "indecent" music.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about black pain and suffering, but wants to rally to boycott a fictional television show.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when pregnant black women are placed in chokeholds by police, but campaigns outside of abortion clinics to "protect" life.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent in the face of urban violence, poverty, and joblessness, but wants to figure out how to plant an urban church from a suburban bubble.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racial disparities, but keeps singing hymns in which one has to be washed "white as snow."

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy, but wants to have conferences about doing "multicultural" ministry.

What will your liturgy on Sunday morning say about Renisha McBride?  What sermon will be preached that speaks out for Mike Brown?  What benediction will be pronounced that considers Marlene Pinnock?  Can you "pass the peace" if you only mean peace for your own neighborhood or community?  I believe our theological bankruptcy, our hypocrisy, our lukewarmness, and our indifference is an affront to God.  We are the richest nation in the world with a deeply impoverished theology. How can we claim to love God, whom we have not seen, but fail to love those we have seen: Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Aiyana Jones, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Johnathan Ferrell, Miriam Carey, Tyisha Miller...and the list goes on.

© Yolanda Pierce