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