The week after I was saved, the Southern Baptist obligation was to become baptized, so I duly scheduled for my sins to be washed away the following Sunday because… these things have to be scheduled, you know. A lot of church was like that: you came in fifteen minutes early to shake every ones hands, then you sit and doodle on your bulletin. If you’re between the ages of 15 and 24 or what those below the Mason Dixon line like to call “Small Group Age,” then you raise your hand above your head while older-church-goers stumble through the words of a Steven Curtis Chapman song that has come to replace the songs within the hymnals that have merely become a sturdy surface to write your offering check on.
Eventually, you wade your way through a sermon and get to the invitation where three teenagers from the youth group mosey to the front to rededicate their lives to the Lord for the third time this year as everyone nervously shuffles waiting on some unknown face to approach the alter to potentially, sincerely give their lives to the Lord. I always loved the girls that would rededicate their lives because we would always give them obligatory congratulations afterward to which they would respond, I just really wanted to give my soul back to the Lord, as if you can just petty theft from Jesus. And then afterward, we would go downstairs and have lunch. Being Southern Baptist for the first sixteen years of my life was one of the most methodically inspiring things I could have ever been apart of.
The first couple years were the best, but it’s funny because the Baptism is where things started to go downhill. As I prepared to be dunked in the holy water that could burn your sins off with its chlorine content alone, the pathway to the baptismal pool was cluttered with too much Jesus. On the way to the bleach pit of Heaven, I climbed over discarded crosses and boxes of pageant pamphlets. All of these things promoting Jesus were actually blocking me from getting to my baptism, and even as a 13 year old, the whole thing seemed kind of ironic. Once I had been cleansed, I joined the youth group and said prayer requests for all the people we were worried about. Prayer requests were our chance to gossip about the people in our lives while also hanging out in the circle of God. If our lives became too uneventful, we would just say “unspoken,” which alluded that we knew something that was just too juicy to say to the group.
Eventually after bouncing around three churches, I decided that maybe church just wasn’t the right place for me to find God. I had decided that men (or at least the Baptists) couldn’t be trusted with the power of God because all of the community softball teams and youth retreats and van rides on the way to youth retreats touched on a number of things (pun intended) but none of those were Christianity. I had been on church-hiatus for about two years, cleansing myself of all those MercyMe and tobyMac lyrics when a woman my mom works with invited me to go to church with her. At first I was kind of surprised that my mom relayed the message to me because momma didn’t really trust me to be around any other adults. That might have been because our neighborhood was dotted with meth houses, or Surprise Fireworks as I like to call them. Either way, there was a very short list of people I was allowed to go out with, and apparently, fellow-telemarketer and fierce-black-woman Teresa was one of them.
Teresa had found the Lord sometime during and/or after her stay in prison. I worked as a telemarketer with them both and heard Teresa break down a remix version of “Jesus Loves Me” multiple times before. She attended a Church of Zion, and after weighing the pros and cons, I decided that it couldn’t be any more misdirected than any other church I had been to. I got up early on Sunday, and mom drove me to the Weigels in East Knoxville–the same Weigels that had been on the news a week earlier because of a neighborhood shoot out. For the record, East Knoxville is not where you go to have a picnic, let alone worship the Lord… or so I thought. Either way, I took solace that the police station was just a football field’s length away.
I turned to Mom and asked, Are you sure this isn’t going to be awkward? Mom looked back at me and said, Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll have fun. Thanks, girl. I wasn’t really asking if I’d have fun or not, but that’s a super consolation prize. I was obviously not dressed appropriately for what we had simply deemed “black church” in my neck of the woods. Teresa spun into the parking lot and emerged in a bright purple dress, and there I was… standing there in a white short-sleeved button up, light khaki pants, and my semi-translucent skin… just like Oh hey. I’m not a klansman. She was having trouble getting her giant purple hat out of the car, so she hollered out, Aw, shit on it— language I’m confident that she never brings into the house of God. I was quickly ushered into her Cadillac, and we were off to meet the Lord, one way or another.
|This is Black Jesus, which can be used interchangeably
with White Jesus. The interesting part of this is that
Black Jesus wears a puka shell necklace, and White Jesus
does not. Even though Black Jesus is light-skinned,
we still like him. #irony
As we entered, I felt like the entire congregation must have greeted me–it was obvious that I was the standout guest. I searched the room and found one familiar face in the back. I don’t know what inspired me to say it, but I leaned over to Teresa and said, Oh, look! There’s a white woman sitting back there! Not only did I look like a completely insecure racist, but an ignorant racist at that. Teresa brushed it off and responded, Oh, no baby. She’s just… ‘light skinned.’ Her eyebrows rose above her rolled eyes. Got it. So far I had learned two things that I still hold close to my heart: you don’t know what it’s like to be the minority until you are the minority and we don’t like light skinned black girls. But back to the story, it seemed that black church wasn’t too different on the surface, but there was something obviously different. I know it sounds crazy, but it seemed like these people genuinely wanted to say hello to each other.
The service began with a string of hymns that we don’t sing at the Baptist church. We’re a very call and respond kind of people. I sing a line; you sing a line. We sing approximately a quarter of a song, sit down, and pass notes back and forth about how slutty everyone in the youth looks that morning. In this church however, the congregation would add in makeshift lines about how God had transformed their lives. I decided to call upon my mentors at the Baptist church and clap along enthusiastically. I looked around and people were on the ground, crying. I wondered if there was call for an exorcism or if God was throwing people to the ground for shits and giggles. I kept thinking to myself why are all these people crying?
Theresa chimed in with her personal story of finding God, in verse of course, then my biggest nightmare happened. The reverend found me; just a poor whitewashed Caucasian boy sitting somewhere in the middle of the congregation.
You, in the white shirt! Do you love the Lord?!
After realizing that I had been passed the metaphorical crown of thorns like a hot potato, I nodded vigorously.
At a volume just a decibel louder than a dog whistle, I mouthed, I love Jesus!
Say it louder!
I smiled extra big, convinced that would make my whisper that much louder, I love Jesus!
Somehow, in all of the mix and the quiet white judgement, followed soon after by white guilt, I had stumbled upon something I had never found in the walls of a church before: true inspiration from being in the company of Jesus. Even crazier, I had found people that seemed to be there for the reason of being close to God. I walked out of the church, still wiping tears from my eyes, and I noticed that their parking lot had not been redone in years. The mission trips they spoke of were in their community, speaking to the same people they passed on the street daily. No one was going to a Guatemalan beach to bring the Lord to local tourists–what little money placed in the Church of Zion’s offering plate was money given to do something greater. It was to actually benefit the people that needed God.
I haven’t been back to church since that day because I’m afraid of what might happen if I do. I don’t want to jinx church because I went out on a good note, kind of like how Shania Twain ended her career. Instead, I just pray to God pretty regularly. I hold on to that feeling I had at that church, and I remember the people that so graciously welcomed me into their congregation. No one rededicated their lives to the Lord because they understood that everyday was a constant struggle to stay close to Him.
I don’t think that religion exists within a church because if you’re doing it right, all of your love for God shouldn’t be able to fit into a church… that’s why everyone was crying–not enough room. Instead, I think that the time you spend in church and the time you spend posting Facebook Bible verses could probably be better spent actually, you know, being nice to people. Even to the light skinned black girls.