Currently, I am navigating a depressive episode. While I have access to the resources (therapy, medicine, communal support) to ensure my wellness, living with depression can be difficult. The triggers come fast, and when it hits, all you can do is ride the wave. But while I was talking to one of my best friends this week, we were able to share a laugh in the midst of a pretty rough time.
I told her, “I feel like a ship tossed and driven, battered by an angry sea.” Immediately recognizing that I was reciting Thomas Dorsey’s hymn “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow,” she chuckled a bit. Then, I continued the verse until I got to the chorus:
The Lord will make a way somehow, when beneath the cross I bow.
He will take away each sorrow; let him have your burdens now.
When the load bears down so heavy, the weight is shown upon my brow.
There’s a sweet relief in knowing the Lord will make a way somehow.
I waved my hand and said, “I feel a little better now.”
My friend laughed and said, “You are so churched.” And she’s right. I am.
I am a product of the black Baptist church. Sunday school and Vacation Bible School were as essential as my public school education—I even enjoyed a stint at a private Christian school. My mother believed the most important thing she could do was raise me in an environment that reinforced the morals she taught at home.
But as churched as I am, I don’t necessarily subscribe to all the theological tenets that made up my upbringing. First, I don’t think premarital sex is sin. If Ruth could pop it for Boaz, I don’t understand why we’re still having True Love Waits and Pinky Promise ceremonies and conferences.
Second, I believe sexuality is a part of creation and all of creation is deemed good by God. Why we are still using faulty biblical interpretations to justify “hating the sin but loving the sinner” when it comes to LGBTQ folk is crazy to me.
Last, and possibly most important, I don’t believe that Scripture is infallible. Even the process through which we get Scripture was political and reveals humanity’s quest for power and control. Not to mention, there are a few passages that I would argue don’t reflect God’s heart, and work to justify violence against women and children.
Some have said to me, “OK, so you’re not a Christian anymore then.”
Confused, I found myself trying to explain how I reconciled the totality of my beliefs into a fulfilling Christianity. Then I just stopped. People are going to believe what they want, and I was expending too much energy trying to change their minds. But just because I stopped defending myself doesn’t mean the fight is over.
Weekly, I receive everything from loving correction to straight-up rebuke from folk who think I’m going to hell—and am taking unsuspecting sisters with me. Sometimes I roll my eyes and laugh at the ignorance and misspelled words. Other times, I cry; folk can be cruel and hurtful.
All of this raises the question: Where is the space for progressive, free-thinking church girls? Where do we go to be spiritually fed and find community?
I am one of the lucky ones. I have a great relationship with my pastor, and he knows where I stand on certain issues. His position on many things mirrors my own, and when we don’t necessarily agree, we talk about it. He’s interested in and values my perspective.
Before joining his congregation, I told him I couldn’t attend a church that disparages single mothers, demonizes LGBTQ individuals, stigmatizes mental health and lacks nuance when approaching black women’s sexuality. Those are my deal breakers, and I recognize how privileged I am to be able to have and vocalize them as such.
But the sad truth is, if my pastor had not been open to hearing my theological perspective and had not already fostered a church community where I could see myself, there wouldn’t be much that I could do. Sunday after Sunday, so many of us have to shut off and compartmentalize parts of ourselves in order to make it through the message—or we just stay home.
Even social media hardly amplifies the voices of progressive black Christian women. Sisters who have a progressive look with a traditional message saturate the market. They embrace their curves and the beauty of their bodies—something the church frowns upon—while still telling black women that “soul ties” are real and having sex outside of marriage equates to torturing our spirits.
I know and love many of these women. On the surface, it would seem that our theological views are as different as night and day. Yet, off the record, many of them will say, “I agree with you but could never say that publicly.”
And as frustrating as that is, there is a cost to being labeled “progressive.” The requests to speak and preach at conferences aren’t plentiful. Your access to some of the platforms that helped sustain your faith can become restricted. And more than anything, if you are labeled a progressive church girl, your faith isn’t taken seriously. It’s always assumed that you value your education over a personal experience with God. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
There are many of us who can discuss how problematic it is that black Christians glory in the violence of the cross and plead the blood of Jesus over our lives. We denounce patriarchy, asserting our God-given bodily autonomy and submit to the spiritual leadership of our pastors who may be cisgender, heterosexual black men. We have Audre Lorde on our bookshelves and a hymn in our hearts. We live at the intersection of our feminism and faith. And more than anything, we are not going anywhere.
For us, remaining connected to our churches is a theological and black feminist commitment. Black church space is black women’s space, and we deserve to be there like everyone else. It would behoove our pastors and leaders to stop acting as if we are invisible. We are here.