I Quitchu: A Lenten Journey

I’m giving up church for Lent. To be truthful, beyond the worship services that I’ve attended at my campus and at this year’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, I gave up church two months ago. It was at the beginning of January that I notified my pastor that I would be resigning my leadership position and eventually leaving the church. What I’m giving up for Lent is the guilt that I inevitably feel on Sunday mornings when I stay home working in the garden or go hiking with my family.
I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church for 10 years now, but in my heart I’m still a good Baptist (which is maybe why I keep teaching at Baptist seminaries!). I still remember my baptismal vows at the historically Black Baptist church of my youth. In them, I promised that if I were to leave that church, I would find another as soon as possible. Since then, I have always tried to keep that promise. And my family has held me accountable to it. When I moved to Miami at the age of 21 to attend graduate school, every phone call to my maternal grandmother would include her asking, “Did you join a church yet?”
The thing is, it is hard to be an African American woman with progressive theological, political, and social commitments and find a church. It is not just that there are elements of the worship experience that make me feel uncomfortable. I can deal with discomfort. In fact, I think that if worship doesn’t regularly stretch us beyond our comfort zone and force us to encounter God through the eyes of others, it’s not worship at all.
I’ve always been willing to make compromises. I can give up my preferences for music or preaching in a certain style if the teaching is theologically sound. I can deal with being one of few people of color in a congregation if the voices of women, young people, and LGBTQ persons are respected and empowered. I can tolerate a certain level of dysfunction in the leadership and organization if the commitment to intersectional justice is strong enough. And I can put up with a combination of those factors if my kid will have the chance to participate in a strong children’s ministry that is discipling him well.
My issue is that of being in churches that – whether in their music, prayer, teachings, polity, or practice – routinely make claims about God that I believe to be contrary to who God is and who God calls us to be. I am opposed to being in church that deny the imago Dei (image of God) within myself and others by forcing us to conform to their image of who we should be. And that has been the experience in almost every congregation that I’ve attended. Ultimately, the pressure to conform reveals itself in one way or another.
When I joined the leadership of this new church plant 18 months ago, I took it as a chance help build a new type of community from the ground up, a place where we would make a radical commitment to becoming beloved community, where people of diverse backgrounds would find themselves welcomed and empowered in the fullness of who they were. What I absolutely did not want was to create another “Benetton” type of multicultural congregation, one where the church was filled with people of different races/ethnicities but who were all culturally white. But eventually, it felt like that was precisely what we’d become.My repeated efforts to redirect us were not successful. It began to feel like I was Sisyphus, doomed to eternally push a boulder uphill by myself.
My freedom came one Friday afternoon when I began reflecting about my perpetual struggle of being a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. “What am I losing of myself each time that I shave off bits of myself to fit? And what if I simply stopped trying to fit into these spaces?” Even the thought of the second question was terrifying. It meant that I would have to let go of a lot, including this new church family that I had grown to love. Over the next two days, after continuous prayer and dialogue with my partner, I decided to take the leap.
So, church, I quitchu. I quitchu with no plan to return to you as you currently exist, because you are abusive. I quitchu along with my many Jesus-loving friends who have quitchu, along with those who are considering it. I quitchu because you are incapable of loving me in all my complexity, because you are incapable of loving those whom God loves. I quitchu because you are more concerned with preserving your own existence than being beloved community. I quitchu because you quit me a long time ago. I quitchu because I need to heal from the pain and damage that you have caused me, and I cannot heal while being in relationship with my abuser. I quitchu because I realize that I can love Jesus better and more freely beyond the confines of your concrete walls and your restrictive theology. I quitchu, the institutional church, to join the church in the wild, the church in the catacombs.
Amen and Ashé.
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Recent Articles on the StrongBlackWoman

Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis
This week, I guest-authored an article, “Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis,” for ForHarriet.com. In the article, I narrate the true-life story of a StrongBlackWoman who arrived at the point of physical breakdown after failing to care for herself in the midst of crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

Without realizing it, Veronica had been caught in the vicious stress-health cycle of the StrongBlackWoman. Rather than giving herself the space to feel and express her emotional distress, she repressed it. She distracted herself by directing her energies to taking care of the needs of other people and institutions. She crammed even more activity into an already hectic schedule. And she devoted even less time to engaging in self-care behaviors. She had already had difficulty getting an exercise routine going. When cries set in, she began skipping meals and when she did eat, she relied on fast food and sweets. She sacrificed her sleep and leisure time to keep up with all that she had going on. Together, it was a perfect recipe for breakdown. With no outlet, her emotional distress became embodied in physical form. Her existing health problems were exacerbated and she developed new ones: headaches, dizzy spells, fatigue, fainting. 

In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I devote a chapter to describing the link between embodying the myth of the StrongBlackWoman and health problems among African American women.

Farewell, StrongBlackWoman
 
Be sure to check out Christena Cleveland’s excellent article, “Farewell, StrongBlackWoman.”  Cleveland is a social psychologist and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. In her article, Cleveland reflects upon her own embodiment of the StrongBlackWoman and her commitment to healing.  She writes:

My name is Christena and I am a StrongBlackWoman. I am beatable and human, and I am okay with that.  I give myself permission to scream when I am angry, cry when I am hurting, ask for help when I need it, and remove myself from communities that can’t or won’t care for and nurture me as a black woman. Every day is a struggle to put down the StrongBlackWoman façade and take up authenticity, true strength rooted in God and community, self-love, and mutual love. But today I choose to face that struggle and receive the help I need to overcome it.

What’s your commitment to healing as a StrongBlackWoman? Or to supporting the recovery of a StrongBlackWoman? Join the movement and claim your right to a life of authenticity, love of self, and relationships based upon reciprocity. We can do more than survive. We can thrive!

A Time to Grieve

It was effortless, really, the way the tears rolled down my face. In the six days since my breast cancer diagnosis, I have not really cried. I have been a StrongBlackWoman in recovery for nearly twelve years.  And even though I vowed not to play the role of the superhuman sister who hides her emotions behind a brick wall, old habits are hard to break.  I’ve had a hard time connecting to the grief that I knew was there.  I shed a few tears here and there, but never for more than a minute or two.

In part, it was because I was still in shock. But there was something else:  I don’t want to be comforted.  I don’t want anyone trying to staunch the flow of my tears once they start.  Grief tends to make other people intensely uncomfortable.  And often they try to deal with their discomfort by shutting down its source. I don’t want anyone trying to cheer me up so that they could feel better, especially not with meaningless cliches like “God won’t give you more than you can bear.”

I need to grieve, and not because I feel hopeless.  My mother is a 20-year survivor of a Stage IVB breast cancer.  Mine was caught much earlier and I have no doubts that I will fully recover.  I’m already picking out the soundtrack that I will dance to when my doctor pronounces me cancer free. But the path to being cancer free is a really arduous one. It is going to disrupt every facet of my life and at a time when life seemed to be on the upswing after several years of major losses and transitions. It will be physical and emotional hell, not only for me, but for my family as well. And for that I need to grieve.

So this Sunday morning, when the tears finally began to flow just moments after I sat in the church pew, I didn’t fight them.  I let their cleansing power work, giving release to the grief and anger that need to escape for my healing journey to begin.

Photo credit: Detail of Mary Magdalene crying in sculpture Entombment of Christ (1672). “Sépulcre Arc-en-Barrois 111008 12” by Vassil – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons