Obama, Marriage and the Mythical and Real Black Church

It’s been a few weeks since Obama “came out of the closet”. I may be late in response but many of the issues are clearly still relevant and important to address. Since Obama made his statement in support of marriage equality, there’s been a lot of somewhat annoying talk about how “THE Black Church” would respond. And, by the way, I am not one of these black folks who will say, “there is no such thing as ‘THE Black Church’!” Because you know what? There is a such thing. Not everyone black is in “The Black Church” and not every church with black people in it is “A Black Church” (So don’t worry white Christians it take more that 5 black people showing up to your church to make it a “Black Church”.) But there is indeed a historical, cultural, religious institution, whose culture and tradition transcends denomination and sometimes faith traditions and whose common connective factor is the ancestry and cultural heritage of the people in the pews.

I am someone who is from and of the Black Church even as I am not always in the Black Church. And as all of the responses and arguments began to come up for and against Obama, I felt the need to reflect on my journey in and out and back in to the Black Church. As one who is a straight identified ally of the LGBT community and one who feels called to prophesy against sanctified contradictions, I’ve had a really unique journey.

In 2006 I was recently out of seminary and thrown into a society that was charged with the politics of God and sexuality. I was told by the person charged with preparing me for ordination, “you must agree with Bush’s stance on Gay marriage” in order to be ordained. “I don’t agree with that.” I didn’t yell or scream or call this person a homophobe. I said, like our denomination, I believe in the separation of church and state. I said no president has the right to tell a church what to believe. In the same way that no church has the right to tell the country what to believe. That’s the point of being American and Baptist? Right? Wrong. “You might as well leave, if you’re going to say that kind of stuff.” And I was going to say that kind of stuff because it was the truth as I saw it and as it had been told to me in my Baptist Polity class. So I left… that room… the church where I was born and raise… and my denomination…

6 years later, I am ordained and spent some time pastoring and preaching freely. And while it felt good to be in a more progressive denomination, I missed the Black Church. And I realized how much I mourned the loss of something that served as my root and foundation. And in very cautious ways I’ve returned to that religious culture, while holding on to the denomination and culture that was able to affirm my call. I’m happier with my feet in both words. Too bad I cannot have both my soul and my call be affirmed in one space. But I believe that space is coming. And God is calling me and those like me be the midwives and help bring that space to life. But for now I need to heal.

All of these things considered, I wanted to share an excerpt from a sermon I wrote about a year ago about Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), specifically verses 3-7, where God is speaking about worshiping false Gods and taking God’s name in vain. It was my response to the Eddie Long scandal but it is very relevant today. If anything this sermon is my invitation and loving but honest critique of the church of my ancestry and the church of my soul:

When we think about about God telling God’s people through Moses not to worship false gods and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, we often think about specific things, like the golden calf the Israelites worshiped or the fact that some people say “Oh my God” or OMG too much. But I wonder if there is a wider perspective on this commandment God is giving to God’s people. Because sometimes even as we are worshiping Yahweh only and have committed to never saying Oh my God or using God’s name outside or referring to God, there are ways that we can still be guilty breaking these two divine commandments…

And this leads me to think about the controversy surrounding the Bishop Eddie Long. This week, Bishop Long seems to have joined the infamous, ranks of people like Ted Haggard and others who claimed moral authority and got caught doing the exact thing they spoke out against.
In 2004 Eddie Long was one of the main anti-gay marriage organizers within the black community. On some level his movement against gay marriage during the 2004 election season, may have been what caused such a large group of black Christians to vote for George Bush. He preached vehemently about homosexuality as sin, as something to fight against, as something evil. And lo and behold, this week two very young men have charged this same man, with using his position to manipulate them into sexual relationships…

And when you hear stories like that you begin to wonder if people like Eddie long, are preaching the word of God or using the pulpit as place to work out his own confusion and struggle over his own sexual identity. He seemed to be preaching something unresolved as if it were resolved and Gospel. If he did commit these acts it seems to me that Eddie Long and the like, have not reconciled their sexuality with their faith. And in reality not many Christians have. It’s something we all have to wrestle and pray about. There is no shame in that. But it becomes shameful when that lack of reconciliation being prayed to and preached about as if it is God. He is forcing his congregation (and in terms of the 2004 election the country and the world), to hold on to his unresolved struggles. And on some level it is the same sort of idolatry and undue use of God’s name that God warned against so long ago.

But on some level it is not the individual preacher alone who is at fault for this sort of thing. There is very little space in the context of the traditional church for an exploration of identity, inclusive of sexual identity without silence. Whatever Eddie Long’s actions are a reflection of internally; there is a larger external issue that is rearing its ugly head as a result of this controversy. Whether we are talking about sexual abuse of a minor, women in the pulpit or sexual orientation, when it comes to issues related to gender and orientation, specifically in the black church there is silence. And the only way it seems to come out is in the deifying of our struggles, condemnation and judgment. Instead of having honest conversations, and listening for God’s voice, we speak for God and turn what has not been sorted out into divine fact. And it leaves many people with a range of problems and a choice between silence and spiritual homelessness.

I think God may be calling the black church and the church in general to something new. God is calling us to honesty and diversity and truth. God is calling us to remember and honor (but not worship) who we were and what we’ve come from and be open to what’s next. God is challenging us to move with the movement of the Holy Spirit and not block the movement with our fears of the unknown. God is challenging us be daring enough to stop letting the worship of tradition continue to hold us back and abuse us. God is challenging us to seek God’s face only even if it means breaking out traditions and living outside our comfort zones.

Amen…

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The Sign of True Freedom (The Mad Preacher Rants about the Bed Intruder Song and Precious) aka Man in the Mirror aka Stop the Hate

So I tried to write a response to this NPR Article as a comment on someone’s Facebook page. But it got too long. So I will do it here, as I continue to ignore my worship prep work. (I’ll get back to it right after this I promise!)

This article truly makes me sick. Oh wait maybe it’s not the article. I’m doing what I’m about to say black people do all the time, which is blame the media for taking the type of black people who we cannot stand seriously. It’s not the tv station’s fault that Antoine Dodson was was “angry, defiant and flamboyant” as much as it’s not NPR’s fault that 80 years later the “New Negro” is still running around trying to rid the world of the “Old Negro” they don’t want to see. (It’s a Harlem Renaisance reference look it up.)

It’s the Precious debate all over again. Black folks too often blame the media for showing the side of black life that self-hatred and internalized racism tells them shouldn’t be viewed “in public”. “I don’t want to see a black man with a red rag on his head on TV because white people might see him and judge me. And I don’t even wear a rag!” “I don’t want the story of a plus size poor black girl being told because that same white person might judge me.”

I wonder, instead of asking authors and filmmakers and tv stations to censor every black person that doesn’t reach our New Negro standards, if we could begin to say to ourselves all of the people in our community are fully human and fully free and have a right to exist and be seen in spite our our personal (internalized)racist discomfort. I wonder if we could write into stations and not say things like “don’t air Antoine’s story”. I wonder if we could separate our calls for justice from our own internalizes self hatred.

Instead we could write to networks and movie studios and maybe to the NAACP and to ourselves and say something like:

We as African Americans long for true freedom. We long for the freedom that each white citizen has, not to be judged monolithicly (I know it’s not a word but work with me) by the behaviors of any individual white person. We want the freedom that white Americans have to tell their stories and be all of who they are no matter how rich or poor or racist or funny-looking they are, without it reflecting poorly on the whole white race. We as African Americans long for that true freedom. And we think you, tv producer, writer, (blah blah blah) can help by telling all stories from all perspectives for all kinds of black people. In a medium where both Tea Party members and Alex Trebek can exist, I think there is also room for both Antoine Dodson and Dominique Atchison.

Oh and by the way, just in case anyone cares… while we are lost in our embarrassment about Precious’ potential Mammy-dom or Antoine’ red rag… yet another story about a black women being sexually abused and/or assaulted got passed over and ignored… I just thought I’d throw that in there NP(freakin’)R! I know you want to talk about the rag some more… so run and tell that homeboy… homeboy… home homeboy!

Hippy’s not enough…

So the word “Hippie”/Hippy… has been floating around my world a little too much lately. And while I celebrate all that I am, I am a little unsure about that particular title. Yes I am theoretically a pure bread hippy. I was raised by a very poltically conscious mother. I went to Oberlin. I went to Union Seminary. I left the Baptists for the UCC. I love my Birkenstocks! My hair is natural. I like long flowery dresses and skirts. I use the word “vibe” and “energy” to describe spaces and communities. I use the words “space” and “community” a lot. I sometimes like to walk barefoot in grass. I’ve gone hiking a few times. I think sitting next to water and looking at the sky are great spiritual practices. I’ve lived in Park Slope. I live in Ann Arbor.

But there are a few specific things about claiming this term that does not sit well with me.

1) My ancestors and other black people. For me my hippie-dom is a representation and celebration of my freedom. And isn’t that what the ancestors were fighting for? The freedom of our people? Sometimes the reactions I get make me wonder. I often think about how Maya Angelou said “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” I sometimes think “yeah Maya so am I…” but other times I wonder if I’m actually the nightmare. Black folks too often act as if physical and legal freedom is the only thing we can hope to get in this world. Emotional, spiritual and social freedom is only for white people. I way too often get punished by black people for being too free…

2)White folk. I sometimes think that if the above list of schools and accomplishments and places of residence and blah blah… were pinned to the chest of a 30 year old white woman named Kate… we’d have a whole ‘nother story. Kate would be ordained a hippy and I guess a minister if she wanted to be and that would be it. She would be married to some progressive man who would have taken her last name. And no one would question why she didn’t just settle for the the dude in front of the Popeye’s on 125th. And Kate would have little cute kids who would wear cute political tee-shirts and go to drumming circles every week. And those kids will never have to chose between being “progressive” and being “white”. Kate would would not constantly be questioned about her loyalty to her denomination (even if she had come from the Baptist church). No one would EVER tell the administrator of the church to not collect offering on the Sunday she supply preached, lest Kate take the offering. Kate would never have been asked 3000 times “how did YOU get into Oberlin?” And even if she were on scholarship… no one would ever point-blank ask her questions about how she afforded her college education.

So the point is as much as freedom has led me to all of the hippy spaces and hippy conclusions… there is a white supremacist (yeah I said it) legacy that keeps me from fully engaging and experiencing true “hippy-dom”.

(Yeah I spelled hippy 2 different ways I don’t know which is right… just leave me alone!)

This is some scary mess!

I happened upon this clip and I find it very disturbing. Though I do sometimes fear that I will one day get so tired of being single that I loose my mind and decide to marry Jesus, that’s not what disturbs me…

In addition to my wacky fears, I am also distressed over this because of the number the Apostle Paul (or the Pauline Scriptures) has done on the Black Church. We are so negative sometimes as a church that we’d rather focus on Paul’s hysteria-based theology than Jesus. Paul wrote in a time when he was just sure Jesus would be back in a few minutes. So at that point his extreme measures made sense. Don’t get married. And only get married if can’t control your sexual desires. It makes sense in his context. He’s saying let’s not screw it up before Jesus gets here. But my question is 2000 years later what the hell does any of this have to do with the body of a young girl? And what does it have to do with how we have come to understand marriage. Paul is saying don’t get married at all. And he’s saying to MEN only get married if you feel like your horniness will get in the way of your holiness. Therefore if people were following what Paul said, they wouldn’t have been looking for their soulmates. The men would basically be using women’s bodies to release the unholy. Sound crazy? That’s because it is…. in my humble opinion 😉 So why would you use this scripture in support of this girl choosing abstinence? This is the scary mess that makes me want to leave the church. I’m not anti-abstinence. But I do wonder why the church is so intent on being the regulators of women’s bodies. And I wonder why we insist upon using the sections of the bible that devalue the women’s body the most as support for the regulation and “holiness” of women’s bodies?

If I Were A Boy…

Not just a Beyonce song… simply my life in a nutshell. I wonder if I were a guy would I be like my male contemporaries in ministry (not all of you guys but most) who give me “simple” “solutions” to my “problems”. According to them, the roadblocks I’ve face have nothing to do with my gender it’s simply that I’m doing it all wrong. And by wrong they mean, I didn’t do what they did. “Just (fill in the blank with whatever those male preachers think they did), and you’ll be just fine.” See… your problem is (fill in the blank with something about not conforming). Just be quiet until you get ordained. And you’ll be fine.”

If I could be “quiet” and ignore the fire shut up in my bones I’d go take a civil service test and get me some job security. If God didn’t speak to me, wake me up at 3am to tell me what I need to do… harassing me when I try to give up, I have a feeling, I’d be doing something else.

And I’m not trying to say that I’m perfect and I should be the pastor of some huge mega church by now and the fact that I am a woman is standing in my way. But I am saying that most churches are still learning how do deal with women in leadership. Therefore as a woman there are things that you face that male clergy will never see. Many women have suffered this reality silently. It is true that if you are silent you will get through the process faster. But I think speed and silence often mute God’s voice and God’s intention. Did God really call us to process and silence? Or did God call us to divine action and an openness to God’s voice?

Alas… I’m trapped in the world of male dominated process. But I can’t help it but wonder if I’d be more comfortable with it all… if I were a boy…

Tell ’em why u mad (part deux): Livin’ the single (single single)…life

I’ve been thinking a lot about love… I know… what’s new Dominique? If you know me at all that’s what you’re probably thinking. But seriously, I’ve been thinking about it in broader terms. It’s more than simply what I obsess about not having. And as a woman who, thus far, seems to be eternally single… I feel very marginalized in the Christian faith.

To my knowledge here are no references to singlehood in the Bible that aren’t problematic. There’s lots of talk about caring for widows. And that even seems a little “special” to me. The Bible links widows with the poor all the time. These were the two groups of people that God had the most pity for and got really mad when people didn’t care for them. This is good but it makes me think that in ancient times being single was the probably the least desirable thing a woman could be. 

So fast forward a few millennia and here we are. We live in a society that claims to have let go of notions of women as the property of either their father or their husband. We claim that marriage is about love and mutuality and not about the passing on of childbearing property or continuing the male line. So it’s possible that we might need to re-think our notions of singlehood. If the church is saying that everyone needs to get married, we need to think about the why of it all. Because when the Bible talks about marriage, it’s completely different from what we refer to as marriage. I’m not sure where God fits in to all of this. Did God’s notion of marriage change since women were seen as property. Does God even care about marriage?

I have a friend who is a priest and another friend who tries to convince the priest friend to leave the ministry and find a “nice woman” to settle down with. I guess that could be ok. I understand the argument that all people need companionship. But as a woman who is called by God to ministry yet has never been in a relationship, I wonder are there some of us in the world we are “called” to be single. Or maybe all of us are called to be single until we figure out spiritual or religious ground rules might be for these new notions of love, marriage, “partnership” and so-on…

“NO! If you don’t want to be single, you won’t be. God wouldn’t deny you.” 

That’s what my mother says at least. I hope that’s true because I really don’t want to be single anymore. But how do you know? The Crazy Christians say, anything you need to know about life can be found in the Bible. It’s the only book you need, right? So why can’t I find anything about how to survive without romance and love? Why have I gone through high school, college, seminary and beyond… preached and minister to God’s people… I’ve faced all kinds of very “real” situations… yet I’ve been on THREE (yeah three…) dates EVER! What does the Bible tell me about that?

The Apostle Paul does talk a lot about remaining single and not getting married because Jesus was coming back and we needed to stay focused. But… I’m sayin’… it was 100 years after Jesus was crucified when Paul wrote these things and it’s now 2000 years after that! So when exactly is Jesus coming? And why can’t we have a good date during my 2 millennia Jesus watch?

Ok… I sorry Jesus. I’m getting very snarky… but that’s what happens when you are so single for so long. So there’s no advice here… just a lament. Maybe you have some advice for me. Maybe you can pray for me.

Tell ’em Why U Mad (Entry 1): Lament of a “Black Lady Preacher”

A few years ago, while riding down Billy Graham Highway in North Carolina, my recently deceased father informed me he didn’t “like black lady preachers.” Thanks Daddy… There have been a few times that I’ve had to identify myself to my father: “I’m your daughter”, “I’m a woman”. But I chose at that moment not to inform (or remind) him that I was indeed a “black lady preacher”. (I don’t know how much of a lady I am but ya know…)

 

A few years later I am yet again in a car with a friend, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his friend, a Seventh Day Adventist woman. Unlike my father I’d never met this woman before. So I had no reason to expect her to know I was a minister. But my friend the pastor just had to start up a debate.

“So what do you think about women being ordained?” He asks her in a very nonchalant way, knowing full-well all the crap I’d been going through trying to get ordained. I think he was trying to get us to fighting. Or maybe he was trying to show me how liberal he was compared to his people. I don’t know. I didn’t care. I just wanted to jump and roll out of the car to avoid once again getting my feelings hurt and my call belittled by some traditionalist crazy-Jesus-wielding woman. 

In response to his question she begins to make noises in protest “Uh-uh, oh no!” She goes on for about 45 seconds making incoherant noises. “No! You know how I feel! I don’t believe in that!” And then my friend the pastor asks me (again very nonchalant-funny trickster), “what do you think?”

“Me??? Have you met me? Were you not there when I told my stories about trying to get ordained??? I’m getting ordained.”

“Oh you are?” says the quintessential church lady.

“Yes” says the dumpy Jesus girl.

“Oh…”

Well, it only took her about 5-6 seconds to remove her foot from her mouth and effectively climb out of that moment of humility. Instead of engaging me, the one now trying to find a way to jump out of the car and off the Brooklyn Bridge, she turned back to my friend. If she couldn’t save the heathen in the back seat at least she could save her pastor. “The Bible is very clear… women have their place and it’s not in ordained ministry. Jesus only had twelve disciples and none of them were women.”

Yes, sister, women have lots of “places” in the bible and I guess technically none of the women were ordained to parish ministry. Many of the “places” led to death, rape, mutilation, being married off to men who didn’t want them and least of all namelessness (remember “the woman” in every other Biblical story).

But don’t want to deal with that right now. What I want to do is go back to Jesus. You know him right? That dude our faith is based on, and who we ignore for the sake of our tradition.  Jesus loved and trusted women. The Gospels give an account of women doing all sorts of things. What was consistent though was they always loved Jesus with unmatchable intensity. And more than any of the men in the Gospels they were open to the reality of Christ’s ministry. They experienced what the men couldn’t get to. They believed what the male disciples simply could not rap their brain around. It was one of the 8million Marys who first saw Jesus when he rose from the dead. If this is how we are defining womanhood, I kinda like it. I kinda like getting that front row ticket to the “Jesus experience”. And my only desire in ordained ministry is to move other people into that same level of witness and experience of the mercy and grace that comes from a personal relationship with God through Christ. 

So my sister, if this is something you don’t “believe in”, I can’t help you. I honestly don’t need your belief in me. If you need maleness to access God, so be it. And God bless you. But as for me I’m going to keep on moving forward and be a spiritual companion for those who seek something different. 

The Mad Preacher

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