Where Two or Three Are Gathered
“It could have been my mother” was a common refrain bleeding down my Newsfeed in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. It went beyond the murder of black Americans. It went beyond the violent desecration of a church. It went beyond the combination of those things. So far beyond that I wondered if I could say it as well. If it was a statement that belonged to me.
As a child, I was raised primarily in the fundamentalist Baptist tradition, the one where girls should only wear skirts below the knee and where graduates of the local affiliated school went to either Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College. In many ways, it differed from its Southern sibling only in planting its spires above the Mason-Dixon. And although we were raised to beef with Catholics who had made idols in violation of A Commandment, we were, in many ways, just as governed by ritual and totems. This was, at least, the religion as practiced outside of the home. Inside of it was the faith Mom had brought with her from Nigeria, from Igboland. This participation in the fundamentalist Baptist tradition, in hindsight, seemed more a matter of convenience, more a matter of the neighborhood in which we had settled, than it was a result of active searching.
The church we attended for much of my childhood had a thriving youth ministry, embodied most notably in its AWANA program, a non-denominational ministry whose mission was to raise children–grade-schoolers–to “know, love and serve” Christ. The acronym stood for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed” and was excerpted from 2 Timothy 2:15. Every Wednesday evening, we all gathered in the church basement where I was reunited with many of my classmates, who also lived in the area, and where we lived out this theologically centered version of the Cub Scouts, with our uniforms and our pins and our badges and even our red neckerchiefs. We were given spiral-bound books containing Bible verses, and our charge was to memorize the Scripture verses in them. In return for our accurate recitation, we would receive awards, and each book completed earned you a trophy or a plaque, at that age a massive thing it took two hands to hold.
There was the AWANA Grand Prix, where kids, with the help of their parents, crafted small cars out of plastic wheels, metal axles, and a box of pine and each car was set against another in the pinewood derby, an event that, more than anything else, showed what happens when one family has more resources than another. There was the AWANA Olympics where, in addition to being given our awards for successful devouring of our Bible verse handbooks, we would compete in feats of athleticism and where I learned just how fast my first sister could run.
Children being set on the path to spiritual fullness and evangelical leadership, each Bible verse we were made to memorize a bowl of blueberries or a plate of broccoli, depending less on whether it was Old Testament fire and brimstone or New Testament promise and more on whether it was long or short. I was good at it, the memorization, in some ways a gap-toothed version of the Baldwin analog in Go Tell It On the Mountain. We kept the trophies when we moved to a new neighborhood and, later, a new Protestant tradition. In another life, I am a preacher.
But in that first church, it was not enough to memorize verses from the Source Material. There were more steps to the assimilation of spiritual truth than that. And during Sunday services for the grown-ups, Mom would have me sit beside her and take notes. I would compose numbered lists made up of each takeaway, organizing the sermon into talking points on the fly, making note of repeated themes. Eventually, a few of my siblings joined me, not of their own volition. This was our broccoli. Others will recognize immediately this method of keeping children awake during the speaking of Scripture whose understanding might be beyond them. But I believe Mom also intended to have us engaging persistently in the act of organizing the universe, figuring out where the bad fit in, how it could be accorded with an omnibenevolent deity’s wish for us. Finding space for the good in the cupboard labeled “Blessings,” large enough to fit everything from family to good grades, even the things we’d earned touched with the Lord’s paintbrush. And finding space in that selfsame cupboard for tribulation. This was work. I believe Mom intended us to enlist our strongest muscle in grappling with the Scripture. It is a forgivable mistake that we were made to enlist our heads rather than our hearts.
The church to which we migrated during my senior year of high school was founded in 1635. Ten Colonialists had arrived in Wethersfield, Connecticut the year before, gathered together, and found in the wilderness of that unsettled country the presence of a God who could teach these immigrants about how to go about living where they did. The quarter is to this day replete with Colonial architecture, as if each new cycle of development the town has seen has sought to further preserve the place’s historical bequest. The shingles, the red of the brick, the height of the achromatic spires. The chill of the sanctuary on a snow-limned February morning.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a woman minister. Lovely and loving, the antithesis of the hellfire-and-brimstone Baptists I’d grown up in fear of, fundamentalists whose God lived in the mountains and hurled commandments and plague with equally indiscriminate wrath. This minister, this Congregationalist, told me once over coffee that church was more than a building or a denomination. It was catholic, small c. It was Matthew 18:20. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
This church fixed our leaky roof. It corralled our wayward loved ones. It smiled genuinely. It took us out to pizza. It cooked for Mom and the rest of us.
I didn’t notice their mostly-whiteness until after Trayvon was murdered. The sermons had begun, when we first attended, as relevant teachings, immediate and helpful. Guidance on how to go about this business of living. Then I began noticing how black people die today and I would wonder (and chastise myself after) whether the others were performing similar calisthenics, whether, in attempting to mimic their posture of “love and forgive,” I, as a black American, was bending knee in sincere genuflection, or grabbing ankle to prepare for ass-fucking.
In a segment on William F. Buckley Jr.’s show “Firing Line,” the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr. elucidates on his theory regarding the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The context of the friendly debate is the civil turmoil of the 1960s. It is Vietnam and Freedom Rides and nuclear disarmament. It is draft-card burning and the birth of the Peace Corps. The title of the segment is “The Role of the Church Militant.”
“You remember had there been ten righteous men, the city would’ve been saved,” begins the handsome white Reverend. “Well, for many years now, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion there were ten righteous men, only their righteousness wasn’t relevant. And I think that’s the great problem of the church today.” With the nuclear threat promising destruction as imminent and complete as what befell those two cities mired in iniquity, Rev. Coffin aims to make the righteousness of the American church more relevant, to shift the imperative from advocating free love to combating free hate.
To speak on the relevance of the church is to ask for whom is it relevant, or for whom does it seek to be relevant? And to ask that, in this country, is to ask if there is a black church and a white church. Because there is a black church, is there a “white church?” Perhaps that is like asking “is there a White Entertainment Television” network or a “White History Month”. White is the default. In literature, in entertainment, in employment, in the religious history of America. What is it, then, to be a congregant of color in a “default” church, a church that marches to the doctrinal drumroll as opposed to a church whose spirit sways to the dirge of shared tragedy? Doctrine is not meant to have a color, but faith is heaven and earth; it is night-time stars guiding slaves, and it is the turned earth of a freshly-dug grave; it is the wafer and the wine; it is the lightning that strikes on the road to Damascus, and it is blinking sweat out of your eyes as you work the field. It is getting on a plane to make a future for yourself in a country you’ve never been to. It is history. It is the history in the air we breathe, and it is the history in the earth on which we stand. It is a baby born. It is the dying of the light.
The varieties of religious experience are infinite. But who gets to be the Israelites, and who are the Egyptian overseers? Which among us is David and which among us is the Philistine? Can God smite on behalf of us as he smote on behalf of them? Who is “us” and who is “them”?
When, during my college and graduate school years, I would come home for a weekend or for vacation, and accompany Mom to her early Sunday morning Bible Study group, and we would discuss James Chapter 4, I felt I was sitting with the salt of the earth. We were in this together, fumbling our way forward, trying to figure out the balance between submitting oneself to God’s will and acting in agency. After years and years and years of flexing the brain to the point of breaking, I could finally exercise my heart and undo its atrophy. This was part of the package. Along with fixing roofs and cooking dinners and performing the Christmas cantata and showing me what mercy sounds like, this stumbling was companionship. It was two or more gathered in His name.
We are all meant to be stained by the blood of the Lamb, salvation the great equalizer that erases distinction, that dissolves the color line. But when a thing is bled of color, when every tint and hue and cast is washed away, chemistry tells us there can only be white.
I returned to this church on June 14, 2015, for the first time in entirely too long. I’d forgotten that over an entire year had passed since I’d last sought out that sanctuary, a year out of the country coupled with more years in the midst of the overpowering terrors/trials/tribulations of law school. Almost as soon as I sat down in that pew, tears sprang, unbidden, and the fight to hold them back persisted for the entirety of the service. Such that I could not even sing the hymns with the fullness of my voice because it kept cracking. I don’t know, even now, if I was so near to weeping because I had been reunited with the divinity from which I’d spent too long apart or if I was feeling, finally, in that near-cavernous space, the weight of its absence. I knew a longing, a tremendous loneliness and a terrifying experience of my own powerlessness, had pierced me. Though I did not whisper any particular words or form them in my mind, I do believe I was engaged in prayer.
Prayer is an act of self-love. When I box and each movement is evidence of a reservoir of strength and the whole collection of me is warmed and loose, I know I can love this body and this spirit, both of which are operating in the absence of a mind that has, for too long, maintained dominion over the others. Lying on bedsheets in the summer with a merciful breeze coasting through an open window. Caught in the embrace of a loved one, his arms around your back, her head on your shoulder. Or even whittling away at a piece of wood, fingers and palms and wrist working as you trust they will. When you laugh and don’t care how it sounds. The things this body can do. God can be omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent and omnibenevolent, containing all the contradictions inherent in all-ness, but to pray, to ask Him to pay attention to you, to this miniscule bundle of flesh and bone and blood and muscle, is to concede that you are worthy of that attention, no matter how many self-deprecating subjunctive clauses serve as an introduction to your communiqué.
My mother prays with the fervor of someone for whom every step on American soil is sacrosanct. As though she has just now arrived and cannot believe her good fortune. It is prayer pregnant with thanks, gravid with gratitude. It is prayer that enlists the entire body. It is an immigrant’s prayer, neither white nor black, but more recognizably black than white. It is an ideal to which I’ve aspired, because it has always sounded right. Correct. Not the hollow entreaty of a wordsmith. But the juggernauting of a true penitent. In those moments, as a child, when I would peek at her with one eye, she would glow with the otherworldly power infused in her bones. She was a superhero the way she raised us, and when I watched her pray, I felt I had chanced a glimpse at the sun from which she derived her powers.
The Wednesday of the week I’d returned to church, a young white man walked through the doors of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He joined a Bible Study group attended by 13 people and, for an hour, participated in their discussion. He then pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his fanny pack and opened fire.
It could have been my mother in there. Except it couldn’t have. Because our congregation is predominantly white, and our teaching is New Testament restraint. What use do we up here have for the retributive, plague-breathing architect of a revenge fantasy? But if it had been my mother, I would have prayed for frogs, for locusts, and for rivers of blood. Can I ever call such a worry realistic, shielded as I am by all of these white bodies? Even with the knowledge that nowhere in America is it safe to be black, can I still call this worry that our church will be so desecrated realistic? “Our” church.
Which truth governs? That I and these white congregants are participating in the practice of the same faith? Or that to be black in America is to exist in a near-perpetual state of terror and mourning?
How loudly should I scream to activate the network of penitents I see in photos on my Newsfeed, faces twisted in anguish or languid with weariness, clear tears on black faces? To join my voice to theirs in the funeral dirge? And scream I must because silence is deafening. Beneath the vaulted ceiling of a church sanctuary, in the midst of a congregation filling pews and standing in balconies, that silence is murder.
“I don’t ever pray until I need shit.” When the body betrays or when the soul aches. And I know, because my country is my country, that some have prayed and continue to pray for the utter obliteration of people who look like me. Of people who look like Ethel Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Suzie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., Reverend Sharonda Singleton, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Is it wrong to fire back that same prayer, shot across the bow, to the initial offender, to hope that the Lord would hear me, would hear the echo of this act of self-love that sees me, knees bent and head bowed? Is it wrong to pray for frogs and for locusts and for rivers of blood? Is it wrong to pray that every Confederate flag on American soil finds its own funeral pyre? Is it wrong to pray for revenge? Or am I bound forever by the tenets of this faith to grab my ankles and await the next trespass?
Can you hate and still love God? Does the human enormity allow it?
One asks oneself these questions and one asks those with whom one shares a pew, because the flaming bush is a red-haired woman in a flower-print dress and a sleeping child in her lap or a retiree who, every year, invites your family to his and his wife’s home for a luxurious and languid afternoon, or a group of churchgoers who, every December, cook your widowed mother a different dinner for every day of the month. Because God speaks through them, and maybe asking them is as asking God.
Once upon a time, I thought I was asking to be pulled out of it all. I am a first-generation black American. The son of an immigrant. Though I was born here, this place is only a relatively recent inheritance in my family, and I will always feel a grain of sand removed from the Freedom Riders and HBCUs and the Detroit Race Riots and Reconstruction. I’d been raised in predominantly white neighborhoods, had attended predominantly white schools, and had found myself among predominantly white church members. Was I asking them, all that time, to pull me out of the plight of blackness? To pull me into a space where white fear and white hatred couldn’t follow? I don’t know. What I do know is that I am now asking them to join me.
I’m reaching over the color line. By acknowledging it here, where there is more difference between the Galatian and the Ephesian than there should be between white and black, am I making it a chasm or are they?
Cry about Charleston, you say, angry and anguished and black, the way I’ve been crying about Charleston. A church is a church is a church. This is your tragedy as much as it is ours, you say. And it could’ve been my mother, you say.
There are good people around me in this church. People driven by honest Christian kindness. And maybe it was the same in Gomorrah. Good, honest people. Whose religion, whose faith-in-practice simply was not relevant, and whose home, in its final apocalyptic convulsions, swallowed them whole.
And so you sit and you look around and you wait for your white minister to speak to his predominantly white congregation about the massacre of nine black churchgoers in a place of worship in Charleston, South Carolina. And you wait. And you wait.