It was our first pre-marital counseling session, and I was nervous. I wasn’t thrilled with being forced to do this, but John* wanted his pastor to marry us, and that meant going through at least four separate counseling sessions. However, both of us were in a different state than his pastor, so the only option I had was going to a pastor that made me . . . uncomfortable. I already was struggling with trusting this man. He’d exercised church discipline against a woman who dared to express a different view than him without seeking the approval of the church body first. When I was being attacked and lied about by one of the church’s young men, he had dismissed my concerns as “hysterical” and “humorless.”
As I sat in his office, on a sofa I felt like I might slide off of at any moment, I struggled to be in that moment, and not dwell on the past. I just needed to get through this– and then do it three more times.
“Well, first things first.” He opened. “There’s some questions to get out of the way. I know I’m not marrying you, but it’s my responsibility to make sure that you both are ready and qualified for marriage. I don’t want to do wrong by the pastor that is marrying you.”
We nodded. That seemed sensible.
“There are a few things that I have stood by my entire ministry. There are some couples I just won’t marry, because I think that it’s unbiblical. So, first off, have either one of you been married before?”
My laugh was a half-strangled twitter. “No.” John* echoed me.
“And you’re both of the same faith? You agree on matters of salvation, on standards? That’s part of what it means to be equally yoked, you know.”
We told him that we were– and the questions continued for another 20, maybe 30 minutes. Most of them were fairly easy to answer, and fairly obvious. Toward the end of our session, the atmosphere had lighted up a bit. John seemed comfortable, and the pastor was leaning back in his chair, fingers clasped over his stomach.
“Well, you two passed with flying colors,” he laughed, “so no worries there. And there’s other questions I don’t even have to bother to ask you, of course. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t in good conscience marry mixed-race couples.”
I struggled to keep my mouth from dropping open. He what?
“I realize there are plenty of folks who are willing to do that, and I’m totally alright with that, to each their own and all that. But, to me, the Bible is pretty clear on the subject. The children of God aren’t supposed to inter-marry. It’s all over the place– if they do, they’re bound to a cursed and shameful life, and they’ll never receive God’s fullest blessings. Now, I can’t say this in front of my congregation, it would step on too many toes, but I just feel that this is right. God confirmed it in the New Testament, in Acts, when he said that even though we’re all of one blood, we have the ‘bounds of our habitation‘ and we need to stick to that.”
I was silent for the entire 20-minute drive home.
I waited for my mother to come home from the grocery store, and immediately pulled her into her bedroom and shut the door. I explained to her what the pastor had said, and watched her become more and more horrified.
“He actually said that?”
“Yes, Mom, he did. I’m never going back to that church.” It took everything I had not to cry.
That 45-minute conversation with that pastor was the last nail in the coffin of my faith. I didn’t come back to it for another four years.
I’ve talked about the completely horrific racism I was exposed to— and that I participated in— a few times before. Growing up in Christian fundamentalism only exacerbated the fact that I was also growing up in the Deep South, in a tiny town controlled and dominated by the KKK and by systematic racism from every source– newspapers, radio, television, the polls . . . I was completely inundated by a culture that had never grown into the ideas of the Civil Rights movement. I spent almost twelve years of my life in a place where Christian schools were created in order to avoid desegregation laws. I’ve been to churches where people of color weren’t allowed to walk through the doors. I’ve listened to racist rants cloaked by “common sense.” I’ve uttered ideas I knew were racist and then dared to follow them with “and if that makes me racist” and a shrug. I’ve said the words “stereotypes exist because stereotypes exist.”
Leaving fundamentalism behind and trying to grow out of it has been a painful process for me, because it has meant that I had to open my eyes to my privilege, to the ways I had benefited from and contributed to systemic racism.
I’ve done that with the help of incredible, amazing, women and men. There have been some articles I’ve read that have been a knife-stab deep in my gut and my conscience. There have been some pieces that were powerful and illuminating, and helped me see the world in a completely different way. I’m grateful to all of these people who have helped me move past what I was taught as a child.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this process is that there is only one way that we’re going to be able grow past racism, and it’s by listening to those who have been affected by it. Get on twitter and follow amazing people like @graceishuman and @msloola and @detoursfromhome and @cscleve– read what they write, listen to them respond to a world that ignores and silences them. Follow their blogs, if they have one. Keep track of where they’re writing.
And that brings me to this: racism is endemic to evangelicalism. It’s especially severe in Christian fundamentalism.
But, as a white woman, I am completely lacking the experience to talk about this. I can shout from the rooftops what I’ve personally witnessed, but I am only that: a witness, and nothing more. However, what I do have is a blog. And amazing readers. And facebook likes, and twitter followers. Not very many– we’re a small community here, and I love that– but it’s within my ability to help amplify the experiences and stories that I can’t personally share.
I would like to begin another guest post series, with your help. I want to set aside space here for men and women to tell their stories of what it is like to be a person of color in Christianity today. This can be stories, or responses to particular events or articles, or it could even take the form of an interview.
I’m passing the mic.
Pass it with me?