A Welcoming Church No More




I STUDIED TO BECOME an evangelical pastor. Then I woke up on November 9, 2016, with the knowledge that my faith was now chained to the legacy of Donald Trump.

Many of my friends cheered. Polls showed that 81 percent of Americans who called themselves “evangelical” voted for a man who won office by disparaging, belittling, threatening, and dismissing people of color.

Now I’m no longer comfortable with the label of “evangelical” because I have become slack-jawed with disgust at friends who will defend Trump harder that they defend the gospel. They boisterously support a gleeful bully and a habitual liar who is hailed as God’s instrument in these times. A pastor acquaintance told me he voted for Trump because he championed the anti-abortion cause and was the lesser of two evils.

They gloss over the bigotry and insist they voted for Trump because of “other reasons,” which amount to superficial buzzwords: crooked Hillary, draining the swamp, shaking things up, et cetera. They retreat into shells when you try to highlight the obvious cognitive dissonance it takes to cast a vote for what Trump really represents. They put their personal comfort above everything else.

I tried to listen to them. People I taught in my Bible study classes at church, people with whom I studied the Bible in seminary, people I considered my brothers and sisters in Christ, friends on Facebook. I gave it a massive amount of effort. But in the end black Christians such as myself now have abundant reason to question our place at evangelical churches. We cringe when pastors and church members have no qualms about praying for law enforcement and hear deafening silence when it comes to victims of police brutality — or pointed accusations that it was the victims’ fault. Our hearts break when people express jubilance that God “has finally moved back into the White House.”

I had always been aware of Donald Trump as a pop culture figure. He was even on some of my hip-hop CDs (not rapping thankfully). To me, he was a larger-than-life celebrity/media mogul who was nothing more than a cameo on some movie or a dude walking slowly from a helicopter as a ’70s funk track played. 

When Barack Obama became president, I observed with disturbed interest as Trump talked and tweeted about how Obama should not be president because he wasn’t a US citizen. I shook my head as he appeared wherever anyone would have him and launched into his criticisms of the nationality of the nation’s first black president. It wasn’t “fair” policy criticism, and people — black people in particular — understood what he meant: Donald Trump was saying that a person of African origin was incapable of being president of the United States.

And for eight years Trump ran with that flag. He waved it around and beaned people over the head with it. He tweeted he had detectives in Hawaii combing through birth records and leaving no stone unturned. In his hands, the birther movement took life and grew.

Trump’s decision to enter the presidential campaign left me with a sense of foreboding that sadly was made manifest as the months went on. I noticed the obvious token smatterings of black faces in the crowd. I saw his discomfort while he sat clapping in a black church. I saw him talk at people who looked like me as opposed to talking with us. And most disturbingly, I saw bigots line up behind Trump. People who felt Obama was “other,” people who swallowed the birther foolishness, people who felt that it was the victim’s fault when they were shot by police, individuals who felt their skin color made them superior and somehow “oppressed” by social justice.

They flocked behind Trump. They screamed MAGA and called Black Lives Matter activists “terrorists.” They shared mean-spirited memes, cheered Tomi Lahren, shouted “Lock her up,” and pontificated on the state of things on 4chan and other internet bastions of hatred.

To my shock and chagrin, more than a few people in the evangelical pews started chanting MAGA as well. They became more vocal about their dislike for Obama and expressed no discomfort about rubbing shoulders with bigots. What we are now seeing is a break in the fragile alliance between black and white evangelical Christians, which was always fraught with historical baggage. And all I could think was: “How did it come to this?”

¤

My own story is relevant to this sense of personal betrayal.

I grew up attending the Pentecostal church my great-grandfather built and was the scion to his legacy of ministry. I have great uncles and cousins deeply involved in ministry, so naturally it was expected I would fall into the mold. But instead I rebelled.

After reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X during the summer of my 14th birthday, I become wholly invested in the cause of black nationalism and subscribed to the beliefs of the Nation of Islam. I agreed wholeheartedly with their assessment that Christianity was the “white man’s religion” and the cross had done nothing but bring slavery, suffering, and death to black people. A blood-soaked legacy of slavery, lynching, segregation, and police brutality reinforced my ideals about the hypocrisy of Christianity. And I became well versed in debating such topics about how a so-called loving God could be used to justify such heinous acts. Even worse, I felt incensed at the tangible apathy that many white Christians displayed.

But my life was fueled by anger. It was righteous and justified anger to an extent, but anger nonetheless. It was rooted in a desire for justice, for freedom, for equality. It was coated in the betrayal of coming to understand that people who looked like me were singing praises to a person who looked like “them.” It was a subconscious deference to white people, because we then put them closer to God.

It has been observed that black men go into jails as “Christian” (i.e., raised in a Christian home and often identifying as Christian) but come out Muslim. In this transformation to Islam, they find a sense of self-worth and inner value. They develop a love for their communities, pride, and militancy for upliftment: factors the Christian church tends to miss, with its focus on the hereafter while the oppressors enjoyed a heaven here on earth.

These churches were on almost every corner in a community infested with squalor. Pastors were well dressed, decorated in jewelry, and escorted around in luxurious cars. But their parishioners were impoverished, fleeting lives surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and vice.

I donned my cloak of militancy and assailed what I felt was the most damaging element to my community; I began to wage war. My apathy to the Christian faith kept me hostile to church, and over the years to God. While I would eventually leave the Nation of Islam and settle into an atheist mindset, I soon found rest and contentment as a comfortable deist.

But God had other plans. My coming to faith was not a Hallmark movie of a “good boy gone rogue gone good again.” It didn’t involve a tearful heartfelt moment between me and my long-praying grandmother, who had bore the brunt of my rage at Christianity because she was so invested in it. I didn’t run into church speaking tongues as powerful tears ran down my grandmother’s cheeks and our stare was broken by an embrace as the choir reached its crescendo — she had passed away some 12 years before and would never smile in approval from the pews as she saw her defiant grandson take the pulpit, an action that nobody thought more unlikely than me. 

In ways that only God could orchestrate, I came into my faith by way of the white evangelical church. The initial shock of seeing a pastor not dressed well, but in jeans and a T-shirt, gave way to a sense of peace. I enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, started leading Bible study, and worshipped next to people of all shades and hues. God helped me toward a broader definition of “brothers and sisters.”

But something gave me pause.

I have learned that church has two diametrically opposite meanings within black and white societies. For the black community in America, since the early 19th century, church came to personify a refuge, a place of spiritual sustenance and succor. It was a foundation of perseverance that allowed black men and women to face their days dealing with bigotry, discrimination, hatred, and injustice. The black church also cultivated a robust demand for social change, which even in my days of being an angry, young rebel, I could not deny.

For white America, church is seen differently. It is a place to celebrate the success of life. Church is a joyous reveling for the fortunate in what God has done for them. It seemed eager to embrace glib political jargon and to conflate the doctrines of Christianity with a vague Americanism. At a Southern Baptist church where I led Thursday Bible study, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the word “socialist” precede or follow “Obama.” Church isn’t about injustice, because the people raising their hands to thank God for Donald Trump probably never had to face it.

The white evangelical church today now seems to me like a cruise ship with a mad captain at the helm. The passengers are dancing and partying as the band plays, totally oblivious to an oncoming catastrophe. The captain told them that the food would be exquisite, the help would be impeccable, the slot machines would ooze money even when you walked by them on your way to get drinks. But they don’t see the holes in the ship. They miss the small ones naturally, but even the bigger holes strangely elicit no cause for concern.

The evangelicals who voted for Trump effectively discarded the chapters of the Bible that extolled patience, love, forgiveness, peace, care for the poor and suffering, and replaced them with pamphlets for guided tours of the Wall, white nationalist jargon, and juvenile vitriol. They have gained the uncanny ability to campaign against “snowflakes,” following up a heartless bigoted statement with a profession of faith or a selective Biblical verse.

It looks and feels awful. So awful that I have effectively divorced myself from the evangelical church. I don’t consider myself a part of it, because the 2016 election highlighted the fact that the people I considered my brothers and sisters in Christ truly never saw me as such.

I wonder if I should even go to church anymore. The unease I feel as heads are bowed to pray for the president that called neo-Nazis “fine people,” used an obscenity to describe African and Caribbean nations, and has never objected to the backing of the KKK is just too much. Despite my absence and feelings of brokenheartedness, white evangelical churches across this country are gleeful with self-congratulated accomplishment as they thank God for Donald Trump, while people like me are excluded and the faith they hold dear is dragged through the mud in the eyes of the world.

A scripture from the Gospel According to Mark keeps returning to me: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

¤

Sam Washington is a pastor who lives in San Antonio, Texas.


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