Issue 21 / Spring 2020
Every now and then during my childhood, my mother would put our family through the tumult of trying out a new church, but it never really took. A divorced mother of four little kids didn’t fit in, not in the South, not in the early sixties. Getting to a church service involved a morning of full rebellion—squabbles over missing our favorite Sunday morning cartoons, calculated dawdling over breakfast and baths, protests over shoes that hurt and clothes we hated. We never went to the same church twice, as I remember it, because no matter where we visited, we didn’t belong. My sisters and I couldn’t see why anyone would want to.
On one visit to Sunday School, the teacher began the class with a prayer and then said, Children, pull out your Bibles. The other kids had little red or blue faux-leather Bibles with their names engraved in gold on the front. I didn’t have a Bible with me and as far as I knew, we didn’t have one at home. The teacher rummaged around the classroom to find an extra one. Then she said, Now let’s all turn to Romans 1. Raise your hand when you find it. The other kids raced through their Bibles and shot up their hands. I had no idea where to begin. I didn’t know the books of the Bible, or even the difference between the Old and New Testaments.
So, I did what any little girl who never went to church would do. I sneaked a glance at the kid next to me to see what page he was on. It felt like cheating on a spelling quiz. But still, there was a problem. His page 210 was different than mine. Who knew that the page numbers started over in the New Testament?
When I started seminary in 1991, at the age of thirty-four, I still had to peek at my dog-eared table of contents to find my way around the Bible. My husband at the time, born and raised a Southern Baptist, found my biblical illiteracy entertaining, and loved to tell my seminary classmates, Angie thinks Eucalyptees is a book in the Bible.
After my parents split in 1964, when I was seven, my mother moved us to a neighborhood in northeast Atlanta that was seventy-five percent Jewish. An interesting choice, given the bigotries of my father and grandmother. Their antipathy for Black people was almost matched by their dislike of Yankees and Jews, who they said were loud, crass, and obsessed with money. My father often told the same contemptuous jokes about blacks, women and Jews, the common theme always that they (we) were inferior to him. The way he lumped his bigotries together, his message seemed to be that, whatever tribe I might belong to, it wasn’t his.
Disregarding my father’s prejudice, I went with new Jewish friends to Temple on Friday nights and then the next morning to Saturday School, where we all learned together to read and say prayers in Hebrew. I celebrated Jewish holidays with my friends and their families, envious that they got presents for seven nights straight during Hanukah and intrigued by the mysterious rituals of Passover. In the readings, chanting, exotic scents and tastes, and epic stories, I felt something so alive, I didn’t even associate it with religion.
Neither did I associate it with struggle. I knew nothing about the eons of hatred the Jewish people had endured, nor did I understand the constant sense of threat my friends and their families might feel. After all, it had been less than ten years since the Temple in downtown Atlanta was bombed by the Klan.
When I finally started attending church as a teenager in 1970, it was with my maternal grandmother, Hope, of my middle name. Her church’s sanctuary was modern, octagonal, with red carpet and matching cushioned pews. Windows three stories high looked out into the treetops. It was lovely and peaceful there.
The minister, Herb—even children called him by his first name—came to our house to talk to us after our grandfather died. I didn’t understand why he was there. He took off his coat, loosened his tie, sat down, and threw his leg over the arm of the moss green stuffed chair in our small living room. When my mother offered him something to drink, he said, I’ll take a beer. Herb had come to reassure us that, even though our grandfather didn’t go to church and only mentioned God in the obligatory Sunday dinner blessing, he was in heaven. It wasn’t something that had occurred to me and once Herb mentioned it, I wasn’t entirely sure he was right. I had no idea how these things worked. I knew so little about religion.
My sisters and I, illiterate as we were in matters religious, were assigned to a class that prepared middle-schoolers for baptism. Because we missed all but the last class, I went into that holy initiation with little understanding of the faith I was about to embrace.
There were eight of us twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, clothed in white cotton gowns, waiting to be baptized in a big hot tub to the right of the altar. When it was my turn, I walked down the steps into the chilly baptismal waters. Herb smiled at me, held a crisp white linen handkerchief firmly over my nose and, his arm around my waist, gently submerged me in the water three times. I didn’t hear the words he said but much later, when I became a pastor, I repeated them many times: I baptize you in the name of the Father (dunk), the Son (dunk), and the Holy Spirit (dunk).
When I came up, I felt new. I felt clean. Not cleansed of my sins, as the traditional view of baptism would have it, but somehow full of light, like I was shining from the inside out.
In the simplest terms, baptism meant that I had become a member of the church and the people of God. It meant that I belonged.
After the baptism, we all dried off and changed back into our best church clothes. Then we gathered around a long table in a meeting room, where Herb prayed for us. As he prayed, a weird thing happened. I sensed Jesus sitting next to me. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. I didn’t tell anyone—that kind of thing just didn’t happen in my family. Revealing it would only subject it to scrutiny, disbelief, even ridicule. So I stitched it up in a little velvet pouch inside my heart and hid it there for safe-keeping, forgotten for a very long time.
It was still there when, years later, I finally felt a need to look for it.
I would remember my baptism and the sense of belonging it engendered twenty years later when, in a small town in north Alabama, I baptized five teenagers, also dressed in white cotton robes, in the icy spring waters of the Black Warrior river, the sun rising over the cemetery on the bluff above.
Herb was the only pastor I knew growing up and he was by no means the model clergyman. My mother sought his counsel after a neighbor came home early and exposed his genitals to my twelve-year-old sister while she was babysitting. Herb advised Mama, Don’t say anything. You don’t want to ruin the man’s life. But Herb, what about my sister?
Herb’s words haunted me recently when I heard them echoed during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Lawmakers accused Christine Blasey Ford of trying to “ruin the man’s life” by exposing his sexual assault against her. It undoes me to witness a powerful man sheltered from consequences while a young girl is left defenseless.
Herb was also a ladies’ man. More than once, I saw him put his arm around the waist of a woman not his wife and pull her a little too close. One Sunday, Herb was just gone. He vanished from the church with no notice and no goodbye, and no one would talk about it. My sisters and I assumed he had an affair, maybe more than one.
All that said, Herb opened-up something life-giving in me. He preached no bombast or judgment. His warm, affectionate manner helped me imagine a loving and compassionate God. His peaceful aura felt like an eddy of calm in the judgmental world of teenage girls. I felt like I belonged. It didn’t last, though. After Herb disappeared, my family rarely, if ever, went back to church.
By the time I was twenty, my take on the church was that it was irrelevant and irredeemable. I found church rules about personal morality, like sexual abstinence before marriage, archaic and silly. Calls to unity proved false. Claims of love for one another clanged hollow. The focus on personal salvation seemed selfish. Shaming of all things sexual could only feed the crippling misgivings I already had about my own body. The building of state-of-the-art recreation centers, multi-story parking decks and ostentatious sanctuaries seemed unconscionable in a world where the real obscenity was that so many people had nowhere to live and nothing to eat.
That’s how I saw it then and, to some extent, how I see it now. And yet, even as I rejected white southern Christianity, something stirred in me. I caught myself wondering if some unnamed something I yearned for could only be found in church.
By the time I married my first husband Duna in 1980, I felt nudged to give church a try. Duna called himself a recovering Southern Baptist, but he had never really gotten over the guilt-laden, moral straitjacket of his religious upbringing. He had no love for church at all. Still, he was willing to visit St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Birmingham because of his esteem for the priest, Rev. Francis Walters. In the sixties, Francis had been the director of the Selma Project, a civil rights group where Duna served as the unofficial comedian, social critic, and jack-leg carpenter, one time crashing through the ceiling onto Francis’ desk.
If church was overly familiar to Duna, it was alien to me. I was mystified by a lot of things, not least the meaning of communion, or the Eucharist, as it’s called in Episcopal churches. I decided not to partake until I figured it out. Sunday after Sunday, I held back as I watched young children and adults with intellectual disabilities join the line of other adults, walking right up the aisle to kneel and receive the bread and wine. They helped me realize that communion isn’t something we can or need to intellectually comprehend. It’s a mystery—a gift to be received, not dogma to be defended.
Over time, I came to see communion as an even more important symbol than the cross. Not so much because the wine and bread symbolize the blood and body of Jesus, as traditional theology has it, but because it represents a table where all people are welcome and everyone belongs.
Not all Christians see it that way. In fact, most churches “fence the table” by allowing only baptized Christians to take communion. In Roman Catholic churches, it’s not even enough to be a baptized Christian—you have to be Roman Catholic. Some churches insist that you be rebaptized, as if your first baptism somehow doesn’t count. Other churches, misconstruing scripture, teach that if you come to the table unworthy, you eat to your own damnation. And from their standpoint, none of us are worthy.
Fencing the table is just one of many ways churches put up barriers to dictate who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, right here on earth. All it takes is a preacher who rails against gays, forbids women in leadership, criticizes young people’s clothing, music and ideas, or repudiates other branches of Christianity, not to mention other religions.
It’s painful to be excluded, especially by an institution that purports to represent God. As a seminary student, I listened to a devout woman weep over the soul of her dear friend who was dying of AIDS. She was convinced that it was up to her to save his soul, which meant persuading him to “accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.” This young man had grown up in a church that cast him out when he admitted he was gay. In his view, when the church turned against him, God did too. The real sin, in my view, was not the dying gay man’s unwillingness to renounce his very essence, but the church’s dogma that unless he surrendered to their litmus test, he didn’t belong to them—or to God.
The voice that condemns and excludes is the one that claims to be the authentic voice of Christianity in American political life. It’s a voice that divides us to this day. It’s the voice that led to one of the most shocking Presidential elections of my time—in 1980.
The 1980 presidential election stunned me almost as much as Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Ronald Reagan was ushered into the Presidency by a phenomenon called the Religious Right (which was neither), under the mantel of a group called the Moral Majority (which also was neither). For the first time in memory, Christian faith became synonymous with tax cuts for the rich and a shredded safety net for the poor.
Not only did the Religious Right become a dominating political force in 1980, but they also proclaimed themselves to be the only authentic voice of the American church. They weaponized their dogma and have dominated public discourse ever since. The Republican Party became branded as the de facto party of Christianity, and the mantra was clear: God, guns and glory.
Other Christian voices were shouted down or went radio silent on their own. Progressive white Christians, in particular, were restrained because that’s how we tend to practice our religion—quietly, and in private. And even more so, because we don’t want to be associated with the excesses of evangelism and religious intolerance. So, like conservative Christians, we go to church, study our bibles, and practice our faith—but unlike them, we keep it mostly to ourselves.
The religious right makes a lot of noise, but as Reverend William Barber says: “They talk so much about what Christ says so little about, and so little about what he says so much about.”
In the South, virtually every politician lists Christianity as their top qualification for public office, while ignoring the damage their decisions do to people who suffer poverty and generational injustice. It’s rare, and a tonic for me as an Alabama clergywoman, to hear a politician focus on the imperative of any faith—care for the poor, sick, and vulnerable, as well as threatened communities of color, immigrants, and the earth.
I used to think that there was one voice of Christianity. It was individualistic and regressive, and held no attraction for me. If I had encountered a more progressive vein of Christianity when I was young, I might have given church a try a lot sooner than I did—at the age of thirty.
I choose to err on the side of accepting too many rather than withholding too much. As a sign in front Melbourne’s Welsh Church said, I would rather be excluded for who I include than included for who I exclude.
That’s the voice of American Christianity that has been muffled for too long. I long for the dominant institutions of American Christianity to speak up for the vulnerable rather than defend the powerful. I’m waiting for the institutional church to stop putting up walls while claiming the moral high ground. I’m impatient for the church to repent, which simply means to walk in the other direction. Watching evangelical Christians acquiesce time and again to the public and private immoralities of the likes of the current administration, it seems a long time coming.
Angela Wright is a pastor and activist writing a memoir about faith, family, and power in the South. She is the former editor and lead contributor to Love Has No Borders, a book about immigrant rights in Alabama. Her essays appear in Still Point Arts Quarterly, Beyond Words Literary Journal, the tiny journal, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and various newspapers.