If you follow my blog, or know me in real life, you know that I have had a complicated journey with racial identity. By complicated, I mean that I didn’t know I was Black until I was about 25 years old. This is a key factor in this third chapter of my spiritual history.
Just before I turned 23, I was hired onto the staff of a large predominantly white evangelical church in San Diego, the church I had called my home for a number of years. At the time, I was going through the struggle that many people my age were going through, proudly wielding a bachelor’s degree and finding it completely insufficient to secure meaningful full-time work. So, getting the job at my church was a dream and an affirmation of my passions at that point in time. My role was to manage and co-direct our local and global impact efforts, which meant partnering with local community-based organizations to create volunteer opportunities for church members; partnering with the local high-school from which we leased Sunday meeting space to offer tangible support to students and staff; and partnering with international church plants and nonprofit organizations to coordinate overseas trips focused on community service or leadership development conferences. I worked most closely with two other staff members, the local and global impact pastors, both men, both people I knew from my time interning at the church, and both people that I cared about deeply.
My work at this church felt like the epitome of my “Don’t tell me; show me” mantra. It felt good to work in the company of people who understood why service to “the least of these” was the most natural outgrowth of our faith. In retrospect, some of my values around this were problematic, as reflected in the language used. The whole idea of “service” implies some altruistic sacrifice by individuals of means toward individuals without means, for which the latter should be demonstrably grateful. The word “impact” makes me cringe now, as I imagine two cultures or communities coming into contact with one another, like a collision, and the dominate, more well-resourced culture or community obliterating the other. It’s a dramatic image, but not entirely inaccurate. In all of my work, the idea was that we, with God’s provision, could be a blessing to others. We often failed to acknowledge that the communities or individuals we “served” might have things to teach us as well, or that they might not be interested in our service at all. It is hard to do ministry work without being paternalistic. Then again, it’s hard to do social services work or nonprofit work without being paternalistic. So, there has been some consistency in my life the past decade after all.
Working at a church never felt as right as it seemed it should. I constantly wrestled with the same issues I had been for the past several years. I felt inadequate, I felt like I didn’t belong, I felt like I had not lived a life of sufficiently radical sacrifice because I hadn’t lived in a developing country for two years and I didn’t make my own clothes out of hemp. It was during this time that I began meeting with a therapist for the first time. That is a true gift – not to be understated – that this community gave me, the assurance that it was okay to need therapy, and not only that, but maybe mental and emotional well-being is God’s will for us, and God would have us pursue those things through additional means besides fervent prayer.
I needed therapy during this time because I was drifting in and out of depression, as I often have, but also because I was struggling relationally. The thing about being a part of an evangelical community is that, generally speaking, everyone is coupled, and everyone is on the marriage train, with most folks headed toward the child-bearing terminal as quickly as possible. Just as I had during my college days in the on-campus fellowship, I waited patiently for my turn to pair off, but it just didn’t happen. The birthdays continued to pass by, to my horror, without ever having been on a date and without ever having kissed anyone.
I think it was at the prompting of my therapist that I started online dating. She presented me with a logical argument, and that was it, I couldn’t refute it. The argument was, essentially, how the hell else did I think I was going to meet people? The strategies I was using (meeting friends of friends, going to church community groups, waiting for cupid to let loose his arrows in a grocery store or coffee shop, avoiding interaction with anyone I was remotely interested in) weren’t working. And I’m forever grateful to her for recommending that I try online dating, not because I found the love of my life, but because I stumbled upon a long awaited revelation. I realized I was Black.
My first foray into online dating was Match.com. I don’t think I told a soul, minus my therapist, about what I was doing. What you need to know about Match is that not only do you fill out your own basic/demographic information – hair and eye color, height, body type, level of education, race/ethnicity – you also indicate what attributes you’re looking for in a potential partner. I was fairly liberal with most categories, telling myself that it was good to be open at this stage. I did indicate a minimum level of desired education, and I articulated some preferences around body type, but when it came to race/ethnicity, I checked every box. This was the late 00s, so Match’s algorithms weren’t intelligent enough to prevent matches from showing up in my list if I didn’t meet their criteria, even if they met mine. And so what resulted was profile page after profile page of men of all races including Black who had indicated they were open to dating women of all races, with one very clear exception. Black women. I was genuinely shocked by this. All this time I had believed the post-racial narrative, because I had lived it, I had found belonging in a multi-ethnic (I thought) community, and I was seen and respected for my gifts and intelligence. And so it was shocking to me that so many men were uninterested in dating me right off the bat, without knowing anything else about me, simply because I was Black. In retrospect, anti-Blackness was all around me, always. It was in statements from my friends, “Mawi, you’re not really Black.” It was in our willingness to send missionary teams overseas to Malawi and Uganda or south of the Mexican border to Tijuana, while we ignored Black American and Black immigrant neighborhoods in San Diego County. It was in the tokenism and exceptionalism that surrounded me in my role on the staff of my church. And, it was rampant in online dating communities. Articles like this one published by OkCupid confirmed that I wasn’t imagining it.
What does all this have to do with spirituality? Realizing I was Black by way of experiencing racial discrimination on Match.com was a catalyst for my realization that the pastors of my church were not telling my story. There was a strong, even if implicit, narrative in our church that you find love by following God’s call to be in church community, that Godly man meets Godly woman, and after a Godly number of months dating, Godly marriage awaits. It happened this way for so many of my white female counterparts, and I expected it to happen for me. But Match helped me see that there was more to my particular circumstance. I did not have the same options available to me as white women did. The Black men who were (more) likely to be attracted to me were nowhere to be found in our church community, or the hipster San Diego community at large. I had denied my Blackness in most every facet of my life thus far, but I could not deny my Blackness in my romantic life.
I realized I was going to be faced with choices if I was serious about seeking a partner. The “Godly” (white) Christian men I had spent 8 years surrounded by did not seem interested in me. I could not continue with the same effort and expect different results. One by one, the limitations and standards I had set for myself were called into question. Was it really that important that the person I dated was a Christian, or would it do for them to be a person who shared my moral values and respected my spiritual beliefs? Would I choose to be single and never experience sex until I was married, even if I never found a person to marry, or would I consider sex in the context of a committed relationship? What if I met someone with whom I felt I could be in a long-term relationship, but with whom I didn’t want to raise children? Would I consider cohabiting without marriage and children, for the sake of companionship?
I found myself considering decisions that I never had before, all because I had not understood my own story, and the spiritual teaching I had received did not tell my story. I began to wonder who else had been left out, and who else was experiencing criticism and judgement for choices that I simply did not understand because I had not lived their story. It became difficult to judge or criticize people who were gay or queer or who smoked or used drugs or who were caught in “unhealthy” relationships and behaviors. There were trauma histories that a white evangelical church could not fathom. Their were identities that were relegated to the margins, invited to the table, but never allowed to set the norms at the table.
As I started to lean into my newfound Blackness, and examine my racial identity and my experiences around race in the church, I felt increasing discomfort within our church staff and the broader community. I began to see whiteness everywhere, and it was suffocating me. When I tried to give voice to what I was experiencing, when I tried to name that maybe our “multi-racial” church was a lot whiter than we were willing to acknowledge, and maybe that was a problem, I was gaslighted or told that if it bothered me, it was my responsibility to change it.
It was one of the saddest times of my life, witnessing this growing distance between me and these people I cared for so deeply. There was also a rift that grew between me and God, as I came to realize that my understanding of God was wrapped up in whiteness. The God I knew was a God who was principally concerned with the affairs of white people, not a God who desired that we work actively to eradicate structural racism and sexism and homophobia. My experience of church and religious community was forever changed, and I’ve yet to feel completely at ease upon reentering a place of worship.
Not all who wander are lost. This was the start of my wandering, and years later, maybe I am still wandering. But I feel more like the person that God created me to be now than I did then. God created me to be a person who writes transparently about her lived experience, even when it is scary, which is always. If I’m brave enough to keep writing this spiritual history, parts 4 and 5 will delve deeper into themes of spirituality and sexuality, gender, race, and ancestry. Until then.