As I finish up my last year in grad school, I'm constantly being asked what my thesis topic will cover. Once I explain what I intend to research, the next question I'm asked is why? Well, I think this space is appropriate enough to share my answer to that question. So what might you ask is it that I'll be researching? Well here is the title of my thesis, and I am pretty darn excited about it, and maybe once you understand the "why" behind the "what", you might be also.
Black Faces in White Spaces: The Influence of White Congregations on the Racial Identity and Sense of Community of Black Congregants
Now before you YAWN...hold on, and let me explain...
Most of my life I weaved in and out of two worlds, that of a first generation Nigerian American, and that of a Black girl living in predominately White neighborhoods and going to predominately White schools. Jumbling both worlds was difficult. I didn't look like my peers, dress like my peers; and I rarely fit in. My hair didn't blow in the wind like Susie's and my daily attire was a mixture of African ideals, religious legalism, and a fashion police's worst nightmare. As a family we attended church religiously and it seemed that every Nigerian in Nigeria somehow knew that Phoenix would be a place to call home. Our church community was large and made up of mostly Nigerians, and my fondest memories of church at a very young age were best described as "different". There were rules, prophecies, cultural, and Christian values that made sense and others that did not. However, I had a sense of God and my Nigerian culture at an early age. The church, my parents, and the Nigerian community kept me grounded, and even though I feared turning on God because I feared what my parents and the community would think, I enjoyed going, and it was a space where I felt accepted.
Fast forward to life post high school and for the first time I would be introduced to a different kind of church, amongst people who for the most part didn't look, dress or live life like me. Away from home, Christianity would finally become my own and for the first time ever I felt free to seek God in order to understand what I believed. My relationship with God became really personal as God invaded my life in a whole new way. I had community but in a different sense, and I was accustomed to being in predominately White communities given the nature of the schools I went too and the neighborhoods I grew up in. As a result, going to a predominately white church never intimidated me. In fact, at the time, I often felt significantly more comfortable in predominately White communities than I did within Black communities. I am not inherently sure why this was, but I met people who believed in me, and for many seasons I felt I had a place, most importantly a future to grow. I generally always felt accepted. So as my relationship with God grew, so did my desire to be more involved within the local church. To teach, to preach, to bring people like me to the renewing power of the gospel. The only problem was, I slowly realized that although I could dream and desire, it did not seem like that possibility existed for me, because as I looked around me and looked for people who were leading and who understood my experiences, there was nobody to look up to. Nobody doing what I ultimately felt called to do. Even those given the responsibility of leading certain groups seemed to have reached their peaks. So I began looking for those role models outside of the church's four walls, and my searching seemed to disconnect me from the community around me. I knew God wanted me to remain faithful in little, but there were moments seeing my future self in certain settings seemed like a far off dream. So did that even mean there was a place for me to do what I felt and have felt called to do for so long?
I have a joking yet semi-serious ongoing epiphany that I tell college students about my journey. That story includes telling my students about the moment after graduating from college that I realized I was Black. Now that may confuse some people, but what I mean by that is, my entire life I had parents who made it a point to tell me that the blood running through my veins was Nigerian. To them being Black and Nigerian were two very different things. So regardless of what my Birth Certificate showed, that was who I was and nothing more. I believed this not only because they said it, but because along with these ideals, were the Nigerian customs, traditions, and celebrations that I grew up participating in my whole life. However, I realized very quickly after college that in the real world, when I walk into a room, what people see before they see a young Nigerian was and still is a young Black woman. Therefore, whatever societal stereotypes or judgments came with being Black American were my portion. I used to hate this, being congratulated for my successes as a Black woman. As if success and being educated was not expected of "my people" and my parents. I'll even be honest, there was a point I hated being seen as Black. I made it a point to mention that I was Nigerian every time I got. I felt there was so much more to me than my skin color. I was Nigerian and if you couldn't see that, you were ignorant.
The more I felt this way, the more my desire grew to learn what it meant to be, "Black in America". It sounds ridiculous saying that I needed to learn what being Black meant to survive, but the reality was, I never saw myself as Black American and so I really had to learn what that meant. In Nigeria, you are rarely if ever associated with your skin color and on top of that there are negative views towards Black Americans within some African circles. So naturally, I always saw being considered Black a bad thing. Regardless of these sentiments, my upbringing could no longer shield me from the viewpoints of the outside world, filled with people who had always seen me as a Black girl, and for the first time in my life I did not have my Nigerian parents and that community around to help me balance both worlds. I knew that I needed to learn more about the world from this perspective and I hoped in understanding where a woman like me fit in, I would not only find a place for my passions in my professional life but also within the church. Yet, fast forward two years later, and the more I searched, the more I often felt frustrated and at times disappointed, and I'll be honest, I sometimes still do.
It's hard sometimes, seeing young people of color like myself. Seeing the gifts that they have and not knowing if there is a place for them in spaces where they are not the majority. I want to see more people that look like me taking the pulpit and not just at predominately Black venues or churches. Not just as guest speakers. I don't want to only see the gifts of young people of color and that be it, I want to see their gifts cultivated and utilized. I want to trust that there is a place for those gifts to grow and be used. More than just leading a small group, more than just bringing people to church, more than just sitting in a pew or a fancy chair. More than just playing stereotypical roles in society, more than just being the go to person for every new Black visitor that walks into the door, more than just singing, playing a sport, or and instrument, more than just serving, more than just Black. I often wonder who the Black voices of this generation will be and where they will rise up from. Who is pouring into them? It shouldn't just be people of their skin color. I believe it is the responsibility of everyone, most especially the church to cultivate the gifts of young Black or young people of color. I believe the minute a child, teenager, young adult, or adult steps into the door they are too be taken under the wings of everyone and shown love and nurtured. We can't sit behind computer screens and say that all lives matter and yet we are so quick to leave the job of raising the minority solely in the hands of those that look like me. Why is that? Although, I do not agree with people taking the phrase Black Lives Matter and reducing it to ALL lives matter, if you are going to operate out of the notion of ALL LIVES MATTERING, then I would say most folks are failing at making sure they live a life that indicates that.
There is so much about my life as a Black woman (I fully and proudly embrace this now) that I wish was not true. Certain privileges I wished I had, and the fact that our churches in the 21st century still remain the most segregated institution than any other institution out there is alarming and sad. That our churches somehow still have work to do in order to combat racism and end that truthful statistic. That our churches remain segregated, silent, and yet it is the one place meant to bring healing for all people. African Americans and minority groups make up the largest amount of church attendees in present day America. Yet we are still kept within our "churches" unintentionally and accepted a lot more in those congregations and in leadership positions. Studies even attest to these hardships and the hardships many Pastors face in integrating multiculturalism as studies show that when minority groups join mainline churches of a predominate race, if a church begins to cater to both demographics (i.e. mixture of music, etc.) the predominate group will leave and find another church. Which for many churches in this day and age that look at attendance as a sign of growth, would consider that a hard hit and high risk.
I grew up knowing Jesus Christ, and as a child the Jesus I was taught about in Sunday school wasn't Black, wasn't white, He was simply part of the Godhead (look it up if you don't know what that is). Then fast forward to my later years, and for the first time I was introduced to a White Jesus, who felt that talking about my life behind the pulpit was too much of a risk for the rest of the congregation. That asked me to forgive before having the right to say that the treatment of my people was wrong. I've struggled with this, being a Black face in a White space, and I've come to believe that church sermons can't just be taught from a "White" perspective. As our society slowly becomes multi-ethnic, what does Jesus have to say about that? In a world that does not value Black lives or the lives of the minority. C.S. Lewis was not the only scholar that spoke about God in new profound ways. What about the works of great theologians that look like me and loved Jesus like C.S. Lewis and other great White/European scholars? Could they get a quote or two on a Sunday. Could their stories of faith midst oppression and even unto death be told?
Don't get me wrong, I love the church. I love the community it gives me, the family, the support. There are so many moments in my life that I credit God using my church family to help me excel and get through tough times. I also believe that God is real and nobody could ever convince me otherwise. However, my Blackness is something I wonder at times where it fits in the big picture of things. I don't want to have to go to a Black church, or work for a Black business, or live in a predominately Black neighborhood to be seen or have the opportunity to teach, serve, and preach freely about my life and from a bible that I read, we all read, and yet that I see from the lens of a Nigerian American, a Black American, a Black Woman. I also do not want those barriers for anyone else.
So this brings me to the why I've chosen my thesis project. To the reason I feel so compelled to research racial identity and the sense of community of Black congregants in predominately White churches. In some ways I want to gain back hope. To really see that I have a place and where I'm at has a purpose and wherever I will end up. Then there is the researcher in me that wants to research this because I am constantly asked the following questions from friends, pastors and others, "What can we do? What do you want us to do?" Well a study like this may help answer that question. May shed light on areas where inclusivity is necessary, because just seeing White faces behind a pulpit is not enough. Maybe the church isn't doing all it can to support, develop and grow individuals like myself, and maybe it is, I would hope so. None the less, this research could help prove either/or.
Do our lives really matter? Some days, I am not sure. It's a weird dualism how society wants people of color to try harder, and somehow our lack of privilege and our failures are our own faults. Yet, we are only allowed into certain arenas professionally that are often approved or gate kept by the majority. We aren't often given the chance to grow and develop into a role. However, like everyone else we are also on a journey of finding out where we fit in a setting where the pictures of the Jesus worshipped on Sunday does not look like us, understand us, or fight for us. If we are supposed to Live like Jesus and share His love, all lives have to matter, and in my case, in my life and wherever I end up, my life has to matter, which ultimately means Black Lives have to matter.
Just my life and my thoughts.
My thesis will be completed in April 2016. If you'd like a copy of the results sent to you upon its completion please message me using the contact page and I will send them your way next year.
Here is some of the research and articles done to support what I've written in this post. I've bolded the main ones.
Carson, C. (2001). The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Grand Central Publishing.
Banks, A. M. (2015, January 21). Black churches may no longer be at center of civil rights protest. The Christian Century, 132(2), 15.
Black Christians, white church. (1994, April 27). The Christian Century, 111(14), 436.
Chaves, M., & Clayton, O. (1995). The churches and social change: Accommodation, moderation, or protest. Daedalus, 101–117.
Cooperman, A., Smith, G., & Ritchey, K. (2015). America’s changing religious landscapes. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
God In America - W.E.B. Du Bois. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/web-dubois.html
Higgins, L. M. (1992). Comparing the community involvement of black and white congregations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 425-440.
Moring, M. (2011, 10). A black & white production. Christianity Today, 55, 55. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/900366143?accountid=10248
Marti, G. (2010). The Religious Racial Integration of African Americans into Diverse Churches. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(2), 201.
Rehwaldt-Alexander, J. (2009, January 13). The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches. The Christian Century, 126(1), 45–48.
Putnam, R. D., Campbell, D. E., & Garrett, S. R. (2012). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. Simon and Schuster.
Sahgal, N., & Smith, G. (2009). A religious portrait of African Americans. In The Pew forum on religion and public life (No. 389).