As I considered interviews for the African American portion of the “Neglected Voices” series, I wanted to feature guests besides myself. However, all of the pending guests for this week are males who are speaking from historical and leadership perspectives. I felt it important to share the voice of the often misunderstood African American woman, but also to share from the perspective of a layperson in the church.
It should go without saying that I do not speak on behalf of all African American women, while noting the views and experiences among African American Christian women are quite. Diversity of our life experiences, education, social/economic class, and trusted partnerships (both personally and professionally) deeply shape how we view the world and the way the world views us.
To effectively raise the voice of the African American woman, I must talk about faith and the role the church plays in our lives. I hope a quick snapshot of the spiritual experiences of my early years will shine light on what it means to be a black Christian woman in America. Likewise, I will share some of my current challenges which I hope will broaden the horizons of readers while laying a foundation for the other featured guests this week.
Black Women: Their Faith. Their Influence. Their Leadership.
This summer, The Washington Post published an article entitled “Black Women are Among the Country’s Most Religious Groups.” I don’t know how the post made this determination, but I meet the criteria, and I know many other Black Women who do. We are young, old, rich, poor, and everything in-between. We are Bible-toten grandmas who go to church several days per week, college students and young professionals, wives, mothers, teachers, mentors, and leaders. Some don’t know their true worth, while others are passionately independent. We are a group of people who understand our need for God and we gather our strength from him.
Standing strong is learned behavior. No matter the circumstance, the strong stance normally begins watching the mothers at home. The stand is then reinforced through other women at the church. I was raised in Black Methodist and traditional Baptist churches. Unless we were traveling, we did not miss Sunday morning worship. Attending church was as natural as the air we breathed. Not going, felt weird, like something was out of kilter. As children, we sung in the choir, read Bible passages, and served as ushers in the church. We were taught to respect God and our elders, which included the “Mothers of the Church.”
A “church mother” is generally one of the older women. She is respected as much for her years of life, as she is for her years of service. She is a teacher to the men, women, and children God has placed in her various circles of influence. She is allowed to make public recommendations to the pastor which s/he is expected to heed; she is the only one allowed to break decorum during church meetings; she is allowed to swat the bottoms of children without getting their parents permission. Like the prophetess Deborah, who referred to herself as the Mother of Israel, Church Mothers understand the responsibilities of their influence. Their influence, along with those of so many women pastors, prayer warriors, and worship leaders, extend to influence of a woman’s touch to families, churches, and communities. Growing up in the Black church and seeing these women in action showed me that women should be strong, respectful, and can be counted on to fulfill God’s purposes. It also showed me that women were not to be pushed into the background.
The Challenges of Being Black, Evangelical, and Woman in America
My spiritual journey took a bit of a whirlwind during my five year college experience. I was forced from a small, loving predominately African American community into a very individualistic, high achieving white environment. During that time I was discipled by a white Presbyterian woman, and I learned to love the Bible through the teachings provided through this white, evangelical student organization. At the same time, I sought social groups and worship with my African American friends. We frequented Pentecostal and nondenominational churches. We sung on the gospel choir. There was not much talk about the Holy Spirit while in fellowship with white students, but shouting and speaking in tongues were common in worship experiences with my black friends. My spiritual encounters with the Lord were miraculous and quite diverse, all of which stretched my faith in every way.
Fast forward a few years and I am now attending a predominately white evangelical seminary. The student population is quite diverse, but the leadership and taught theologies and ideologies are not. For the past five years, my family has fellowshipped in predominantly white Southern Baptist churches. I read a lot. Most of my reading over the past two years has been about my Christian faith and most (though not all) of the authors are white males. Ironically, because of the people I am connected to through social media, most of the Christian material I read online is authored by white females. In these circumstances, my prayer is still the same, “God, increase my faith.” I would like to think that my love for Christ and His people (the church) grows deeper with each passing day.
I have to live this faith I profess to believe. My husband and I are both college educated, hard workers, so we waver economically on the scale of middle class. I am a wife and mother of a young African American girl and I have responsibilities to her. As a mother, I am challenged by the types of environments, cultures, and people, we expose our daughter to. We want her to have diverse life experiences, including love and respect for all types of people. My husband and I grew up in predominately Black poor and lower middle class environments. My husband attended a HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities). So far, our daughter has had a completely different life experiences than either of us. She has never lived in an apartment; she has never lived on government assistance; and she has not consistently frequented predominantly black churches. I don’t want her entire life predominantly surrounded by white people, no more than I want her entire life predominately surrounded by black people. Yet, I struggle a great deal because I know so much African American history and culture associated with the Black church (which you will find out more about this week). I want the words of the “Negro National Anthem” to resonate with her, but I don’t know if they truly will.
On one hand, I feel my family is doing its small part for racial reconciliation by staying obedient to worship in the church where God has currently assigned us to worship. We are still fairly new to this city. I spend most of my days in a book or in front of a computer screen which makes developing relationships outside of my local church that much more difficult. From a social perspective, I crave and often look for opportunities to hang out with black women. Hanging with black women means there is a lot of unspoken communication going on between us, and I don’t have to explain myself or assume the role of teacher all the time.
The reality of my current life situation presents much tension. All of these snapshots from my family, experiences, education, and the church reveal a simple truth that I wrestle with almost daily. The truth is, in the modern American church, I often feel like a jigsaw piece to the wrong puzzle. It’s as if I don’t properly fit anywhere. It’s important to understand, I am not taking about my personal comfort level. I don’t believe God has called us to a nice, comfortable Christianity. What I mean is when I look at all of the church “boxes” either racially/ethnically, social/economically, theologically, etc, I simply don’t fit neatly into any of them.
So I raise my voice—it’s one of the reasons I faithfully write as ministry. We all need to hear from more diverse voices—people who spend time in the Lord’s presence, surrender to Him, care enough to ask questions and listen to diverse perspectives, and are not afraid to journey with those who connect with Christ in a different way than we traditionally do. So I try to remain faithful to God’s message, the ministry He has given me, and stand ready to answer with the words of Samuel, “Speak, for your servant is listening (1 Sam. 3:10)” when God calls, and remain obedient to respond like the prophet Isaiah “Here I am Lord, send me (Isa. 6:8)” when God seeks a faithful messenger.
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012