Once you lose a loved one, their words echo in your soul long after they leave. With the third anniversary of my mom’s death this past August, I have been methodically reflecting over the many things my mom taught me. I think it is natural for parents to want to shield their children from some of the harsher realities of the world. Not to explicitly hide the truth but to soften it. Even with my mom’s gentlest approach, I clearly remember the first time she tried to prepare me for what was outside of our safe family structure.
We were on one of our routine after-dinner walks around our neighborhood. We were lightheartedly talking about nothing of particular importance, but the tone quickly became more serious as she switched the conversation to my physical identity. Calmly but firmly she captured my attention with a simple warning: “There will always be two things going against you in this life, Octavia: your race and your gender.” My mom’s cautious words have replayed in my mind as I have grown up in the racially divided society of the US. Before that day, I wasn’t blind to the different ways girls and Black people were treated in society. But I didn’t understand how long standing and systemic that mistreatment was. From a young age my gender already seemed to be a stumbling block to what I was allowed to do by societal standards. I was accustomed to hearing snide remarks about Black people that I only later was able to understand as microaggressions. These themes only became more apparent as I grew older.
Christians and Racism
A few years after that conversation with my mom, police and civilian brutality against Black men and women rose in publicity in the US. The killing of Trayvon Martin on his way home from the convenience store in 2012 was the first time I remember seeing nationwide coverage of an unarmed Black person killed by someone who seemed to be attempting to uphold the law. It was also the first time I remember hearing people argue about whether or not a teenager deserved to die. Since I lived about two hours from where this particular incident occurred, Trayvon Martin’s death was at the top of our local media coverage for weeks. After the initial shock subsided, I began to hear a lot of people, predominately white Christians, attempt to rationalize why the actions of Travyon’s killer were justified.
Seeing people villainize a dead teenage boy scared me. I was thirteen when he was killed at seventeen. He was criticized for wearing a hoodie, carrying Skittles, looking “menacing,” and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As someone who always wore hoodies, could easily be found with candy, and had the same skin tone as Trayvon, I wondered if one day I would be the one caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I used to go to convenience stores and wonder if this was the moment that something like what happened to Trayvon would happen to me. And I wondered what people would say about me if I died, how they might use my character and my actions to justify my death.
After that year it seemed like Black deaths were commonplace in the media, and a debate over the necessity of their deaths would subsequently follow each report. While not all of these deaths were a result of police brutality, they contributed to the narrative that Black lives were dispensable and their deaths could be rationalized. The death of Philando Castile by the hands of the police on July 6, 2016, was the incident that really broke me.
One night, I sat on the floor in the dark in my room and cried out to God, asking him why this was happening. Eventually, I ventured out to the living room where my parents were and asked them, through tearful choked sobs, why they hated us. The “they” in question were the people haphazardly killing innocent Black people and the justice system that barely investigated these murder cases. But, “they” also included the white evangelical Christians who came up with reason after reason for why the actions of the predominately white perpetrators were right.
After that conversation with my parents, and seeing that they were just as confused as I was, I spent the next few years of my life continuing to be hardened by the news accounts of police brutality cases against Black women and men. What could be done? Every ounce of pain I felt about these cases felt mitigated by many white outspoken Christian communities who advocated for injustice. Being a follower of Christ seemed to be at odds with speaking out against Black people being killed just because they were Black. But that didn’t make sense to me. I was taught that God cares about his Black children; their lives matter to him. My lived experiences and desires for justice seemed to be at war with the outspoken Christian majority in the United States.
Bonnie Kristian in her Christianity Today article, “White, Black, and Blue: Christians Disagree over Policing,” surveys research which reveals that there are a high percentage of white evangelicals that don’t believe there are racial discrepancies when police interact with civilians. Growing up hearing this majority vocally express their indignation over calls for fairer treatment against Black people was distressing. The church needs to speak up against hate motivated by racism because there are more Black children that feel like I did: sad, afraid, and scared that the church doesn’t see the trauma in their lives as real.
Christians and Sexism
My experiences with sexism in the church evolved alongside this unrest over racial injustice. The strongest influences on my walk with the Lord growing up were the women in my family. My mom, aunts, and grandma were very outspoken, Spirit-led, Black Caribbean women. They taught me how to pray by laying my life down at the feet of God and earnestly seeking intimacy with him. It was in my Black, immigrant, Christian community where I was first taught by women that God seeks to rectify justice even before the end times.
When something unjust occurred in one of our lives, my mom, aunts, and grandma’s first advice would be to turn to the Lord in prayer. Then their second step would be to use the position where God had placed them to help enact justice. My family’s personal experiences and testimonies gave proof to us that our God actively seeks justice for the marginalized and oppressed. God is not waiting until heaven to start the process of reconciliation and ending injustice. My Black female mentors proclaimed this truth, but I observed that this was rarely talked about in the larger evangelical church regarding racial injustice, and women definitely were not given the platform to be leaders in these conversations.
I believe that by excluding the complete experience of Black people in general, and Black women in particular, the evangelical church in the US loses out on embracing the totality of the work God is doing in and through all his people. This creates an evangelical context that doesn’t acknowledge the Black female experience in its entirety and does not teach young Black Christians that they are a part of the bigger body of Christ.
Moving toward Racial and Gender Justice
In light of the #MeToo movement, issues of sexism and gender equality have become more acceptable topics of discussion in evangelical circles. Because more space has been created for women to be in positions of leadership and speak out against sexual harassment, the church has been able to do a lot more healing collectively as the body of Christ. While there is still more work to be done in this area, especially regarding racially inclusive feminism in the church, the basic framework of beginning to talk about these once taboo topics can also be applied to institutional racism.
There was an onslaught of police brutality cases against Black individuals during the summer of 2020. This is nothing new. However, the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, seemed to be the spark that finally illuminated the big elephant in the room for many non-Black people in the US: racism is real and systemic.
I have appreciated the love and support that I have felt from many white Christians during this time, but acknowledging the problem is only the first step toward justice. To be a Black person in the US is to constantly know that there are systems and ways of doing things that are discriminatory against people who look like you. To be a Black Christian in the US is to have the Black experience scrutinized and questioned regularly by the wider evangelical church. The good news is that Jesus has already shown us how to reject the superiority of one group over another. From Christ’s time on earth (Mark 12:31) to the ministries of Jesus’ disciples after he ascended to heaven (Rom. 2:11), we have been given clear instructions regarding how we are to value one another’s lives. No matter how new this focus on racial justice might be to the white majority of Christians in the US, Christians of color have been preaching this for centuries. God is our Liberator, and he doesn’t permit the Christian walk to be one devoid of action.
In Proverbs 31:8–9 there is a call to action against injustice given to King Lemuel. The advice given to him by his mother is to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” While this advice was originally for King Lemuel in his context, these verses exemplify the nature of God to be one of justice and action. God may not have given you command over a nation. You may not have a leadership position in your work, church, or volunteer organizations. But as Christians, we are called to be in the world and out with the people others have cast aside. When God calls his people to do his justice work, he properly equips us. That call does not discriminate on race, gender, or any other characteristic that we have used to restrict leadership opportunities in the past.
All things are reconciled through Christ. As the hands and feet of Jesus, we are invited into dismantling injustice alongside Christ. Women and men alike are called to engage in this work. We are all called to uplift the broken and the fallen. When racial injustice plagues our world, it is not merely enough to stick to only speaking up about topics that aren’t “divisive.” Regardless of the racial demographics present in your church, as Christians, the life that Christ lives in us should be so fully evident that all can walk into our homes, churches, and places of recreation and feel like they belong.
The failures of the white evangelical church at large, not just individual Christians, regarding racial justice made me feel like I didn’t belong in some pockets of the body of Christ as a child. It took my own understanding, formed by my Black female mentors, of the nature of God and the life of Christ to understand that my identity in Christ isn’t swayed by the stance of outspoken Christian leaders unwilling to make racial injustice something their church addresses.
Our understanding of Christ expands as we embrace and love his people. The experiences of Christians of color are often not given the platform to be shared publicly for large Christian audiences. This unfortunate reality is further expounded upon women of color in particular. As the events from summer 2020 grow more and more distant from your present circumstance this fall, I urge you not to forget that the road to healing our church, marred by racial injustice, is not to alienate the voices and experiences of any member of the body of Christ. Only then can our Black girls and boys grow up in a complete Christian community where all parts of their lives and experiences are valued and shared.
This article appears in “Womanist Theology: Unraveling the Double Bind of Racism and Sexism,” the Fall 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.