I met my now-husband in our high school freshman English class. When we were sophomores, he invited me to his all-white church, as he did with all his friends. He would pack his car with teenagers and drive whoever needed a ride to youth group. My husband’s invitation was my introduction to white church culture. Neither he nor I could have predicted how impactful my experience in white evangelical church culture would be on my mental, spiritual, and emotional health, to the point of my own detriment.
My husband and I dated throughout high school, and at the tender age of nineteen and twenty, we married in the same church that he brought me to so many years earlier. We stayed at that church and were blessed with children after being married for two years. As a new mother, I looked to other women in the church to see how they embodied motherhood and womanhood. I was looking for a nurturing environment, but I eventually realized the other church women couldn’t nurture me as a Black woman because they were blinded by their own bias and racism toward me.
Learning To Be A Mother In White Church Culture
I was the only Black person in a white space, and I was ostracized for it. We weren’t all just wives and mothers in a collective space. I was a Black wife and mother. I believe that some of the women saw me as a threat because they didn’t know quite where to place me. I didn’t fit their view of the stereotypical Black mother. I wasn’t the angry Black woman they saw on television, and I wasn’t the strong Black woman who carried the load of the world on my shoulders, although I did carry the weight of the racism I experienced in that space. I think a lot of the women in that space labeled me as shy, but though I am an introvert, my shyness was rooted in feeling very lonely while navigating a white space and convincing myself that I was valued there. I grew up in that church as a teenager, married and started a family in that church. Yet because I didn’t fit neatly into their cultural norms, I was regularly ostracized.
For years, I tried to fit into the white evangelical boxes of the ideal wife, mother, and woman. Our church glorified being a stay-at-home mother, but once I was a stay-at-home mother, I still wasn’t enough. I discovered I didn’t measure up to the stay-at-home mothers who also homeschooled their children. So I became involved in children’s ministry—Awana and nursery—to put myself out there and show I wanted to be a part of the church. I spent a lot of time deciding which events to go to so that I could present myself as an acceptable candidate in the mom groups. There was a “spiritual” cultural norm among the women in the church that you had to be involved in all things: childcare ministry, hospitality ministry, ascribing to the system of patriarchy in the church.
I realized after a while that it was way too demanding, and I really just wanted to spend time with my children and my husband. I felt wholeness and security in my own home. I felt safety there. Even if the words weren’t spoken literally at church, observing who was praised revealed who was valued and who was not. I was not. This was at church, a place where at the bare minimum kindness, love, and affection should have been on full display. The blindness of their bigotry and racism prevented them from showing me agape love.
Growing Isolation And Uncertainty
Let me tell you about a specific event that encapsulates my experience as a Black mother in white evangelical church culture. I want to help you understand the unspoken system that could only be identified by my stepping into a culture other than my own and being subjected to patterns of emotional, spiritual, and mental trauma and abuse.
I was accused of stealing a twenty-dollar craft book while at a child’s birthday party.
The parents of the child attended the same church my husband and I did. When the book went missing, I, the only Black woman in attendance, was accused by a relative of theirs of having something in a bag and taking it out of the house. That was all the evidence required to render me guilty. Yet I was never made aware of the accusation or asked about it. What was really in that bag? I briefly left the party to drive to the nearest store to purchase my not-quite-potty-trained daughter a new set of pants to wear until the party was over. There is no way they would have been so suspicious of a white woman taking a grocery bag outside of the house at a party let alone dare accuse her of stealing a craft book.
Unbeknownst to me, the mother of the child started to spread rumors, informing the other women in our church that I had stolen from her home. Note that I was the only Black woman in this circle. Over the months to follow, people stopped talking to me, I was no longer invited to events, and people distanced themselves from me. I didn’t understand why. The isolation, self-scrutiny, and loss of supposed friendships and confidants was lonely and suffocating.
A year-and-a-half later I was still working hard to find my place in this community. At this time one woman finally told me about the accusation and rumors. I really want to add here that she told me in order to absolve herself not because she was bent over in grief over what happened to me. She no longer wanted to be complicit in being a participant. A painful year-and-a-half later! In a moment, I realized what my community really thought of me. No one cared enough about me to ask or hear my voice in the matter. I realized that because I was a Black woman in this all-white space, my voice didn’t matter to them. They did not see my voice as one worthy of being believed, my community found me suspicious, and I was easily discarded by those professing grace and love. This flood of realizations unleashed my emotions born in patient suffering for so long. I got upset. You could hear it in my voice and see it in my body that this was unacceptable. That didn’t help me in that church because I was then seen as the angry Black woman.
This is hard for me to write. The spiritual trauma I endured as a Black woman and mother in a white church—among white women in particular—is a trauma that I am still processing, even ten years later. It’s taken me ten years to get to the sort of liberation I feel today. I relate deeply to James Baldwin when he said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”1
For me, my Black liberation means I won’t remain in a spiritually abusive space—a space that tolerated me and welcomed me only with limitations and conditions. Digging back into these painful times to revisit my abusive trauma is itself traumatizing. Sometimes I can make myself numb to the abuse; other times it feels as if it happened yesterday, and I am still an open wound.
I wish that my white evangelical church experience didn’t make me question who I was. White society has subjugated Black people to the point where we feel we must shrink ourselves. We all feel the undocumented and unspoken system of patriarchy and white male supremacy that shows itself in cyclical injurious patterns. There is no blueprint for navigating these territories. In this instance, I felt abandoned and unsure of myself until someone was finally willing to state the truth about the rumors that were being spread about me. I’m reminded of the words of the late Dr. Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”2 I will never forget how the other mothers in white church culture made me feel.
Rediscovering Black Joy And Liberation
Over the years, I became so small inside the box of white church culture that I didn’t know who I was. I felt suppressed. I felt small. I could not breathe. I had lost the ability to dream as I worked so hard to be accepted and valued. I was so focused on friendships in a space that could not see my humanity as an embodied Black woman that it was robbing me of my culture and traditions as a Black woman. It was robbing me of my imagination of what it felt like to express myself with my body, my voice. I had traded my habit of truth-telling to encourage growth and wholeness for presenting as nice and agreeable to keep the peace. There was no room for my expressions of beauty and honesty, my connection to Black joy and liberation.
Another thing about white evangelical culture that I had to deconstruct was the notion that women shouldn’t care for themselves or have an identity beyond their “kingdom work”—beyond their service at church. The mothers at church worked hard to stack up achievements to earn the “favor of Jesus,” often at our own spiritual expense. Only Jesus mattered, and we did not. The church rewarded the busy mothers who gave all that they had.
Even more was expected of me because of the strong Black woman stereotype. I was the outsider who was required to adapt, yet this pressure wasn’t considered by my peers. I, a Black woman, was painted as superhuman. The other mothers at the church didn’t believe I needed any help. After all, I was a strong Black woman, right? Except I was much more. I resonate with what Lizzo recently said: “We have been kind of tokenized as strong all the time, and I’m like no bro, like I’m delicate. I’m a flower. … I’m a soft Black woman. I’m a delicate Black woman. I want to show that too, and I think we deserve to be protected and taken care of.”3
Without a close woman mentor from church, I had to create my own standards of what Christian womanhood and motherhood looked like. I think I struggled for so many years because there, I was only ever allowed to be a Christian, and my Blackness had to be checked at the door. I could not fully embody my identity as a Black Christian mother in white evangelical church culture.
White women have too often reinforced the system of patriarchy while also being subjected to it themselves. I saw men lording their authority over the white women of the church and silencing their voices. This dynamic carried over into the women’s and mothers’ groups, forcing me to be the Black sheep (pun intended). Instead of linking arms with me and fighting our oppression together, they continued the pattern of oppression even when there were no men around.
There was a deep sense of self-erasure that I felt when I had to assimilate into the church’s patriarchal culture. I wrestled with the assumption that it was because I was an introvert or maybe it was just my personality. Navigating a space that caused me to be hyper-aware of my surroundings caused me to shrink into a shell. I wanted to fully embrace being a wife to my husband and being a mother to my five children. But I didn’t dare to dream in that space as a Black woman. There was no room for a daydreaming Black mother who would teach her children to critically think for themselves, that their voice was equally as important, to care for themselves while they serve Jesus, to love without conditions, and to stand for truth and justice even when it is uncomfortable. I was a threat to the system I was part of. I finally knew that the only way to find this liberating motherhood was for me to flee.
Learning To Daydream Again As A Black Christian Mother
It was during my time as a stay-at-home mother that I realized that my identity was not only in Christ but also in who I was as a person. I could both love my children immensely and still have my own dreams. I did not need to lose who I was as a person while mothering my children. And I could do it all while glorifying Christ.
As I started to embrace my whole identity in the midst of motherhood, I became more vocal on social media. I stopped worrying about whether I was making white women uncomfortable, not just with my presence but also with my voice. One time, I posted about raising my children to be Black and proud only to be lectured by the women of the church about the sin of prideful boasting. They were tone deaf—they never asked what being Black and proud meant. If they had, I would have explained that it is not the same as in a white context, where pride may be tantamount to arrogance. Instead, Black pride is being firm in your self-worth, receiving that God has fearfully and wonderfully made you in his image and knowing that this supersedes any contradictory messaging from the white community. Someone questioned if my husband knew what I was posting on social media. They said that if he did, he would not ascribe to what I was saying and would shut down what I was posting. Again, they had no intent to understand but only to lord authority over me and prop up the system of patriarchy and white male supremacy. These white women did not trust my voice and were trying to use my white husband to silence it.
I started to step outside of the white evangelical box to humanize my own self and remember who I was: someone made in God’s image. I should not have to separate my Blackness from my womanhood, from my motherhood, from my faith. God gave us unique talents and gifts to serve him like only we can. We were never called to live according to anyone’s vision but his. There were moments when I was hesitant about reclaiming and remembering; it’s a scary feeling to be so alone, in a sense. But I decided that I would rather be “alone” and liberated than be surrounded by people who did not care for me wholly. My liberation into Black womanhood and motherhood was about me doing it in the way God equipped me to. I was not going to feel guilty about embracing who God made me to be in an environment that was literally robbing me of myself and the gifts God bestowed on me.
My biggest form of activism has been raising my five Black children to go out into the world to be truth-tellers who seek the good of the community even when it brings discomfort. They deepen their love of God and love of people, and they seek the liberation of others. Black motherhood is where I feel most at home to be myself. Our daily mantra is that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”4 This space is an act of resistance. We reject a culture that is rooted in white individualism. Learning to daydream again as a Black mother has helped me cultivate a space where my family is its own community.
I love how intentional God was in the Bible toward women. We have been taught in society that God values men most. But he does equally value the presence and leadership of women. Why is this missed among white professing Christians when Black people like me enter their spaces? For now, all I can do is focus on me and mine, as I heal and stop generational curses while raising my children with a spirit of liberation in God’s name.
This article is from “Motherhood,” the Spring 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
- James Baldwin, “They Can’t Turn Back,” Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998).
- Goodreads quotes, accessed 28 February 2022, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/5934-i-ve-learned-that-people-will-forget-what-you-said-people.
- @Variety, “I’m delicate. I’m a flower. @lizzobeeating shares why #protectblackwomen is so important to her,” Instagram video, 25 February 2022, https://www.instagram.com/reel/CaaUDgwPQWh/.
- Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free” (speech delivered at the founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Washington, D.C., July 10, 1971).