I was nine years old when I walked into the old brick church the color of cloudy skies. Like a shy duckling, I followed my father into the building and through the hallways. Kind faces greeted us as we walked by, as if we were all old friends. The closer we got to the sanctuary, the brighter the hallway became. Finally, standing before open double doors, sunlight poured around our feet, beaming through tall stained glass windows. Pews anchored in neat rows, solid and strong, were filled with families clapping with the drums. Ushers stood at attention using gloved hand signals to guide us to a seat. My eyes were glued to the front of the church where a choir swayed back and forth to the music emanating from a stout, electric organ. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. As I tried to take it all in, it quickly became apparent that my father had brought us to a black church. It was love at first sight.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had this feeling. It’s what happens when there’s an overwhelming sense of belonging. Perhaps you’ve experienced this when visiting a church too. Or maybe your sense of belonging happened in a small group or Bible study, a volunteer opportunity or shared meal with friends. I imagine for you, like me, this memory comes with strong feelings of nostalgia. We know it couldn’t have been as perfect as we remember, and yet the sweetness of the moment is all that matters. Whatever imperfections existed in reality—a choir member singing off-key, someone upset we stole “their seat,” or any of a thousand things that could go wrong in a church service—were of no importance to me then or now. All I remember is feeling at home.
The truth is church was nothing new to me. Having attended a Christian school for as long as I can remember, I had sat through countless chapels and church services. But the two experiences were difficult to compare. When I walked into that church, for the very first time, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. It’s hard to express how much this moment changed everything.
Losing My Self
In the late ’80s and early ’90s when I grew up attending a predominantly white private school, words like diversity and multiculturalism had not yet been popularized. So schools were still developing curriculum and experiences largely devoid of cultural depth. In my experience, all of my teachers were white, as were the principal, librarian, and other staff members. We regularly used illustrated Bibles, storybooks, and movies in which all the characters were also white. When teachers posted pictures of Jesus in the room, Jesus was always depicted as white. Our chapel services always had a white speaker who used cultural references with which I was familiar only because of my white peers, not because the references actually applied to my home or family life.