This summer, a beloved family friend I had known my entire life passed away. There is some- thing incredibly enchanting about funerals, especially in the black community. Our little rituals and traditions are not for the person laying before us. It is for the full-figured woman, singing with all of the soul embedded in between ridges of her ribcage; songs etched into the very fabric of our skin. Songs slaves used to sing to one another. To God. Songs that still move us at our core. It is for the family members in the front row hiding their grief under oversized hats and sunglasses when there is no sun. It is for the estranged family in the back, their hands clasped together and their lips moving ever so faint. They ask for forgiveness. It is for you and I, who are living, who know nothing else than what it means to breathe and exist and cry and smile and just be.
She passed away months after I stopped being a christian. So when the pastor ended the short sermon with a call to Jesus, and to stop living without assurance of where our eternal destination would be, I was okay. I didn’t need to be guilt-tripped or scared into buying his version of paradise. I saw it as a man simply doing his job, simply loving us all and offering hope the best w ay he knew how.
My earliest encounter with religion was the thick, white pleather King James Bible my family had in our living room. The wear and tear from the small cracks in its flesh were indicative of the many hands that crafted, held, and needed it. The gold inscription of its edition and trimmings was the closest thing I had ever been to regalia, and ever will. The first page was where my parents wrote the names of members in our family. My name stood proudly among my brothers, grandparents and others. I imagine this tradition was something black families held so dear. To be able to honor the names of the people who have come before them. Even the names of those who would not have been able to read their very selves from a calligraphy decorated in spiritual freedom. God was with us and we would not be moved.
I became religious towards the end of my high school years and all throughout my undergraduate college experience. They were some of the happiest times of my life, from joyrides through the countryside blasting christian music and singing along with Hillsong United and Kirk Franklin, to my best friend and I setting fire to pieces of paper with our fears written on it, to sneaking into an abandoned factory and praying under the stars. I made friendships with some of the most genuine, beautiful people I couldn’t imagine never knowing. But even still, I always wondered if this was truly it. If there really was only one God who only made himself known to a select amount of people who were lucky enough to stumble upon the straight and narrow path. I wondered about countless other denominations and religions who believed things that were very similar to me, and things that weren’t and if they deserved to be burned for all eternity while I floated around in the clouds. Who was I to have found the truth? Why was I egotistical enough to believe I was right? When I had questions of any kind I was redirected to the bible. When I asked about modern social issues, I was given vague scriptures open to many interpretations, and told one in particular, coincidentally agreeing with the church I was part of, was right. During my senior year of college, I started to talk about religion to people who were openly agnostic and atheist. Many of them were young white men for whom religion played a different role in their lives, making it easier to some to simply walk away. Before, I used to believe irreligious people were wistful and depressed whether they realized it or not because they didn’t have God. But when I actually got to know many of them, I saw how fulfilled and content a person could be without being well-versed in religious dogma.
My ancestors were brought to this country stripped of everything from their heritage, to their own religions to the very skin on their backs. Christianity always existed in african-american history, which is no surprise that many black people today identity as christian and will never truly question why. In fact, it is still a taboo to be openly non-religious in our culture. God makes sense to us. God is the only constant in the face of trial and tribulation. God blesses our food. God is in our names. Our music. Spend just one hour in a black church and you too would believe. If the sermon wont move you, the choir will. Not necessarily because you will question your previously held beliefs, but being in the very presence of people touched by what they think God is, and the vicious outpour of that kind of art is absolutely breathtaking.
I still have a deep appreciation and respect for christianity, although I don’t find God and religion to be synonymous. I love the heart of Jesus, and wish I could have met him while he still walked among us. I find christianity to be, at its best, a beautiful story of unconditional love between God and man, that has given people, especially my people, hope for centuries, and right now that’s enough for me. I even occasionally miss it in the way one misses a friend they’ve grown apart from. I chose to leave it, if not temporarily, because I did not want my perception of the world to continue to be limited by ancient texts susceptible to human copy error and the politics of that time. I left because I did not want to participate in theological groupthink anymore. I left because at times the god of the old testament sounded too conveniently similar to the insecure, flawed and xenophobic men he supposedly was superior to. I found it best to step away from it all and figure out for myself what I wanted to believe in.
Religion is deep rooted in my blackness, which is why I could never really leave. It is an irrevocable part of me. My people have always been spiritual. Long before slave ships and whips, we danced and believed and worshipped gods who looked just like us. This can be said of all indigenous people. The desire to know God has always existed and will always exist in the yearnings of our hearts, which is what makes humans remarkable.
I have not found the appropriate label for what I identify as. Atheist is too assured, and while agnostic is what I most likely am, it feels very abstract at times. I still believe, just not in the same way I used to. Not in the same way that many of my friends do. My belief still brings me to rooftops and mountains and riversides with nothing but gratitude and amazement bursting in my chest. My new belief allows me to embrace the wholeness of people without trying to convince them to acquiesce to the doctrine I follow. I do not know if I can still call this force God, but I am willing to call it “something”. I am not sure if there will be a sufficient label that is concrete enough for others to understand me when I tell them. But I also think our society’s obsession with categorizing people will only continue our internal unrest.
I prayed at the funeral. I thanked God for the life of our family friend. And in that moment, it didn’t matter what God looked like, or what rules and instructions I must follow to properly be able to have a communion. It didn’t matter what gender God was, if God had any gender at all, and it didn’t matter how wrong or right I was in my beliefs. All that mattered is in that moment, with death so tangible and just inches away, and the presence of something more mystifying than I ever could imagine—so precious to the brown faces all around me, I felt like I surpassed all musings of god and science. Like I could shed my skin and just be free. And that’s when I fell in love all over again.