Trouble in the Water
As a preacher’s kid I remember my baptism fondly. I was wearing this floral print dress, shower cap, and long white choir robe. I saw my father in the water speaking to the church on the symbolism of baptism. The opportunity for possibility. The promise of not being alone ever again. There were a few people who went before me who were much older. I thought about what made them take so long to come to such an obvious conclusion. What made them wait? I never asked myself why I was rushing. Maybe it was because I wanted to make my parents proud. My older sisters had been baptized around this age. Maybe it was for the attention. Maybe it was for the bright and shining “possibility.” Maybe it was because it was easier to believe in God when I hadn’t been introduced to the circumstances of sin. Maybe it was because the order it offered looked better than the chaos of life.
I dipped my foot in the water. My mom held on to me as stepped down into the pool. My dad was happy. She was happy. I was happy. But happiness is fleeting. Many things that are terrible for me make me happy. That shouldn’t be the sole reason a decision is made. But as a child, I had not yet learned to put away childish things. Jesus was the cute cartoon in all of my Sunday school booklets, he was the good guy. I understood him in theory but not in practice. I confused an emotional impulse as rationale to make this decision. As I held on to my dad’s forearm and listened to him speak I couldn’t have realized that what I was really doing was choosing God’s promises, not God. He dipped me and I faltered for a bit. I remember wondering if I could even come back up. Surfacing was painful. I gasped and flailed but my dad helped me up and onto the other side.
Those were good times. But after formally passing on church in 2012, my experience was fraught with more pain than happiness. As a preacher’s child you are looked to as an example. But how can you expect a child to be an example without experience? I struggled with that identity. A part of me liked the attention but not the isolation the position came with. In the very place I was supposed to be vulnerable and transparent, I never could be. Everything was a reflection of the family, not of my own personal walk. I didn’t learn how to be a congregant until college. My religion was religion.
My whole family was left with the burns that only a toxic church can leave. People didn’t want to change. Many of them showed up to serve themselves, to serve some dilapidated ego, but rarely was the occasion for God. It was a broken place filled with broken people pretending that they weren’t. Truth did not live in the pews. It was a living graveyard. In my own journey I wanted something that felt alive and vibrant, I wanted that possibility again. Like a junkie looking for a fix I wanted that spiritual high again. I visited several churches with my best friend before finding one I liked. But still, I felt the isolation. It was predominantly college students and predominantly white. It was advertised as non-denominational but had very deep Southern Baptist roots. Questions about the dearth of female leadership got dodged somehow. Questions in general got treated as hostilities. I made friends but something about it felt inauthentic. Something about me in that church felt inauthentic.
I was still putting on the show I learned as preacher’s child. Smile, nod, repeat verses, smile again. When I was younger I wasn’t myself because no one asked me to be Jordan, they expected the pastor’s daughter. Here I was doing it again, unwilling to fully participate and unable to fully connect. I was observing church, not participating in it. There was one place that I loved that I found a few years later. One place that had the love and light I was looking for. It felt real, I could tell that it was real and something beautiful was happening there but the problem wasn’t the church. It had everything I said I wanted. The problem was me.
I was unwilling to connect with a church and I was unwilling to connect with God. The burns I have run deep and are still healing. I could have chose to do that while in church but I didn’t want to go through the motions. I didn’t want to pretend. I had an anger in me, a resentment that I thought was completely uncommon and found out wasn’t. As a Christian woman I was expected to be demure, delicate. There was little written about women being human, being able to feel things other than joy, being able to do more than building a happy home. The conversations I needed to have about surviving sex abuse, about shame, about guilt, about dead things, I had to find those things outside of church. Those topics made people uncomfortable. Those topics made the same people who told me about the beauty of confession and openness hush me and advise me to seek God’s face on my own. I needed a community but I couldn’t find it inside the community I’d grown up in.
I remember the female pastor of one church taking a group of the women to drop off toiletries and cookies to the local strip club. As awkward as you might think it’d be it was actually nice just to talk with the ladies there. We were in the front when a man burst through the door. He was well dressed but his eyes had a certain glaze to them. He seemed sad inside. It was only noon so I definitely had my judgments. How dare he? Doesn’t he have a job? What about his family? Abby, the pastor told me gently, “A lot of the people who come here are looking for community. Sure, it’s sexy, it’s racy. But these men eat dinner here, these men find friends here. They’re getting something here that they couldn’t find in a church.”
That always stuck with me. By no fault of our own some churches fail us miserably. Some churches forget about things as simple as making people feel comfortable. Some churches forget about people. I’ve visited plenty so I know them all too well.
- The “radical” church that markets itself as the place for outcasts while simultaneously excluding everyone else.
- The “cool” church that had more apple products on display than actual scripture.
- The “real” church where ministers never studied themselves to be approved and assumed their experience with and their enthusiasm for God was the same as education.
- The “we don’t pick and choose” church that picked and chose what scriptures to pay attention to and what scriptures to ignore all the time (psst we all do this).
- The “traditional” church that confused reason with insubordination.
- The “social” church that was just a meetup for people who didn’t want to get their hands dirty.
- The “intellectual” church that was desperate to prove the connection between the mind and faith but lacked heart.
I sat in many pews convincing myself that I had to put up with a lot of bullshit in order to find God. We all can joke about the horrendous choir selections, bad sermons, and dreadful fashions we’ve witnessed in church. It’s almost a rallying cry for people who’ve “survived.” But where we’re quick to talk about what was funny, we’re all but mum to speak on the things that really messed with us. Teenagers made to stand and admit their sexual activity, preacher’s searching for congregants to open their bibles and their legs, church leadership justifying their own sordid agendas with the word, children being abused, women being sexualized and then demonized, funds turning up missing, the list could go on. Many people’s resistance or hesitation to church has very little to do with God and everything to do with God’s people. Yet the church does very little to remedy that fact. I can’t tell you how many times my Christian brothers and sisters thought I should just suck it up and come to church anyway. They couldn’t imagine a legitimate excuse for being angry at God or being pissed at the church and maybe that’s the problem. When people have to form a support group because of the things they endured at church, something is wrong.
So how does a preacher’s kid who loved church end up leaving it and why did this one? Incompetent pastors. Women’s ministries that emphasized my uselessness without a man. Church leadership that loved female congregants to work but never let them lead. Sexuality being treated as shame and as a sexual assault survivor, more shame was not what I needed. Churches using words but never taking action. Notions about having “hearts for Africa,” while being heartless to their own damn communities. Lukewarm messages about God dying for “all of us” but only seeing unicultural congregations. Churches obsessed with production quality instead of the quality of their own hearts.
Naturally it’s easier to say what’s wrong than to try and fix it. But how can I shoulder the burden of change if a congregation doesn’t want to or flat out refuses to acknowledge they have problems? I tried finding a congregation that cares about and appreciates women. I tried finding a church that’s ethnically and racially inclusive. I tried finding a congregation that realizes the same laws banning homosexuality banned tattoos and how the pathology of our inconsistencies is more important than laws we no longer follow. I tried finding a church that engages its community instead of raising thousands to send people across the globe. I tried finding a church where people see people and meet people where they are. I tried finding a church that admits when it’s fucked up. I tried finding a church that’s honest in its examination of the word and in its examination of itself. I tried finding a church that understands holding women accountable for men’s inability to control themselves is bullshit. I tried finding a church that doesn’t have to be marketed as something because it simply is. I exhausted myself from searching. Maybe the task was impossible. Maybe you’re thinking that I was looking for a perfect church. Nope. God might be looking for a church without spots or blemishes but I’m not. I just want one that’s brave enough to admit that it has any. I’m asking for a church to be safe. Safe for my female body, safe for my black skin, safe for my mind, and safe for my heart. I hate that my quest for God required me to go outside of the very place I should have been able to find Him.
If you’re burnt-out or angry I would highly suggest, “Angry Conversations With God.” It’s a refreshing read.