I recently took up embroidery as a hobby. I learned a little bit from watching my roommates Alice and Lily as they both began embroidery in their free time this past year. Embroidery is incredibly soothing, although meticulous. You have to thread a needle every time you want to switch colors, which is agonizing (for me, anyway), and you then have to engage in stitch after stitch after stitch until your design finally comes to life.
Something I learned quickly is that if I’m not careful and mindful of my stitching, my thread will inevitably get knotted really quickly. Sometimes the knot is easy to pull loose; other times a tiny knot can grow into a huge, unmanageable one that could take several minutes to undo. I’ve learned sometimes it’s a lot easier to cut the knot and salvage the usable thread rather than trying to spend all my time undoing one big knot. Some might say it’s wasteful, I see it as prioritizing my time and energy.
I just ended my year of service with Life Together. I had originally signed up to do a second year with this program, but after repeated experiences with institutionalized racism and intense soul searching, I rescinded my contract and decided to move back home to Philadelphia. Looking back, I had some great experiences at the church I was serving and I made some beautiful friendships – but I also spent a good portion of this year doing a considerable amount of intellectual and emotional labor for white folks trying to “understand” racism in my service year program. I witnessed cultural appropriation happen in worship spaces and then have white folks get defensive and emotional when called out on it. I heard the pain of other people of color who got passed over for leadership positions. I had to listen to white people time and time again apologize for racist actions and watch as they continued with racist behavior even after I and many other POC called them out.
I recount the above experiences to remind myself that they happened, because society has taught me to always second-guess and discount my experiences and those of other people of color. Society says we are not to be believed when we share our experiences of discrimination. Mainstream Christian society in particular discounts our experiences, or when we are believed, many white Christians look down upon the ways we speak the truth, or shame us for not desiring “reconciliation” with oppressors. I’ve internalized this narrative and I hear it in the back of my mind every time I remember my experiences with racism.
“You could have handled that better. You burned that bridge. That isn’t very Christ-like of you. You need to reconcile with them.”
In the minds of many white Christians, reconciliation and forgiveness on the part of people of color seem to be taken as a given. POC are so often pressured implicitly and explicitly to forgive and reconcile, without taking stock of what forgiveness and reconciliation would actually take. We are called to have limitless reserves of grace for white oppression, for white guilt, for white nonsense, and yet white society offers us none in return, or when grace it is offered, it is on the condition that we behave “respectably” and communicate ‘nonviolently’, i.e., censor ourselves.
When I think about my experiences with this community and how I handled it, I know that when I called people out and left without saying goodbye, I acted from a place of great anger and pain. And I’m fine with that. I don’t regret what I did. To have censored my language, my story, my pain, would have been doing an immense disservice to myself and other people of color who experienced the same things. In this case I chose to cut loose a knot in my spirit rather than painstakingly pulling it apart, because I knew that would have necessitated an immense investment of my own emotional resources that I did not have. It pains me more to twist and contort myself to be acceptable in the eyes of progressive white society than knowing my words and actions may ruffle feathers.
This experience also taught me a lot about what church is supposed to be and what it currently is. My internship program boasted that it aims to produce new ways of doing and being church, but it is also a microcosm of what the church is. And so the liberal white racism I encountered in my program is just a sample of what is going on in the church across denominational lines.
What I’ve learned more and more is that the church these days is not interested, despite what you may hear, in yielding its proximity to power. The church is interested in comforting the already comfortable. The church is interested in racial justice work because it is the Right Thing to Do, but not if it gets too uncomfortable. The church does not want to question the systems of economic and racial violence that keep people lining up at its doors for services – it just wants to continue providing the services. Mind you it isn’t wrong to continue feeding the hungry, but if we don’t question why people are hungry and if we don’t work with them to end ongoing cycles of economic violence, then the hungry will never truly be free.
I truly believe in my spirit that, in this day and age, if you are a person of privilege and you can walk out of your congregation on a Sunday not feeling shaken, not questioning the systems of power you benefit from, not ready to yield your resources to the most marginalized in your midst – then the church is failing. If all you take away from church on Sunday is a beautiful liturgical experience with the very best hymns and choral pieces and not an understanding of what the Gospel is calling you to do in the face of police brutality, violence against Black and Brown bodies, environmental degradation, and rampant xenophobia, then perhaps you need to revisit what it means to be a Christian.
I know that the church is dying. At first when I read the statistics and the think pieces, I confess that my initial thought was about job security – What does that mean given that I feel God is calling me to be a priest? Will I have a job? But now truly I think it is better to let the church that doesn’t use its prophetic voice to question and rebuke the powerful, out of fear of being “too political”, die. The Spirit will ensure that something new, something different, something bold will emerge out of the ashes. The Spirit will show me where my place will be in that new growth.
For right now, in this moment, my spirit is tired. I’m exhausted. I remind myself every day that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to not know what is up next. I experienced a lot of messed up shit in the past couple of months, and I deserve to restore and heal myself. So for now I will keep stitching, undoing knots sometimes, other times cutting them out. And with patience, a new picture will emerge out of all those tiny stitches.