Every Black person ‘knows the Lord’. It’s true. Go grab the first dark hued person that you see and ask them, very seriously “Have you accepted Jesus to be your Lord and Savior?” Odds are, sister girl or brotha man * will cut their eyes at you, dumbfounded by your bizarre, ignorant question. Of COURSE he/she has! God is as much a part of the average African-American’s identity as the gorgeous array of browns that we bear either in pride or shame. The Christian Post agrees with my observation, that African-Americans are notorious for being religious, and more specifically, Protestant (the belief that justification (or salvation) is achieved through faith alone in Jesus Christ, not works, and that The Holy Bible is THE authoritative source for life). What the Christian Post doesn’t do, however, is define what the term ‘religious’ actually means.
Cultural religiosity (oooh, wanna coin that term soo badly! I’m sure it’s been done…I probably read it from some amazing scholar) is not synonymous with authentic spirituality. Now, this may be one of those ‘a rectangle is a square, but a square is not a rectangle’ kinda things, but hear me out. Cultural religiosity looks like traditions. It looks like laws that are passed down from generation to generation like grandma’s fried chicken recipe. You do it because you were told that ‘it works’. You also do it because you have no choice (at least for the first 18 years of your life). Authentic spirituality, however, looks like traditions, that you do, not because you were told that ‘it works’, but because you have hope that it ‘can work’. Authentic spirituality has traditions that morph and transform over time to aid in the maturation of each unique person and generation. They are reformed traditions that change for the sake of creating genuine relationships and connectedness with God. Authentic spirituality is freedom in the purest, most truest sense. Can authentic spirituality look like cultural religiosity? Of course it can, and vice versa, but ohh, how different these two concepts are.
I grew up, for instance, in a culturally Christian home (ummm….I’m a Black girl living in the South. That’s a no brainer). I can still see the ceramic, yellow plaque that hung on my living room wall with The Lord’s Prayer etched in brown paint. In King James English, of course. Every Saturday night, I’d get my hair pressed and curled in my kitchen, by my mama, for Sunday morning service. Until I was nine, my mom was pretty much a church lady. Often times, we’d spend half of our Sunday at church, as my mom was in the choir, and during the week, I’d spend a good couple of hours crawling under the pews of the sanctuary, as my mom rehearsed with the gospel choir. (In fact, I remember being at church for so long, and with so much rehearsing going on, that we didn’t even hear our car being stolen in the church parking lot. (IN THE CHURCH PARKING LOT!!!)
My mama gave me and my siblings a dollar each right before it was time for the offering so that we could all walk up in front of the congregation and put something in. At night, growing up, I remember saying my prayers to God, asking him to watch over my family, me and all the animals. I also remember being terrified of God, thanks to a few too many of my mom’s renditions of the book of Revelation. We said grace before every meal: “Thank you Lord for the food we’re about to receive right now for the nourishment of our bodies. Amen.” We held hands and thanked God for letting us live to see another year on New Years’ Eve. Annnnd….that’s about it. I didn’t go to Sunday School, I don’t remember reading the Bible before age 11, and the foundations of my theology were simply that “God existed. He is powerful. He had a son named Jesus. Jesus is good, and he loves me.” I knew that Jesus died and rose on the third day (duh! I DID celebrate Easter!), but I had no idea of the significance of that. The thought of Jesus being anything more than the Son of God was outlandish.
Culturally, I was Christian, but Spiritually, I was Agnostic.
I did not follow Jesus’ teachings. Hey, I didn’t even KNOW his teachings. I believed in a mix of things: that if I were good, I would get blessed and go to heaven. I believed (as is a common trend in MY experiences with Black culture, including my own family) in Karma, that if I did something bad, God, the universe, and people, would punish me, and if I did something great, I’d be rewarded and people would be kind to me. I believed that God helps those who help themselves (You show me where that is in Scripture, and I’ll give you a pedicure for the rest of your life. Ain’t gonna happen.) I believed some crazy you know what, not because it was true, not because it was Scripturally based, but because it was this strange mix of culture and unfounded beliefs being passed off as religion.
So how did this strange incongruency end? How did I come to a place of believing in more than an all powerful deity? I wish I could say it started when I got baptized, but it didn’t. I also got baptized out of my cultural Christianity. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but as grandma said, “it was time”. For my 12th birthday, I remember asking for a Bible. It was the only thing that I wanted. Very strange request looking back in hindsight. The Bible that my mom got me was white leather with my name engraved in gold letters. I still got that sucker sitting in the back seat of my car. Why? Because it means the Lord will follow you wherever you go, duh! (as you can see, I’m still working some things out.) Unfortunately for me, my Bible, was of course, a King James Version. Who on earth understands that? Really? But that is where my interest in Scripture grew. I would try to understand and piece things together. When I was 16, I found a ‘Living Bible’ version of Scripture. I remember inhaling The New Testament, captivated especially by the teachings of Jesus. But there was one thing that I got that has shaped all that I am to this day. It was one of the first things that I read. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).-Matthew 1:23
Reading this verse was the first time that I was presented with the truth, that Jesus, was NOT ONLY the son of God, but He is/was/will always be God. This began my journey to understanding Jesus as God incarnate. Wow! That was a frikkin paradigm shift like I’ve never experienced. I remember the relief that came in those months as I really began to read Scripture for the first time, praying for understanding, and revelation. It was like…I finally had someone to follow! I finally had someone telling me what it really looked like to believe and be obedient to God, and that person was Jesus.
Nearly three years ago, I decided to work full time in ministry for many reasons, but one reason in particular, was to be an agent of change in the Black community. As I noticed on campus as a student, and now as an adult, there is a lukewarm epidemic amongst my people, and it makes my stomach curl. Like I said earlier, ask any sister or brother if they know the Lord, and their response will most likely be ‘yes’. 8 years ago, my answer would’ve been yes, and as truthful as that would’ve been for me, it was so very far from the truth. Maybe a better question would be, “Do you know who Jesus is?” or “Are you familiar with the teachings of Jesus? Do you follow them?”
As I reflect on my own cultural religiosity, I am both amazed at the work that the Lord has done in my life through relationships with others, and I am also deeply humbled at how he used/uses this jacked up woman to lead others to him. I am also reminded of the spiritual junk that I still need to sort through (Like seriously….WHY is the Bible in my back seat?! Lol). All in all, I am at a place now, where I can say that I’m LEARNING to know the Lord (seriously, he’s waaay too big and good to know fully), and, yes. I follow and accept Jesus as LORD and Savior, and I am trying my hardest to be both culturally, and spiritually, an African-American Christian.