In the mid-1980s, my family's church was in the West Adams District of Los Angeles, a historically Black neighborhood. My brown body felt safe among the precise Craftsmans and broken sidewalks tepeed by tree roots. At six years old, I'd skip to church every Sunday and Wednesday with my patent-leather shoes flung high in pulses, remembering the way as if they had a soul in them.
I'd get to church early so that I could go upstairs, bend myself over the balcony rail, and watch folks fold in downstairs. Empty wooden pews and bare walls transformed into a life-size flower garden — brown people dressed in yellows and blues and whites and oranges, all with matching hats and shoes, their dainty fingers covered in cloth gloves. And on hot days, we'd hold tight to the handles of paper fans, and when everyone fanned at once, it looked like the whole church was blinking.
Black Afros below me, some blonde, moved around the room like the tops of trees, walking. The men would be in three-piece suits, dressed fine, shoes shined. But I would always wait patiently for the skinny brown woman in the blue hat. With my hand over my mouth to stop myself from laughing, I'd anticipate her prayers to Lloyd. "Dear Lloyd …" she'd say, "Oh, Lloyd," she'd say. Because she couldn't pronounce Lord. "Bless us, Lloyd."
I would snort despite my precaution, then get smacked in the back of the head by any adult nearby. This small violence would eventually help me to understand what the mature already knew: be respectful of people no matter what language they spoke or name they called God.
Almost every member of my church was a former Southerner, many escaping the terrorism of the South. My parents, from Alabama, were facing their fears in this new West, seeking new opportunities in the face of police beatings … again, injustices again. And in the 1980s, the civil-rights movement and the assassination of a pastor — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — were as close to their memories as 9/11 is to ours now.
I can still see Ms. Hazel Ford, still 80 years old, still smiling full of dentures. Her gray wig framed her face like a silver halo. Six feet tall, she'd look down at me and smile, sneaking me candy during long prayers and hugging me, one-armed, into the softness of her hip, praying for me personally.
I'd reach up and open my hands when we sang, trying to touch something that was just out of reach — a place we all, as Black people, were trying to get to. We had hope that in our continuing struggles, we'd find the peace on Earth that God had promised — peace beyond our understanding. And freedom. To be treated like our American citizenship was first-class, too.
We wanted God things more than good things. To help end hunger and poverty and the symptoms of such: poor education, incarceration, joblessness, poor health care. And we wanted to be good stewards of resources, including the Earth. So for us, engagement in our culture was necessary. Politics was necessary, but it was only a tool, not a paralyzing obsession — fatal, because faith without works is dead.
Recently, I went looking for signs of life in today's church.
I thought I'd felt a pulse when, not long after the murder of Eric Garner — "I can't breathe" — and the deafening silence of the church, a young white pastor out of Seattle, Judah Smith, stood in front of his congregation and said, yes, all lives matter, but all lives were never in question. It gave me hope that I'd again find the religious of my upbringing.
I'd heard about Bishop TD Jakes. He was one of the few pastors risking his platform for change on several issues I cared about deeply. So I wanted to start there, at the 2017 International Pastors and Leaders Conference in Dallas, Texas. I flew in from LA.
Jakes has been known as a controversial leader who runs a mega-church, and to be fair, it does mega-service for the community, especially in criminal justice. I am a criminal lawyer and am hopeful for bipartisan legislation because there is no loss in bargaining for people's lives. Prisons are human warehouses filled not only with the guilty but the poor.
On the first night of the conference, I sat in the audience with thousands of pastors and church leaders, and I was desperate for a Christian people engaged in the issues of our world and our communities. The panel was called "The Polemics of Politics and the Pulpit" and featured spiritual advisers to United States presidents, both Republican and Democrat, both black and white. The moderator was April Ryan, veteran journalist and White House correspondent.
Bishop Jakes sat in the front pew with the audience, listening to panelists answer the first question of the night: "What is the role of the church in this political environment?" He got my full attention when he joined the discussion and said, "When we hitch our wagons to a political position, we are prostituting ourselves saying this is God ordained. When we are so committed to a candidate to say 'This is God's choice,' our integrity is compromised."
I was compromised. But for a different reason. I had lost my patience with people. For some Christians whose hateful rhetoric was cruel and disrespectful, their excuse was "I don't have to be politically correct" — code for "I'm angry, have no self-control, and I don't care if I disrespect you, but you should still respect me anyway."
And I was drowning in religion-splainers — non-Christians, in my case, attempting to mask their contempt for my faith while explaining my religion to me with random, often twisted, Bible verses and stories. Like people wrongly explaining to Muslims that their religion makes them terrorists.
I needed patience.
Especially for moments like this one on the panel when, after arguing over race, poverty, and Flint, Michigan, the panelists responded to this question from Ryan: "How do you redirect people to effectuate meaningful change?"
There is no safe place to get a unified truth that's not diluted with a perspective or spin.
Paula White, a pastor of President Trump, answered, "Start with education, community leaders, and reaching out. You can never bring a solution without identifying the problem." An audible gasp swept the audience after her next line: "Half the time we don't even understand. Black Lives Matter? People don't understand."
"Are you saying the White House doesn't understand?" Ryan said.
"I'm saying the common person on the street," White said.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Ryan said, leaning forward. "People see people shot and dying on the street."
"I'm not talking about in the African American community," White said.
"But you just said Black Lives Matter?" Ryan said.
"There are people in the evangelical community … white community who don't understand all situations," White said.
A virtual silence befell the 10,000-seat auditorium. It was a familiar, hollow sound that often accompanies the baffling blindness that exists in the chasm dividing America right now. "So there has to be education … understanding," White said to the silence. A room asking its own question: How can you not see?
Those of us on the ground, straddling the lines in our offices, with our families and churches, wish we could be some prescription lens for someone, a hearing aid, an aha moment that brings it all together and ends with joyful tears and hugging. But that only happens on YouTube.
"We are polarized," Jakes said, interrupting the silence. People live in a bubble. The birthing of social media allows you to log on to what you want to hear. And the news allows you to listen to who's speaking your language. There is no safe place to get a unified truth that's not diluted with a perspective or spin.
"How can we educate each other?" he asked the church. People are talking about things they don't understand, he said, and you can't understand people you don't sit with. If you can understand the plight in Africa, you can understand this. "I don't believe you can know Jesus and meet some of these people" — like those with loved ones wrongly killed by police — "and not carry their cause all the way to the White House." And yes, the lives of officers matter.
The audience and panel applauded. I wanted to believe that this moment represented resuscitation, an understanding that our rights in this country are defended not only by our military but by plainclothed citizens with families and homemade signs.
I was recently talking to a friend who is a pastor. He's one of the first people I spent time with after I returned to my faith at 32 years old. I had been Buddhist and at one point considered intellectualism my religion, but now I have a different meditation. I said, "If it weren't for getting to know you, I would have been a weapon against the church." Not intentionally. But from the hardening that comes from distance.
In the years apart, I'd learned to apply the wanton hypocrisy and abuse of some in the church to all — an application that's a sign of ignorance toward any community. Had I not spent time with this pastor (and others), I would have settled.
The church has become a weapon because of distance. A weapon wielded and manipulated by politics — a system that is both aware of and shrewd with our "innocent" bubbles. We don't spend enough time in the communities and with the people we direct our rage against, our votes against, our compassionless legislation toward, because despite all of God's signs to the contrary, we think we know. Our news source has already told us.
Abortion became a topic of the night's heated debate. At one point, a priest stood up and wagged his finger as he spoke. Trump's pastor fumbled over sheets of paper that contained alleged statistics about the number of brown babies aborted. And the fact-checkers on the panel shut it down with one simple question: Where do your statistics come from? She didn't know.
And maybe that's the problem. We're all sifting our way through facts, alternate facts, and facts re-titled fake news. And as we do, people are suffering. The lives that are terminated belong to people. People who are suffering outside your window, and mine. Your skills and energy are needed on the ground, and we can't all be "the voice" of change, like a pastor — some must act.
Father Michael, a priest on the panel, may have summarized it best with his impassioned statement that night: "Let me be clear," he said. "I am pro-life and I am against abortion. But we have narrowed what abortion means. We have defined abortion as something that happens in a womb, in a clinic. If we believe that every single one of us has a purpose, a destiny, and a plan ordained by God, then when a child is not allowed to reach her destiny by education, by poverty, by racism, that's abortion. That. Is. Abortion!"
Maybe we have found ourselves in a clinic. Not reaching our potential as a country because of these abortions. Our ideas not fully formed, our thoughts, our actions, our bodies.
When I was six years old, hands raised and singing away the darkness I couldn't yet see, the songs of freedom felt far from me, like water through my fingers. I hadn't yet spent time in our classrooms, our courtrooms, our prisons, and with people who weren't like me. I hadn't felt the freezing that shrinks the hope of those around me. Not like now.
But I'm inspired by the memory that I felt in that church. It's warming me still. So I'll raise my hands in anticipation, pushing forward through closed doors because I won't let go of the life inside me. And I'll keep praying that we'll all finally grow toward the heights we were meant to reach as a country while holding a promise that's coming slowly, like a final chord of a gospel song.
Natashia Deón is a 2017 NAACP Image Award nominee and the author of the critically acclaimed novel GRACE (Counterpoint Press), which was named a New York Times and Kirkus Reviews best book of 2016. A practicing attorney and law professor, Deón is the creator of the LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. GRACE is now available in paperback.