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.