"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
a long way from home."
from an American Negro spiritual, "Motherless Child",
J.W. Johnson and J.R. Johnson 1926
Where do I belong?
When I am brave--which is not nearly as often as I'd like to be, I ask myself this question. What is my spiritual heritage?
This is what I remember: my great grandmother, Ma Brown, was a Holy Roller. That's what they called Pentecostals back in the day. It wasn't a term of endearment. She was looked upon with a certain spooky awe. She was capable of "catching the Holy Ghost", you see--as if God, feeling whimsical, took occassions to "throw" the Holy Ghost, or spread it like a virus.
I remember the way she would pad through the house with soft, but weary steps, her walker thumping out the steps before her. She smelled of Ben Gay that took the edge off her aching joints. I remember her prayerfulness; always praying--though she was in the habit of saying "shit", the only expletive I recall coming out of her mouth. It's funny that I remember that about her, along with the prayers and spiritual songs. I find it oddly comforting. She was a church mother, a wonderful thing, and needful, especially in this day and age. I didn't go to church with Ma Brown. By the time she came to live with us she didn't get out much. She was sick, and old, and finally died, still trusting her Jesus.
Next was the Baptist church I went to with friends. I don't remember learning anything, but I did read more than a few JTC tracts. They scared me into saying those "sinner's prayers" at the end each and every time. Shoot. I'd still pray 'em if I came across a Jack Chick tract today. So, maybe I was "saved" at a much younger age than I realize.
Then came the methodist chuch. We went there, and the choir director taught me how to sing, "Day By Day" from Godspell. I think I felt a little nostalgic about that, and got the movie not too long ago. A fun, hippie musical version of the gospel, if you can get past the glaring omission of Jesus not rising from the dead at the end. What a shock that was to grown up me! I had to add my own musical resurrection in my head! Again, I don't remember really learning anything about Jesus, but the songs were groovy, and I got to pass notes to Keysha and oogle over that cute Derrick.
Next. I'm fifteen, and Penny drags me to a revival at the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, the very church where my great grandmother was a church mother. I will never forget that night. The first time I was engaged by a sermon, the first time I responded to an altar call, the first time I felt the rain of the Holy Spirit fall on me. Cleansing, healing, making me His own. The only thing I wanted to do was preach the gospel. A year later, I was an ordained missionary.
It get's really funky from here on. There was the church with the young pastors who were too young. And a succession of insane churches that I still bear scars from. There was the Word of Faith churches, and the no church, and chanting with the Hare Krishna's, Zen, African Orisha's and almost everything else. There was thirst, and hunger, and starving for God. There was Rumi, and whirling dervishes, and Black Hebrew Israelistes, and Jesus, at long last.
I went back to strange, unaccoutable churches with abusive pastors. I went to a wonderful Full Gospel Baptist church that had services every night of the week just about. I went to a Unity church for about two seconds. Back to C.O.G.I.C, and then I don't even know. I ended up in a great church, perfect for ragamuffins, where I was the only black person. I still go to that church, when I go, which is not often. I don't think I've been there for three months. I started to tell my pastor I'm just not coming back. I keep failing. I keep starting, and then pulling away. It may be because I am truly crazy. A doctor said I had a social phobia. It could be the dark depressions that batter me. Or it could be, I simply don't see enough of me there.
These are the traditions and churches that I experienced the most deeply, but there is also the tradition of my parents who did not raise me, who were Catholic. There was the tiny part of my ancestry that is Jewish, and the larger part that is Irish. There is the Native American in me. All of these part of my spiritual heritage. None of them, speaking to me clearly, calling me back home.
I kept looking for community. Searching. Seeking, and I kept finding myself with the distinct feeling "I don't belong here." In my most honest days, I can say it: I haven't found my home. I haven't found my family.
I don't seek perfection. Just a place where I don't feel like a freak. Crazy girl, dark and moody. Crazy girl, blissful and ecstatic. She reads classics and not Harrison House propaganda. Her nose is pierced. Her hair is dreadlocks. She is black. She is passionate. She needs to be alone, as much as she needs people.
Lately, I've craved orthodoxy and liturgy. I've desired the forms that have sustained the people of faith for generations. It's like I've stopped trusting the free-form worship style I am accustomed to, and desire to find God in form. I feel like I'll explode, and I need a divine hours, or to genuflect, or light a candle or cross myself just to keep from falling apart. I used to think God couldn't be found in such things. Now, I pant for those expressions of intimacy with God. But I look to those things, and cannot see my own black face.
Where is the temple for this spirtually homeless black woman? Is it in the Jewish synagogue? Jewish is a small part of my heritage? I look at icons of blue eyed white Jesus' and wonder why he isn't an olive skinned, dark haired Easterner? I have a real hard time extracting a usable faith from embracing an image of my own oppressor. I am sorry to say this, but it's the truth.
Most days, I wish I could go to Chicago and live with the Jesus People. They seem to model what I love. Excellent teaching, love of art, engaging culture, serving with love. And they are truly multicultural. But they are in Chicago, and I am in Ann Arbor, avoiding the obvious, and not saying what I really mean. I want to go where I can see people who look like me, and people who don't look like me, conservatives, and Jesus freaks, monied, and poor, a mosaic of all cultures and people, with one Love. Jesus.
Until then, I remain this ghetto pilgrim, asking God to show me how to worship. Asking for what is truly mine, and knowing, as switchfoot so gracefully sings, "I don't belong here." Still carrying my cross and a song.
Dear God, what am I going to do? I want to go to a "church" so badly.
In grief, long and abiding,