It was my best friend, Melinda, who introduced God and me. I was four. She was eight and lived in my grandparent’s trailer park with her mom, dad, several rabbits and a dog that scared me. To say that I worshipped her is to put it mildly. She knew everything, and, if I were lucky, she would teach it all to me.
When Melinda fell in love with Shaun Cassidy, I was determined to fall harder, even though I still thought boys were sweaty and full of cooties. When she picked out cowl neck sweaters and velour V-necks from the Sears catalogue, I begged my mom for the identical style and color. And in the summer of 1977, when Melinda signed up for Bible Camp, I tagged along without hesitation. Before school started up again that fall, we were both saved. Jesus was our new crush, and we competed to be his biggest fan. We never swore, never took the Lord’s name in vain, always respected the Sabbath by going to Sunday school and always, always praised God.
My parents had a take-it-or-leave it attitude toward religion. They let me go to Bible Camp that summer and regularly dropped me off for Sunday School classes at the Methodist church in our town in South Jersey, but they rarely attended the services. For Dad, grandson of a Methodist Episcopal preacher in Mississippi, church had been mandatory. He attended an ME church, which in those days in the south were segregated and controlled by whites, and spent ninth grade in an all-black Methodist high school in New Orleans. Maybe he had had enough of Methodism by the time I came along or maybe he didn’t feel embraced in our South Jersey congregation because there were so few other black people. But whatever had kept Dad at bay all changed when I turned 11 and we moved. In Morristown, New Jersey, my parents joined the African Methodist Episcopal church. Our new town was richer, whiter and more conservative than our old one. Church was a way for my parents to plant some roots and make connections to the black community.Mostly I was afraid of God. And I was tired of it. I whispered into the dim cabin, “I don’t want to be afraid of you anymore.”
Our new minister had striped gray-and-white hair that accumulated in a widow’s peak. He had a way of pounding on the pulpit, pointing at the sky and rolling a simple three-letter word like “God” from the pit of his stomach out through his mouth like gathering thunder. Services were typically at least two hours, and we rarely missed a week. The church got a hold of Dad, and, before I graduated college, he took an early retirement and began studying to become an AME minister. By 2001, he was Reverend Ford, just like his grandfather, albeit in a different denomination. Church got a hold of me too but differently. Some of the things our minister said made me pensive and weepy. Original sin, purity and salvation all seemed unattainable and made me doubt that God was all-loving. Still, church was a haven for me. My blackness wasn’t questioned there the way it often was in our new middle class lifestyle — I was not black enough for some of my new black friends and not black at all to white ones — nor was my position in my family. My siblings are nine-plus years older than me, and they and my parents always felt like a separate entity. The AME church was my parents’ and mine alone, and for those two-plus hours a week, I fit in almost completely. So, at 19, when I was prone to cursing, drinking and large doses of disbelief, I was baptized in the faith chosen by my father and started by a former slave determined to create a space where blacks could worship with autonomy.
Soon after the baptism, I visited Melinda. She had moved to southern Florida, so I timed the trip with my college Spring Break. I stumbled off the train at the West Palm Beach station full of booze, and Melinda greeted me with the same wide smile, dimpled cheeks and a “Praise Jesus.”
We went to Bible Study, to the fancy Palm Beach mall and to Key West, where the poor condition of our room and the openly gay men challenged Melinda’s normally sunny demeanor. On my last day, we went to church again.
It was Palm Sunday, and despite all the cheerful fronds and pastel hats, I was in a somber state. I hadn’t had a drink in a week, and Melinda’s constant barrage of evangelism was taking its toll. I’d heard all week how that time we got saved didn’t count because we didn’t do it the right way. According to Melinda, we had to speak in tongues.
So when I started crying in church, Melinda mistook those tears as signs of my inner transformation, but they were something else. The music pounded in my chest, and I wanted desperately to believe the assurances the choir sang and what the pastor preached and to feel the Holy Spirit that was winding its way through the church, making a little boy of about 10 dance in the middle of the floor, my best friend’s mother throw her arms up in spasms and some parishioners collapse on the floor. I shut my eyes tight and tried to feel it, but as buoyed as the parishioners seemed in the cool embrace of that stucco sanctuary is as hollow as I felt in the corridors of my soul.
That night on my flight home, a storm blew in as soon as our plane was up in the sky. As the plane rocked, the man in the seat next to me confided that this was his first airplane ride and asked, “Is it always like this?” I told him no. He crossed himself, and, for the second time that day, I cried. I was sure I was about to die. I was afraid to drown because death wouldn’t be instant. I’d have to struggle, water filling my lungs, for who knew how long before I could finally succumb. But mostly I was afraid of God. And I was tired of it. I whispered into the dim cabin, “I don’t want to be afraid of you anymore.”
The shaking and the jostling never let up in the cabin, so I kept my eyes shut for most of the flight. Near its end, a warm hand covered mine and the man next to me asked, “Do you mind?” I said “No. Thank you.”
I kept crying, the plane kept shaking and the man kept holding my hand until we landed. We all cheered when we felt the wheels hit the tarmac at LaGuardia. “God bless you,” the man said before we went our separate ways.
I had a feeling that God already had — even though I never spoke in tongues, swore a lot and drank more than my share of booze (even for someone whose namesake is Dionysus, the Greek God of wine). A year after that trip, I had my last drink and embarked on a spiritual quest that brought me to Zen Buddhist temples, Anglican convents and Catholic monasteries. But it wasn’t until I was married with children that I was really honest with myself: As much as I loved Jesus Christ and the comfort he brought to generations of my ancestors during slavery and after, it was his life as a man that I celebrated. I wanted to follow Christ’s example, not worship him. I could no longer pretend that I was a Christian.
We joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation after our first daughter was born and quickly settled in with fellow heretics. “Heresy” in Greek means “choice,” and UUs want to choose what and how to believe. Unitarianism is only slightly more popular today than witchcraft was in Puritanical New England. Only .3 percent of Americans are UUs and, of those, five percent are black. As a UU, I’m a minority within a minority. And yet, it’s like a second home.
When our daughters were dedicated at our church, no water passed over their temples to wash away sin. No sign of the cross was made over their bodies. Instead, their godparents and the congregation promised to support and nurture them, and my husband and I expressed our hopes for their spiritual well being. At the end of the ceremony, our minister scooped one girl into his arm, held the other by the hand and walked them around our sanctuary. While the congregants welcomed and blessed them, I said a silent prayer, my own blessing that they continue our family’s legacy and grow up to be heretics too.