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Walking Away from the Black Church

Ai Elo Mar 30, 2012

Finding my way out of the Black Baptist church that I attended while growing up was like escaping a long hazing ritual. It was where people told magical stories, dressed in wild clothing and smelled like the perfume section in Macy’s. One Sunday I sat next to a worshipper who gave me a black eye as she danced for the Lord — shouting sacred gibberish as she was wheel-chaired into a quiet room. And the pastors dressed like a panhandler’s fashion show. My pastor used a gold microphone and wore orange alligator shoes. But beyond the absurdity, the Black church was a dangerous place to be a woman.

Sitting in the pews, I heard sermons of waking up in fiery hell if I had sex for pleasure. Church members often nudged me on the shoulder and said, “You better still be a virgin” with a wink and a smile. During services, I fidgeted in hot turtlenecks, long skirts and thick itchy nylons in 95-degree Florida weather. My grandmother said it made me less of a distraction to the old men.

The sexual hypocrisy was drummed into me but the strangest experience, the one that started my break from the church, wasn’t even my own. During one service, my pastor stood over our brown sweaty faces at the end of his Sunday sermon. We were exhausted from singing and wringing out tensions from our bodies. He lifted the microphone to his lips and cued the musicians to play softer, signaling with his hands as if he were petting the air.

He made a confession. His teenage daughter was pregnant by a well-known boy in the church. There were sighs, a single gasp and then silence. His daughter, a poised and lively girl most Sundays, sat silently next to her mother slumped over with a glassy-eyed stare. It felt as if we were in a courtroom.

After that moment everything changed. The father of the unborn child was given an SUV. He began dressing in more adult tailored suits. He became popular with the other women in the church as his pregnant girlfriend became quiet. Her belly was bulging but she was invisible. A few people shot resentful looks at her and even fewer greeted her.

I didn’t stop going to services right away but I began to ask questions. Others were distancing themselves from the church. A friend of mine said, “After my church bought my pastor a Hummer, I was done.” Another told me, “I got kicked out for questioning things. It irritated everyone else.” And my aunt whispered, “I knew I had to quit going there because every time I got ready for church I had to stop at the ATM.” But what finally pushed me out of the church was that God was in my bedroom.

I was taught that God was everywhere. He watched me touch myself. He sucked his teeth as I flipped through my uncle’s porn magazines. God was under the covers with me. He barged into my head and tallied every time I stared at a pair of breasts or felt a tingle between my thighs. He was in places he had no business. It made me a sinner, a hypocrite, caught in a cycle of sexual suppression and guilt. The first time I had sex I cried because God saw the whole thing and was going to tell my grandmother. I couldn’t take it anymore and started to question the reality of God until eventually I became an atheist.

I’m not alone. Black atheist women are coming out of the closet by the thousands, and when you’re black, telling relatives that you’re not a believer is like divorcing your entire culture. You lose friends and family and spend holidays vacationing with new confidants or if you do return, you awkwardly fork Styrofoam plates while being harangued by parents that this could only be a phase.

But it’s not a phase when the evidence is right in front of you. I remember seeing news helicopters flying over Pastor Creflo A. Dollar’s multimillion dollar estate in Georgia and thinking that religion is great business. Megachurches like his rake in billions of unreported revenue. What those outside of Black America don’t know is that the Black church is the 1%. Some of the richest people in the poorest neighborhoods are prosperity preachers. Churches grow big on the desperation of families who hope prayers will fill their stomachs.

I never went back to the church. Instead, I asked God to go away. He did and so did my family. And so did the pressure to be “good.” I’m no longer wearing stiff layers of morality and mythology. My atheism frees me to seek social justice, especially for women. We are the ones who feel the pressure of the church’s sexual hypocrisy worst.

Years after leaving, I was in Brooklyn with a clipboard, standing wide and belting out to people walking by on the sidewalk, “Would you like to help protect Planned Parenthood? Fourteen states have been federally defunded.” A Haitian woman stopped and lamented, “Isn’t that the abortion clinic? Because of my faith I can’t support that.” She nodded her head proudly. Even though I could have been fired for abandoning the sales pitch I said, “I enjoyed the free counseling and pap smear I received after I was raped. I enjoy the government-sponsored IUD preventing me from an unwanted pregnancy. I enjoy having sex with my partner without a condom and if I were to have an unintended pregnancy I would enjoy the abortion as well. I just want other women to experience the same privileges that make my life easier.”

Her immediate shock and confusion was as familiar as the Black church ladies I grew up pissing off. But her tension cooled to concern. She handed me a dollar without making eye contact and said she’d visit Planned Parenthood’s website to learn more. The brief encounter made me realize that she, like many church women, never thinks of the impact of her borrowed convictions on other people’s lives. Thank heaven I’m an atheist.