Thursday, October 06, 2005

On churches

Monday, someone asked me what I liked about church in an e-mail.

The easiest way I can explain it is to ask you to remember that slogan Hillary Clinton used to believe in, "It takes a village." Betty and I aren't the only church goers in the community. The Common Ills has a vareity of religions represented by members and certainly Kat and Mike are known Catholics. Betty and I are Protestants. So since we're both church goers and we're both African-Americans (Betty prefers the term "black"), I thought I'd call her up and we discussed this Tuesday night.

For both of us, church is our village. We were raised in it and the extended family it represents to us is very powerful. Somebody's always going to have a squabble in any large group but what I was wondering was about her church's leadership because mine is steady but I have friends who go to "white" churches or "black" churches and have heard horror stories about them running off preachers or pastors or ministers. I've heard stories of battles over who controls the church bank accounts. I've heard of choir directors who tried to take over the churches and when they couldn't, they split off taking parts of the congregation with them.

One friend, Tim, who is white, tells about how he gave up on his church because it was steady until he was in high school and then it became this huge power struggle. To make sure that the new choir director had the votes, they started dropping members, who had been baptized in that church, for any excuse. A blind man who was in his eighties was dropped because he only came once a month when his daughter was in town and could bring him to church. Other people were dropped because they only came on holidays.

The choir director was a real nightmare and had been dating a girl who disappeared and ended up found months later when she was dead. Tim feels that was a shock to the choir director who suddenly found religion and started going to his parents church. He was made choir director within two months and then all the nonsense started. He got his drinking buddies to start showing up with their children and wives and girlfriends. The church make up changed and some of the old people stopped going as often because of it.

But within a year, the choir director and his new group had taken over the church, fired the preacher and taken control of the accounts by intimidating all but one of the elders of the church.

This one old guy was tough and Tim said he refused to take his name off the account and without his co-signature, they couldn't write checks. The choir director was using the church as his own personal playground. He would invite friends over to play volleyball and if members drove by and saw a game and stopped, if he didn't like you, he would tell you it was a private gathering and you needed to leave. Tim saw all of this because his parents' home was right across the street from this church. He'd grown up in this church. He stopped going and so did his parents because the choir director and his friends were falling down drunk every Saturday night and staggering into church Sunday morning to talk about "evils."

When the last holdout, the elder, died, there was no stopping this crowd. They were already dropping by the church all the time to use the phone for long distance calls that the church would pay. With the last man who could stand in their way out, suddenly church funds were used to send the choir director and his friends and their children to amusement parks and on other trips.

None of this was about spreading the word of God and it wasn't open to all church members. The choir director, who'd made himself preacher at this point, would pick who could go and who couldn't. His sister was in the church, his whole family was, but his middle sister was in the church and he didn't like her or her kid and so they'd find themselves not eligible to go on certain events because he just didn't like them.

He and his male friends would hang out at the church after Sunday evening services for three to four hours drinking in the parking lot.

That's the worst chuch story I've ever heard of, where members are stripped of their membership and a coup takes place so that a church can be used for someone's own personal amusment.

When I was telling Betty about this she wanted to know what the religion was. I told her but I don't really think it matters (and don't think it represents all churches that practice that religion). I've heard many other horror stories though none as bad.

I'm not someone who walks around with a Bible or says, "Well I was praying last night." My beliefs are known and if someone asks me, I'm happy to talk about them. But I firmly believe you provide an example, not a lecture.

So with new friends who don't go to my church, religion usually comes up about a month after the friendship begins. I've heard great stories and I've heard horror stories.

But, and this is what I wanted to check with Betty on, the worst thing in my church is when you get two women bringing the same dish to a lunch and they're mad at each other. Betty said that was about the worst thing in her church as well. There were some members who didn't care for one another but it wasn't an open war and they'd just avoid one another unless one of them was in need at which point, like them or not, they were there for one another.

Here's another horror story a friend who grew up in the south told me. His church turned the front pew over to a drug dealer. The priest knew, the whole church knew. But the guy had money and he could show up every Sunday and be treated like a hero. I couldn't believe that or that a priest would hold up such a person to the congregation (we call them congregations in my church, Catholics may use another term and no offense intended if they do). What does that say to the little kids and teenagers coming to the church?

We're not all saints in my church but if someone's doing something illegal, they need to come in, sit in the back and stay out of everyone's way. God, my belief, wants to help everyone. But my preacher did ask one man to leave. His parents and grandparents had been in the church, his parents still were but his grandparents were dead. The guy had faced some problems and ended up a pimp. That's not what the church is about. And the guy was showing up and acting flashy and the precher told him that he was sending the wrong message to the children in our church.

At my church, no one cares about your private business or follows you around. If you have a problem and ask for help, we pray for you and try to help you and know that a problem couldn't happen to any of us. But there are problems and then there is a living a life of crime. Betty agreed with me that our churches had kept people we grew up with away from crime and at a time when there is so little for many African-Americans in the way of economic opportunities, I believe that should be one of the fundamental aims of the black churches: making sure that wealth isn't held up as God.

I think TD Jokes misses that point. I've seen him on TV go on and on about his shoes and how important his shoes are. I think it's a little bit Little Richard-like honestly but if it was just the shoes, that would be one thing. The fact that his church, my opinion, seems to exist to make himself rich and to pass on false messages (like "Jesus was a businessman") digusts me. Most people of any race in this country are not going to end up rich in worldly goods. The church should especially work hard to get across the message that wordly goods are not going to bring happiness or provide anyone with salvation.

So those are some of my problems with some churches.

What binds me to my church is the fact that we are focused on working together. My mother, for instance, always knew if there was an emergency, she could count on anyone in the church. I'm sure some liked her better (and us) than others did but they were always there to help out when the need arose.

If I was acting the fool or showing out (and I did all the time once I became a teenager) and someone from my church happened to see that, they'd call me out on it. By the same token, after my father died especially, if I had a big track meet or was doing something outstanding academically, members of my church would turn out to show their support and when you have that kind of faith behind you, it really helps. It helps you believe in yourself and it helps you feel like you have some value in this world. That's something that the African-American community could stand to hear a lot more of.

My uncle tells me today reminds him a lot of when he was a kid in the early seventies. He says every other movie made for African-American audiences seemed to be about a pimp or some other criminal. He looks around at the bling-bling music videos today and the direct to home video crap put out by Master P and just finds it disgusting. He says that at least there were some alternatives and he'll list Stevie Wonder or Aretha or someone like that and talk about how they were keeping it real. I think kids are lucky to have Kanye West and I'd add in Mary J. Blige because she's come along a way. She could always sing but with each album, she's grown and really tackled some deep themes. Jill Jones is another example. Back during The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill she (and the Fugees before that) were providing a strong alternative to Money is god.

I'm not calling for censorship where the government decides what gets played on the radio or on BET but I am wishing that listeners and viewers would reject that crap that debases us. The church has historically provided an uplifting voice to the African-American community and when I see a TD Jokes who seems determined to not to lead but to be another Pat Roberston sitting on millions of dollars and all about how rich he can't, it really bothers me.

If we lose our churchs, I'm not sure what we have left. They have instilled in us a belief in our own good and our own worth and that's not a message we've gotten very often from the larger society.

I get e-mails about religion all the time. I'm answering this one because it seemed sincere. Last week I got one about Seth. This visitor was up in arms that I had "promoted" Seth's site. I did promote it. I'll promote it whenever I can remember to. If you haven't check out Seth's site, the visitor was offended that Seth was gay.

That's not an issue with my church. With Betty's church, AIDS has finally begun to help them address the issue. For me, it's not an anything to be ashamed of. I don't know if Seth's religious or not but if he is he may feel, as I do, that God makes you in his image. God made Seth the same as he made the visitor, the same as he made me. I am attracted to women and Seth is attracted to men and that matters as much to me as whether or not Seth likes cherry soda or yogurt.

I like Seth's site. I like Rebecca's. I like Mike's. Mike has written about his balls and everything else at his site and I've never had anyone e-mail to gripe about Mike. But if Rebecca talks about guys, I get some jerk having a fit that a woman would talk about that. If Seth writes about guys, I end up with a jerk like the visitor today.

Seth is Seth and Rebecca is Rebecca. They are individuals and they have value and I'm glad to be in the same community with them. If Seth were a member of my church, there wouldn't be an attitude of "He's gay, don't talk to him."

I realize that some southern black churches are still struggling with the issue and Betty can tell you that her church went through a period that AIDS made them snap out of. But whether it was AIDS or something else, it was not an issue when I was growing up in my church. It's about as important to my church as whether or not you're eating pork or shellfish or shaving. They are not issues.

I really like Seth's site and hope he blogs for a long time because there are jerks like the one who e-mailed me about Seth. I think a lot of ignorance is out there and hopefully Seth writing about whatever interests him that day will slowly help even jerks see that gay people are not weird or something to be hidden or shunned.

I have a cousin who is a lesbian and that's never been an issue. She and her partner go to our church. When you're not stuck with stereotypes but with actual exposure you realize that people are people. And hopefully the jerk who wrote, if he keeps reading Seth's site, will have a better understanding of at least one gay person.

A friend played something that had been sent to him in an e-mail. He thought it was hilarious. It was this African-American preachers screaming about gay sex. Just putting gay men down, he didn't mention lesbians. My friend thought it was funny the way some liberals will supposedly listen to Rush Limbaugh for laughs. I told him I didn't find it funny.

I don't. I don't think a preacher screams and yells about a people. I think it's really sad that the preacher was African-American because in this country, white preachers often hid behind their professions to scream about African-Americans and to argue that slavery was right or that we were stupid or depraved or whatever.

They can't get away with that as easily as they once could. So it disappoints me that someone of my race would turn around use the name of God to preach hate. Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King have been leaders in the African-American community on the importance of seeing each other as people and not demonizing gays and lesbians. I was really impressed with Al Sharpton in the 2004 race for making similar comments. At one point, my youngest cousin had some friends over and he mentioned Rev. Sharpton's statements about tolerance and acceptance and one of his friends refused to believe it. Kept saying Rev. Shaprton would never say that. We had to pull it up online to convince him.

I wish more of our leaders would take the lead on this because I think one thing God judges you on is how you handle your experiences. For African-Americans who've been demonized historically as sex craved or rapists or what ever stereotype you want to toss out to not have learned from that and to turn around and do it to another group is something that I personally believe God does not look favorably upon. My opinion is He knows we know what that's like and He expects more from us than to do to others what was done to us.

I asked Betty what her thoughts were on the gay issues regarding the black churches and she thinks it's at the root of where we will be in twenty or thirty years. We will either have the strong community that we've always maintained or we will have chapters of hate across the country turning from the lessons of God's love and embracing the same right-wing nonsense that's overtaken many (but not all) white churches. She said she sees it as the issue because it goes to whether the historical role of the black church will continue or whether we'll splinter into some who continue to speak out for social justice and others who want to preach hate.

I think Betty's right. I'll even thank the jerk for his e-mail because it's been a non-issue to me because it is a non-issue to my church. It was dealt with before I was born (or at least old enough to remember). Betty's church has had to start dealing with it due to the AIDS crisis in the African-American community.

Splintering will weaken the historical role of the church in African-American lives. It will also lead to a loss of good people, some gay, some not, who can't support intolerance and can't reconcile hatred with what the church has always represented to our community which is hope and a place of acceptance.

I've tried to answer the e-mailer, the sincere one, and hopefully this did. My church is important to me because it is a family and not just on Sundays when you're sitting in the pews, but throughout the week. We help each other and we support one another. We work to uplift and that's more important as every other cultural message hitting us seems to be about "bling-bling" or being a gangster. My uncle's looking around for the next Marvin Gaye and not seeing him. I hope that he, or she, is already among us and ready to restore the humanity to popular music because we need a voice like that today.


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