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All Black Spiritual Spaces: A Necessary Refuge

I was 5 years old when a white spiritual leader called me the n-word.

Hoping to expand our cultural horizons, my parents had enrolled my siblings and me in a Vacation Bible School (VBS) program at a predominantly white church in our San Francisco suburb. Midway through the week, my brother and I became so engrossed in our game of tetherball that we failed to hear the teacher calling us to return to the classroom. Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Get in here, niggers!”

I had never heard the word before. But as the only non-white kids in the VBS program, my siblings and I instinctively knew that it referred to our Blackness. I lowered my head and ran back to the classroom, feeling unwanted and unsafe.

This was the first of many times that the white church attacked my divine Blackness, resulting in feeling unwanted and unsafe within white church walls. It was also the memory that immediately came to mind on June 17, 2015, when a white gunman entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine congregants, including senior pastor Clementa Pinckney.

Because of this early experience, I have long believed that white spiritual communities are not safe spaces for Black people. Over the course of my lifetime, I have been treated like a mascot, encountered astounding cross-cultural incompetence, faced unambiguous anti-Black prejudice, and been silenced. That’s why the attack on Emanuel was so disturbing; it communicated that Black people are not safe even in our own churches. The trauma is exacerbated by the fact that the Black church was created precisely to be a haven for Black people.

The historic Black church was established to protect Black people from the anti-Black racism that’s part of the DNA of the America. Dating back to the days of slavery, white ministers preached oppression and racial hierarchy to their Black congregants by focusing on Paul’s epistles and intentionally avoiding the liberatory teachings of Jesus. As theologian and pastor Howard Thurman noted, “It was dangerous to let the slave understand that the life and teachings of Jesus meant freedom for the captive and release for those held in economic, social and political bondage.” The white-led church was a headquarters for Black subjugation, birthing a legacy of racial inequality that has long shaped white Christianity.

“The AME denomination was founded as a protest against racism,” said Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard Divinity School. Speaking of the AME denomination, she said, “The Black church itself was birthed as a sanctuary from white violence.” In this way, the Black church formed its own enduring legacy, one that actively sought to protect and liberate Black people from discrimination in the white church.

These dueling legacies have continued. While many Black churches were leading abolitionist and anti-lynching efforts in the 19th century, and the civil rights movement in the 20th century, white churches overwhelmingly maintained the status quo of racial inequality and actively resisted change. Today, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is galvanizing change far beyond the United States, the most recent Public Religious Research Institute data show that white Protestants are the only major religious group in which a majority doesn’t see the need for such a movement. Indeed, more than six in ten (62 percent) white Protestants say that police officers treat Blacks and whites equally. And close to six in ten (57 percent) say the recent police killings of Black American men are isolated incidents that are not indicative of an anti-Black society. It’s no surprise that many of these same people are Trump apologists.

I wish I could say that white Protestantism is the only problem. As I’ve spent more and more time in Catholic, interspiritual, Buddhist, Hindu, and secular communities, I’ve encountered the very same levels of ignorance, systemic whiteness, and resistance to true racial equity. It seems that whiteness is the problem and wherever it thrives in spiritual communities Black people like me will be targets of violence.

How can spiritual communities filled with people who refuse to truly acknowledge that whiteness is still a problem possibly honor the divinity in the Black people who enter those spaces?

They can’t.

Which is why, among other reasons, I’m making a renewed commitment to forming and supporting all-Black spiritual spaces. We need more spaces where Black people can encounter the divine, labor for equality and seek to restore our divine racial identities.

Christena Cleveland Ph.D. is a social psychologist, public theologian, author, and activist. She is the founder and director of the recently-launched Center for Justice + Renewal, a non-profit dedicated to helping justice advocates sharpen their understanding of the social realities that maintain injustice while also stimulating the soul’s enormous capacity to resist and transform those realities. Committed to leading both in scholarly settings and in the public square, Christena writes regularly, speaks widely, and consults with organizations.

Dr. Cleveland holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara as well as an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary. She integrates psychology, theology, and art to stimulate our spiritual imaginations. An award-winning researcher and author, Christena has held faculty positions at several institutions of higher education — most recently at Duke University’s Divinity School, where she led a research team investigating self-compassion as a buffer to racial stress. She is currently working on her third book which examines the relationship among race, gender, and cultural perceptions of the Divine.

Visit Christena’s website here.

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