Exile, Part I

“Am I wrong for thinking out the box from where I stay?

Am I wrong for saying that I choose another way?”-  Nico & Vinz

I spent Easter in church this year. Yes, you read that right.  The former quintessential BAP Baptist girl turned muslimah turned nonbeliever set foot in the house of the Lawd. April 20th found me sitting in the plush pews of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship. My attendance was the result of an invitation extended by a cousin the previous fall. We met for dinner and tricks at her request. As I enjoyed my Summer Sangria she gently asked why I was no longer interested in Christianity. “I just want try to understand. I mean we were raised in the church, and you used to be such a strong believer.”

I stopped sipping my drink and sighed. In my cousins words I heard echoes of the confusion that others have expressed regarding my atheism. They want the Danielle from the 90s back. Little do they know that they didn’t know the old Danielle that well. But my cousin is waiting for an answer. I reply to her, making it a point to be civil.

“I just don’t believe it. I reject the concept of Original Sin. I don’t take the Bible to be the Word of God. I do not accept any of the doctrines taught by our denomination, and I have serious issues with the way that women and same gender loving individuals are treated by the church. I refuse to be a part of it.”

“Yeah, I can see where you are coming from but you should visit with us some time. New Beginnings isn’t like Mission(the church we grew up in). Pastor Braxton is more progressive, and he focuses on social justice. Since you’re more intellectual and conscious I think you’d enjoy his sermons!”

I told her that I’d check her church out. We continued our dinner, branching out into other topics and laughing as we reminisced on our childhood. I ended the night happy. My conversation with my cousin went better than my usual interactions with Christian family and friends. She didn’t question or insult my sanity and intelligence. She didn’t smugly tell me that I was going to burn in hell, and I was grateful for that.

Months passed and my promise to visit my cousins church slipped my mind.  I told myself to make it a point of coming on Easter, and I did. As I sat knee to knee that morning bouncing and nodding my head to the music I was engulfed by a feeling of warmth and familiarity. Being in a Black church felt like being home. In the faces of the church mothers I felt the presence of my late Grandma. And when Pastor Braxton ascended the pulpit for the sermon I found that my cousin wasn’t gassing me up. He took both the Church and the Black community itself to task for the marginalization of women. I wasn’t expecting such words, especially on Easter Sunday.

I visited one more time after that. That Sunday Pastor Braxton eloquently attacked the Prison-Industrial complex. As I nodded my agreement a thought formed. I could end it all-the confusion, the whispering and isolation. The inability to truly fit in with and connect-not just with my family but with the vast majority of my ethnic group. As a Black non-believing woman I’m a minority within a minority. Even my ‘nicer’ Christian friends like to remind me that I’m outnumbered. I know they are right. I feel the difference. I know that even those who share blood with me feel discomfort with the fact that I don’t share their religious views. But I could end all of that if I just bowed like they want me to. I could renounce my disbelief, tell them that they were right and it was ‘just a phase’. Believers LOVE a good redemption story. I wouldn’t even have to be a good Christian to find my way back into their good graces. Lip service and an occasional appearance at church would suffice. They could gladly live with me making such a decision. The problem is that I couldn’t live with myself.

When I was a believer my belief was not borne out of love for a deity. Nor was my adherence to doctrine rooted in an acceptance based in intellect. Because I was ten years old when introduced to doctrine, and because my Mama had refrained from brainwashing me as a young child my mind struggled with faith from the time I was baptized. As young as age eleven I found myself saying ‘but it just DOESN’T MAKE SENSE‘ in my head. So no, my ‘faith’ wasn’t about accepting the sacrifice and unconditional love of a deity. I remained a Christian and a theist for years because of fear. I feared ostracism and rejection. But most of all I feared HELL. The idea of being eternally tortured in a lake of fire terrified me.  I was scared of taking that risk. So I went along with what was expected and played the part.

However I could only fake the funk for so long. I still grappled with Christianity but was too cowardly to let my heretical leanings flourish. Instead I jumped ship for another Abrahamic faith: Islam. I went from the frying pan into the fire. The condemnation and ostracism from my circle was swift and intense. The sense of isolation was stark. In hindsight it was helpful. It taught me that I could stand being ostracized, and the strength from that experience would eventually enable me to walk away from religion altogether.

It’s been almost four years since I made that choice. I’ve thought about what my choice to live as a secular-minded Black American woman means for my present and future. It means that I cannot ‘go home again’. It means that I will be an outsider among my people. In abandoning the belief system of my family and my people I’ve chosen exile.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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