In spite of all the fanfare and worry that took place leading up to the new millennium the year 2000 arrived with little complication. For me 2000 was the year I finally began to make halting steps towards adulthood. The year before I left my childhood church for one of my own choosing, an act my family treated as a personal attack.
My departure from my home church was facilitated by Mariam, a sweet Ethiopian-American girl who transferred to my high school when we were juniors. I ran into her in the halls of the community college we both attended, and she invited me to visit her church. When Mariam told me her church was in Everett, which is a forty-five to an hour drive from Seattle, I hesitated.
“But it’s in EVERETT! I don’t have a car; there’s no way I can make it up there!”
“Girl, don’t be silly”, Mariam laughed,”I’m not going to invite you and expect you to come by yourself! I’ll pick you up!
For months I would accompany Mariam, and on those long drives we would listen to “The Nu Nation Project”, a gospel album released by Kirk Franklin in 1998. The fact that the album wasn’t brand new did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for it. My favorite song on the album was “Praise Joint(remix)”, a song heavy with the P-funk influence of George Clinton:
Kirk Franklin, a charismatic young singer and director that I followed since the early 1990s, had his share of critics within the Church. His modern spin on Gospel and innovative approach offended the old guard. As he experimented more with sounds that were considered”worldly” and collaborated with secular artists the whispers increased.
Mariam, myself and many of our peers appreciated Franklin’s music though, as it spoke to us in a language we could understand. Yes, I could see the joy and beauty in the Negro spirituals that were a standard feature of Sunday services. I understood their cultural significance and hallowed place in Black American history. But the subject matter in the bass-heavy funk and hip-hop infused stylings of Franklin spoke to what was happening now:
The controversy stoked by the emergence of artists such as Franklin was symbolic of the generational conflict that was playing out in my life. In early adulthood it became apparent that my congregation-and many other mainline churches in the United States-were experiencing a crisis regarding their younger members. Once children became independent and their parents could no longer force them to attend they simply ceased doing so. This was partly due to the draw of the secular world, but also due to the inability of the Church to stay relevant to the concerns of teens and young adults. As for me, I hadn’t lost my faith-on the contrary I was still quite devout-but my home church was no longer able to give me what I needed. I yearned for a more vibrant church, one that engaged the surrounding community and had a strong young adult presence. In Mariam’s church I thought I found what I’d been yearning for. After months of visiting, talking with the pastor and praying I made me decision.
I informed my pastor of my intention to join another church while going over the announcements. He was disturbed to hear the news and asked if anything in particular had happened to prompt me leaving.
“No, not at all”, I said, hoping to assure him. “It is nothing personal, I just really enjoy the youth ministry at my friend Mariam’s church. The support of people my age is very important for me now with all the struggles and temptations in the world today.” He smiled sadly.
“Well, I hate to see you leave but I’m sympathetic to how you feel. I’ll have Sis. Taylor draft a letter stating that you left on good terms and get that to you within the next week”.
My Pastor took the news better than my family members did. Their anger confused and upset me. It wasn’t like I was converting to another religion or becoming a non-believer. I was still a Christian and would still worship-just not with them.
My family begrudgingly accepted my exodus. However by the winter of 2000 I started to question my membership, albeit for other reasons. While my childhood church was Missionary Baptist and believed that God showed unlimited grace my new church adhered to a strict Calvinist interpretation of Scripture. I sat through sermons about predestination, taught that God created some people strictly for the purpose of sending them to the Lake of Fire so He may be glorified.
The pastor also taught that God required absolute perfection from His Followers. A sinful thought alone would be enough to get one sent to eternal damnation. My peers and I were all at peak reproductive age, so hearing that we deserved to burn in hell for even fantasizing about sex created terror and deep anxiety in all of us.
The hell-fire and brimstone sermons, the constant reminders that our humanity meant we were sinners worthy of endless torture and the demand to cutoff anyone who disagreed with our pastor’s doctrine-it was all too much to deal with. Something had to go: my sanity or my membership. Knowing full well that everyone at church,even sweet Mariam, would judge and shun me as a heretic I left in May 2000 and never returned.
My family was more than happy that I stopped attending a church that had become more like a cult after I joined. Initially I fell back into the pattern of going to church with my Grandma. I still lived at home at the time, and worshiping with my family was the easy thing to do. It fit a pattern I knew very well, but the pattern no longer represented who I was. As a child and then as a teen I had no choice but to attend the endless church engagements, but I never saw the point in them. Year in we saw the same people at pastors and church anniversaries and choir annual days. We raised loads of money but none of it went towards helping the needy and destitute among us.
One of my beloved passages of scripture in those days was the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20. But each time I read it I did so with the knowledge that my faith community wasn’t even close to living up to what we were commanded to do as believers. The Fred Phelps-like pastor at Mariam’s church may have been off on many topics, but something he said once about the nature of church leadership stuck with me. He reminded us that clergy were the governing body of the church, and like any governing body their chief concern is maintaining their grip on power.
Aware that the change I sought was not going to arrive I became disillusioned with church altogether. I had no quarrel with faith itself, and still counted myself as a Christian who loved the Lord. However practicing my faith in the way my family expected me to wasn’t going to happen.
I knew my Grandma well enough to know that, as much as she loved me, she was not going to allow me to live with her if I wasn’t in someone’s church every Sunday. That mentality was simply a part of her own upbringing, and no amount of talking with her about my disillusionment was going to change that. It was time for me to move out of Grandma’s home. So on the third Sunday in July 2000 my best friend Raquel came over and helped me pack up my belongings. Graduating from high school, landing my first full-time job and making my own decisions regarding faith-all these steps brought me closer to independence. But it was only when I left my Grandma’s home that the idea of adulthood became more solid in my mind.