On Black Feminism, Church Ministries, and “Doing Life Together”

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The other day, I was reflecting on experiences I’ve had at the intersections of dominant White culture and my identity as a Black woman. Given my spiritual background (nondenominational Christian), a lot of these intersections have happened at churches. And I can’t tell you how many churches, community groups, Bible studies, and even campus ministries from my college days told me that they wanted to “do life” with me. They wanted to help me grow spiritually. They wanted to offer me a community to grow within.

Over time, I found some great communities that truly meant what they’d said and I’m grateful for that. However, I've also had innumerable experiences that implicitly suggested that I “tamper down” my Blackness, “explain” my existence, relentlessly obsess over my clothing choices for modesty’s sake, and/or “contribute” to the Gospel songs for praise & worship but not to systemic change. I've had experiences of tokenization and being “the Black friend” on one end. Then, I've been seen through the stereotypical lens of being angry, loud, brash, unsubmissive, or “domineering” from those that shared both my cultural heritage and community of faith. And all the while, the words from Kate Rushin’s, Bridge Poem (1981), became the story of my life:

I explain my mother to my father
my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother
my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks
the Black church folks to the ex-hippies
the ex-hippies to the Black separatists
the Black separatists to the artists
the artists to my friends’ parents…

I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody” (from Kate Rushin’s ‘The Bridge Poem’)

But I love the church as a place for healing and community for all peoples. And so, I’ve got to tell her the honest, painful, loving truth.

In college, I was asked to do some explaining by a leader within a campus ministry. I was a first-year student, who’d started coming to one of the larger campus-led Bible studies on campus. This was my first venture outside of the Black church experience, and I was desperate to find community, people “to do life with.” I found a study that was all women, and though I was unsure of what to expect, but generally excited. I was the only Black person there but I was pretty sure I could adapt with no issue…

Until I “started doing life together” and I didn't get the jokes.

Until I didn't hear the music that felt like home, unless I was the one singing.

Until I became the sole explainer and interpreter of all things Black culture (which, at the time, meant a lot of questions about whether or not I ate fried chicken, and if I would sing some gospel music for everyone).

The leader invited me for coffee, and I was excited to go. I needed someone to talk to about my transition, how much I missed my family, and what new clubs/organizations I was going to try. But as we sat across from each other with steaming cups of coffee, I was asked to explain… How? How can we get more Black people to come? How can we relate to Black people?

I wasn’t upset. But I had no idea what to say.

A few years later, I met with another minister, who was big on community, “doing life together”, and fellowship. I found this wonderfully refreshing; partly because I’m big on the same things and partly because I’m a natural extrovert. This ministry embraced the intersections, and most of the ministers had ample experience with both majority communities and communities of color. Yet, after some time, I noticed that when I had conversations about what it meant to do life together as a single (and dating) woman, there were some stigmas. I wasn't married or on track to be married. I wasn’t in a traditional relationship by those standards. And there was a lot of say from males about roles of womanhood, relationship standards, and what my dating life should look like. Yet, I wanted to “do life” with people who loved me and wanted my holistic development. So, I didn't say much. But I felt a whole lot.

This is my response to it all…
seven years later…
three years later…
from the intersections
as a Black woman
as a nondenominational Christian
engaged in both majority & minority cultures.

If you want to do life with me, you have to know that there are systems of oppression that affect me and affect us all. You have to understand that the ways we’ve allowed pride to come between communities, the ways we’ve traded fighting for social justice to “simply getting along”, some of the things we’ve been taught by our parents/grandparents/media; all these things make us see each other through distortions. If you want to do life with me, you have to be willing to see through the distortions. I find that I have to be willing to trust that you are trying and that you mean what you say.

If you want to do life with me, you will watch me and people who look like me be characterized through the media as angry, or gold-diggers, or video vixens. If you want to do life with me, you will have to believe that I am more than that. You will have to fight the messages that tell you that my passion means I’m inherently angry. If you want to do life with me, you must learn to be sensitive and allow me to explain who I am, but not who my entire race is. You will have to realize that I am both collective and individual.

If you want to do life with me, you must realize that sexist oppression and endured spiritual abuse make it incredibly hard for me to wrap my mind and heart around “wifely submission”; I ask you to be patient. If you want to do life with me, you must realize that I’ve been handed a systemic burden since my breasts were budding to cover up, show purity, go change, lest I “make the brethren fall”. If you want to do life with me, you must fight the messages that tell you that when I cry, I am “emotionally unstable.”

And if we are going to do life together, we’ve got to have a deeper understanding, and allow for nuance. We’ve got to learn to apologize and adjust. We’ve got to stop trying to categorize people into “racist” or “non-racist”, ”sexist” or “non-sexist”, “bad” or “good”, and start looking at ways that ideas, interactions, exchanges, contribute to an overall climate of -isms; the rain clouds we add, the storm clouds we see, intentionally or unintentionally. If we are going to do life together, we have to acknowledge that class, gender, race, dis/ability status, age, etc. affect us on this plane of reality, but that we can transcend into authentic community if we stop playing by the rules of systems of oppression. If we realize that we are, individually and collectively, God’s children.

It will not always be easy. But it will be wonderful. Because then, I will be truly doing life with you and you will be doing life with me… sharing experiences, bearing burdens, and learning to love.

Jade Perry works within the field of multicultural education and college student affairs. She writes for Heed magazine and participates in the creative & performing arts because these things make her feel truly & deeply alive!

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