How We Lose and Find Faith

by Neisha Washington I cannot recall a clear moment when I lost my faith--just that recently all ha...

by Neisha Washington

I cannot recall a clear moment when I lost my faith--just that recently all has been coming back to me. Lately, I have found myself praying for miracles. This is a strange occurrence for a progressive graduate student in her 20s now a far cry from the girl growing up near the Ohio river praying for an exodus. As a young child, faith had always been the substance of things hoped for and remained largely invisible--hidden on the other side of the riverbank. While I acknowledge my experience is not universal, I would like to share some lessons I’ve learned about faith, race, and plotting one’s own course.

I grew up in a fundamental church that preached old time religion and strict dress codes for women. I did not quite ever fit as even in my youth, I lacked the faith that pastors, deacons, and deaconesses wanted so badly to hammer into me. Communities heavy laden with religion encompass a multifaceted reality. Religion can empower an individual with a sense of solidarity, principles, and greater meaning, but religious leaders often lend themselves to the maintenance of the status quo and traditions potentially harmful to some congregants.

In the midst of all the prayer meetings, sermons, and laying of hands, I realized the god of a place is often only as good as the inhabitants. The god of home was brutal, unmerciful, and suspicious of me. The god of home did not protect its own and masked suffering with gratitude and humility. I struggled to understand how the violations of my friends and family could be prayed away. There appeared no other redress but a long-suffering spirit and forgiveness. Each time I saw someone pressed to forgive that which was reasonably unforgivable, I felt my soul rot a little. The god of home seemed overly concerned with the redemption of those in power and less with the suffering of the voiceless. I could not fathom households in which two out of three children contemplated suicide, yet mothers simply covered everything in the blood of Jesus. I became so sick of blood; I felt I was choking on it---so tired of bleeding out only express gratitude for the privilege of sacrifice.

I prayed to escape home unaware if I trusted the god with whom I spoke. The river represented not only a physical barrier between North and South but a pathway to the Promised Land. On the edge of the Ohio, I sought communion with the slave souls who perished on the way down river towards the Mississippi and even greater hardship. I wondered if in their darkest moments they prayed to the god used to justify their bondage. Did they receive the restitution so greatly owed them, or did their hearts still cry out with churn of the current?

I left a faith and a home that simultaneously loved me and hedged me in to the point of asphyxiation. I knew education was my only way out, so I secured a full tuition scholarship, left for college and subsequently drove myself into the ground trying to take advantage of every student organization and study abroad opportunity available. I worked myself raw in an attempt to break the fatalism of home -- driven, in part, by the guilt that I had not stayed, become a pillar in the church, joined the military, or taken one of those traditionally safe careers that has sustained people of color for generations. Somehow I had managed to break the script prescribed to black, working class, and religious women. I had dared to dream past the path set for me, and somehow this felt like betraying god’s will.

In my slow progression out through higher education, I recognized both the significance and treachery of faith. I know involvement in the church may have saved my life as it provided me with programming and opportunities geared towards keeping me out of harm’s way. On the other hand, it made me doubt the integrity of my own soul’s voice. In my young life, I often saw religion used to excuse inequity rather than combat it. When institutions, governments, families, and communities fail, spiritual gatherings work to stand in the gap. On the other hand, there lies a fearful amount of influence wielded by those proclaiming to be conduits of god

At the river, I came to terms with God in the manner of those journeying down south who recalibrated what was meant to reinforce their oppression. Focus on the liberation. Reject the bondage. In other words, reject that which violates the soul and keep what resonates. In life many of us will be confronted with communities, towns, friends, family members, and religions that can only love us as wide as their limits. In those times, one must have the courage to discern whether the involved parties use tools of control or embody the loving, compassionate characteristics of those with our best interests.

I find that although we leave home, rarely do we stop uttering its prayers. I now understand why people leave a religion and never return. Those who choose to do so have my full respect. Few understand the scars left by the gross misuse of divine agency. However, in a new city with a promising life, I find myself humming the verses of my favorite spirituals. God does not look so terrifying in a different place, and I am slowly piecing together the scraps of my faith.

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