I'm a Black Girl Who Didn't Grow Up in the Black Church

by Bee Quammie

It was a Sunday morning and I was seated on a hard wooden pew in a stuffy church, wedged between my boyfriend and his mother. It was my first time at their church. And the last time I had attended any church, I had been a child.

During the pre-sermon fellowship, I managed to dodge the, “So, what church do you belong to?” question from elders with the response that I lived out of town. During praise & worship, I did my best Milli Vanilli impersonation, lip-synching words to songs I had never heard in my life. I thought I was in the clear until the Pastor told the congregation to turn to a particular verse in a particular book of the Bible. Intuitive fingers around me found the page as easily as I find the page where Janie met Tea Cake, but on that day, I fumbled through the pages hoping to happen upon a page of contents. The boyfriend saw me struggle and placed his open Bible across my lap, pointing to the scripture so that I could join in and read aloud with the congregation. His mother witnessed the entire exchange while peering over her reading glasses, and I didn’t know if the energy wafting off of her was disgust, pity, or both. I’m a Black girl who didn’t grow up in the Black church, or any church for that matter.

As a child, I was raised by parents who loosely identified as Christian, who spoke reverently of God and Jesus, who had Bibles at home and who taught us to pray… but we were not a church-going family. Because my parents were king and queen of not giving a damn about what other people think, I wasn’t sure if our lack of church attendance was frowned upon within our small Canadian town’s tiny Black community. However, other experiences outside of my hometown showed me how different we were.

Visiting family in the U.S. and in the Caribbean, I began to see just how seamlessly the church was interwoven with Black identity and culture. Easter service was one of the sartorial highlights of the year. Wisdom from elders was passed down in the form of psalms and Bible verses. Cousins who liked to sing went to choir practice. Cousins who liked to dance flitted around the pulpit in flowing praise dancer gowns. There was always that one uncle or aunt who would pray before meals, reveling in ethereal bliss and thanking God for each and every blessing before uttering the long-awaited “Amen” that permitted us to eat. Engaging in church life with my extended family was something of a novelty. At home we said our prayers at night and a short but meaningful grace before eating, but everything else that came along with church was new to me.

I once described my relationship to church as feeling like I was a foreigner in a beautiful but scary land, possessing no understanding of the language or customs. This feeling was amplified when I started dating a “good Christian boy” from out of town. Weekend visits always included a trip to this unfamiliar land where I learned more about myself, my beliefs, and the Black church every time.

Discussing the harm and value of missionary trips, learning about the ritual of communion, helping to teach Sunday School classes—within the confines of our relationship, my boyfriend used these experiences to help teach me the language of church. There were often more moments of miscommunication than fluency, but I managed to navigate this new land and language well enough to see why it was so special to the man I loved.

I don’t regret the lack of a church foundation in my formative years. I do feel a slight twinge of jealousy at missing out on some of those cultural and personal connections. I resent assumptions that I’m at a moral disadvantage for not growing up in the church, and hate when I feel I have to prove I’m still a good and worthy person without it.

How have things changed since that uncomfortable Sunday sandwiched between my boyfriend and his mom? I’m still not a regular church-goer, but my relationship with church has progressed. I no longer feel like I’m visiting a strange land when I do attend, but feel more akin to a guest at a distant relative’s home: slightly comfortable, always respectful, never wanting to overstay my welcome. We’ll likely continue on this slow, inconsistent path for the foreseeable future, but as one elder said to me the last time I stepped foot in the Lord’s house—better late than never.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Bridget "Bee" Quammie is a Toronto-based healthcare professional, writer, social media consultant, and founder of 83toinfinity.com. Recognized by Black Enterprise nd the 2014 Black Canadians Awards for her digital work, Bee aims to live '83 To Infinity's motto: "It's never too late to learn something new, do something new, or be someone new." Follow her on Twitter at @BeeSince83.

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