Charlene and Betty met in the second grade by the tree outside of Mrs. Reed’s red front door. They have no memory of what was discussed (and truthfully, Betty has no recollection of it at all), but what began was a long succession of conversations about everything under the sun. A few weeks ago, Betty wrote Charlene a long and hilarious email about adjusting to her current work situation, or lack thereof. And like the good friend Charlene purports to be, she wrote a meandering response about something completely different:
Date: Sun, Apr 2, 2017 at 12:37 AM
Subject: Re: And other things…
Life is good. It’s been normal… at a higher octane, but in an energizing way. It’s been pleasant. But I guess that’s just what happens when you’ve decided not to give a fuck. This of course is bound to change… tomorrow (or in the next five minutes)… when I’ve decided to give all the fucks in the world about everything, again.
I had a strange conversation yesterday. In need of help in overcoming some existential trauma, I had arranged to call a pastor I had known in my early twenties— before Seattle, after London. He’s a middle-aged, Caucasian family man with three perfect children and a musical goddess of a wife. Most of the time, he sounds and looks like he dropped in from one of the Carolinas on Easter Sunday— khakis and button-downs with lots of polite laughter and great hair. I regretted dialing the moment he picked up.
One day a couple of years ago, another pastor had pulled me aside for a chat. It had been a clear day and the sun was blazing. There were bricks embedded into the concrete where we stood. He had said, “I sense that it’s not that you cannot submit, it’s that you will not do it.” Had I been insubordinate? I had done all that he had asked of me, and more. His justification was based on his sense of me… what did that mean? He and another leader prayed for me so that I would be more submissive to them.
I don’t know why I allowed it. I cried as they did it. I felt psychologically fucked, and all of my muscles contracted and grew cold where they had laid their hands on me. But what happened as they prayed was so strange. It was like having an out-of-body experience. I saw myself crying on that pathway and trying to stand up— to exist as an unmarried woman in the church. I heard my ragged breath— What was my sin? Why was I being rebuked? My shoulders, my neck, my soul… being crushed incrementally under their hands. My knees buckled. The only immediate reference point I have for this is “curing for homosexuality.” What must that be like? Is this how they do it? Do they pray it all away? Can they pray me away?
And then it was over. I didn’t know how to verbalize this all without sounding manic so I smiled politely and, like my mama raised me, thanked them for praying for me.
But one by one, over the course of the next several months, multiple Caucasian couples approached me with different sins “God had told them” I possessed. My confusion grew as the conversation evolved. Some thought that God told them that my race had brought curses upon me, or that my parents had been awful to me, or that I had ancestral family issues. Prayers, and more prayers. I was born here, and my family is fine and so were their parents, and this all feels so racist… Unsubstantiated. Forget it. Honestly, they hadn’t known what they were doing. And so, in my coldest moment, I left them and all of it and never looked back.
Until from my cell phone yesterday, there echoed a cautious, “Hello?”
At first it was confusing to listen to this other white man speak to me in his Southern drawl as an authority figure in the church. He didn’t say much in the beginning. He tiptoed around and allowed me to direct the conversation. His questions were generic and gentle, and his answers full of respect and encouragement. A few minutes in as I was explaining what had happened, I started crying. I’m realizing just now that I cried because this was the first time in a very long time I was speaking to a religious person without feeling falsely condemned. And here he proverbially stood among the multitude of pastors as if saying to me, “No. It’s already finished. Nothing I say can change that. What I can say is this: I hear you. And I believe you.” These were tears of vindication.
I thought I had forgiven them and moved on. I didn’t think what they thought still mattered to me. I had filed it all under “irreconcilable differences” between the “Church” and me. Between that moment and now, my ideals of feminism and true racial equality and justice for the marginalized and a torrent of other beliefs— even as safety nets for risk and unwarranted spiritual behavior— had crystalized sharply and sprung from me with unwavering conviction.
But this particular conversation was humbling to me because the white, masculine, Southern hand that reached out to help me yesterday was exactly the kind of hand that I would have rejected had it carried any other spirit than that of Jesus.
I think that’s what was so beautiful about it. Acceptance, neither mine of his outstretched hand nor his of my angered one, wasn’t predicated on an absolution of prejudice. He wasn’t saying he agreed. He also wasn’t saying the church tolerated me. He was saying it accepted me, without all those crazy conditions. I’m not advocating for any sense of color-blindness or gender-blindness or any blindness, but in that moment and in its own way, that’s what made the ministry so personal and… reconciliatory. It felt like God’s way of re-humanizing not only this pastor to me, but also the many him’s he carried that hour. In some interconnected, cosmic way, it also gave me a small window into my own prejudice.
……………… well, that got heavy real fast. Sorry, I didn’t intend to get all religious or whatever on you. But that’s what happened in between the time I talked to you last and now. Ha. Life is so funny sometimes. I feel like I always try to avoid religious talk with you, and then it comes out all at once… Or maybe I’m just that sleep-deprived. Anyway, thanks for hearing me out.
*Personal identifiers have been removed to preserve the anonymity of those mentioned.
**Image by Lee Krasner called Gaea (1966).