I have long wrestled with whether or not to write about this, but I believe silence allows this to continue. For my BIPOC friends, I warn you now that this may be triggering. For that I am sorry, but I am not sorry for being a voice to the struggles we face.
Anyone in ministry knows that there are many unexpected things about working in the church. For those who identify as female, it is a known fact that inappropriate things are said about our bodies in places that are considered sacred. When we thought that the education and experience that we bring is more than sufficient to give us credibility, in an instant someone attempts to reduce us to our appearances.
There are many surprises in the pulpit, or in the areas surrounding them.
One Sunday morning in the autumn of 2020, I was doing pulpit supply for a rural congregation in my presbytery. This was not an unusual thing for me to do, as I have regularly done this since early 2019. I was ever grateful for the opportunity to share the good news, particularly with a congregation in need of someone to preach and lead worship on a given Sunday. What I was not prepared for was what would happen as I prepared to lead a congregation in worship…
The elder who was coordinating pulpit supply confirmed in our call in the week leading up that the church would wear masks if that’s what I wanted. That should have been a red flag already. In the height of the pandemic (November 2020), shouldn’t masks be a given? Upon entering the church I saw that no one had on a mask. I had my mask on and kept some extra distance until others put on theirs.
* Let me pause and make a note.*
At this point in the pandemic, my family was still being very careful. We had high risk family members in our bubble. We had both kids learning virtually to protect our family. We were accepting risk with my doing pulpit supply. Churches doing what they could to be safe were key to helping us protect the vulnerable members of our family.
Let me continue…
The elder with whom I’d been in communication greeted me, discussed logistics, and then reminded folks of the need to wear their masks. In the moments that soon followed, there were a couple of members who began our time together by glaring at me for the majority of the worship service for being told by a church members to put on a mask. This was not the only congregation that resisted masks during the pandemic in my adventures pulpit supply, but theis level of glaring was new.
Even though this was awkward, this wasn’t the most challenging part of the morning…
The elder who was handling worship coordination decided that they would handle announcements, and then hand the service over to me to lead. During the announcements the gentleman shared gratitude for all who came out to decorate the church for Advent (season leading up to Christma)s, and praised some of the young people for helping out too. Then he said he had a great conversation with two of the young people there, and asked them to come forward to share about it.
Man: Do you remember what I asked you yesterday?
One of the girls: Yes, sir.
Man: What’s the difference between a daisy and a dixie? What did you say?
(In this moment, my brain is racing to answer the question. I couldn’t fathom what he was talking about. So I patiently waited for the answer out of curiosity.)
Girl: A Daisy is a flower. A Dixie is a flag.
(The realization hits that I couldn’t answer this question, because it served like a litmus test. If you know the answer, you know. If you do not, you’re not one of them.)
Man: Thank you ladies, you can go sit down.
At this point, the panic was crashing like a wave.
I realize that I do not belong in this place. I am now realizing that this particular church is no longer a safe place. I am looking around in panic for a way to escape…
I was sitting on the chancel (the area where the pulpit is located) and not sure if I could get out of the church. I could go out to my left through the back of the sanctuary and everyone will see me. I could go straight out the back of the sanctuary past everyone, and so they’ll definitely see me and say something. No matter what I do, all eyes will be on me as a I leave. Then I begin to wonder if I really should leave…
Did that man intend for the question to be racist? Do they think the confederate flag is a troubling symbol of racism to those who do not identify as Black or African American? Would it be wrong to leave a church without preacher?
So I made a decision…
In the time that it took for the announcements to finish I tried to quiet the panic in my mind. I prayed that God would grant me peace, fill me with love, and that God’s transformational love would pour forth from me. I am not going to lie and say that all was better in a matter of moments. I will not say that I was not terrified and concerned about my well-being. I will admit that this service was one of the hardest services I have ever had to lead. I will also admit that the feelings of trauma from that day are with me still.
Our words matter.
Two Novembers in a row, I had situations where there were racist interactions that trouble me to this day. I believe what made my experience in November 2019 and 2020 so challenging is that they were subtly and overtly discriminatory, and they were the first experiences I have had like that in a long time. Any BIPOC person can share with you their stories of racism and how they’ve experienced it throughout their life. The sharing of these stories are not easily done as each retelling brings back a tidal wave of feelings, heartbreak, and trauma from moments thought to be long in the past…
- The moment(s) we were made to feel like the other.
- The moment(s) we were made to feel like someone who doesn’t belong in a place they thought was safe.
- The moment(s) we were made to feel like our feelings didn’t matter.
How we speak to and about one another matters. I do not share this experience to disparage the church as a whole. I love the church, despite the failings of its people. The church is where I’ve been called to serve. The church is filled with people who remind me of God’s goodness. Life in community comes with a risk, but it also comes with abundant blessing. I hope and pray to help the church continue to be the place it’s meant to be…
a place of radical hope and love.