The following essay is the third entry in our Bearings Online series on identity, belonging, and the church. Participants in the 2018 Collegeville Institute writing workshop Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging through the Personal Essay led by Enuma Okoro were invited to submit essays to this series, which will be published every week in November. View other entries in this series »
We belong to America, but America doesn’t belong to us.
My husband and I are from the Southwest United States. We are desert people and our DNA profiles match most everyone in Mexico—Native and European: Mestizo. Our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents built mud houses, rode horses, and ate chile in the borderlands. They prayed often. They lit candles. They went to church on Sunday, and they taught us what they knew. But the way we live is not often called “American.” It is something else.
We belong to God, and He belongs to us.
When we got married, my husband and I began attending a large and mostly white non-denominational church, but after several years of attendance we still didn’t feel at home in that church community. We prayed for something else: a new church where we could learn, worship, and find a community of believers more like us. As always, God answered.
We decided to join a smaller Bible-based church that welcomed diversity. It was a predominantly white church, but it seemed to be a different kind of congregation. We immediately loved the pastor who lead this church plant, a new Christian community in a gentrifying area I knew all too well. We met lots of people, and most of the congregants and church planters were not locals. The worship style, liturgy, and culture were new to us too, but the words spoken from the pulpit were good, and we were welcomed with smiles and invitations.
Eventually there were some requests from church leaders. These were understandable at first like, would you join the hospitality team? But soon the requests would agitate deep into our bones: Can you ‘just be yourself’ while reciting the welcoming message script? Would you sing in Spanish? Would your daughter sing in Spanish, too? Would you help lead a church conversation on gentrification? Would you speak on a church panel about immigration? Can you make tacos again?
My fourteen-year-old daughter belongs to us, but she doesn’t belong to our church.
Our daughter complained she was sick almost every Sunday morning, and that should have been a sign to me. But I was busy believing we belonged to our new church, so I didn’t make the connection right away. She finally explained: They are just not very loving there. I found that harsh. She was a teenager, after all, and not that easy to talk to. What did she really expect from them?
I said to her, give me an example of people who are loving.
My grandmothers. Our grandmothers, she said.
In a dream, I see a church full of grandmothers like ours. I can see them, as old as the street names, settled into the seats of an auditorium built in 1888. I can see the crosses hanging from their necks. From the pulpit, I hear their words spoken quietly, almost whispers. In dreams I see my ancestors, their crossed ankles and enlaced fingers. I ache for a church like this, like us, but my people would not attend the church we were attending. They were never there.
We belong to Jesus, but we don’t belong in this church.
At church events, I found myself silently sitting at tables listening to folks argue whether or not white privilege exists. I heard a woman express concern when another congregant identified herself as a “person of color.” Before a scripture reading, someone suggested to me that the pronunciation of (non-English) names didn’t much matter. On social media, another suggested that multiculturalism is a distraction from the gospel. In confusion, I witnessed gestures that were meant to signal an openness and desire for diversity. I saw a woman from my church wearing a Mexican Huipil, I saw babies outfitted with moccasins and church spaces decorated with bright-colored zarapes for special occasions. These gestures might have been rightly intended, but it took me a while to articulate precisely why they weren’t okay. The consumption of pretty things is different than participation in culture. I had to recognize why this was happening: appropriating cultural objects is easier; it is a focus on things rather than people.
It was before I learned these things, and after a particular church service one Sunday, when an older man who sensed my guarded demeanor towards him finally asked, “Are we okay?” Beneath the faded stairway murals of Quetzalcoatl, in the lobby of an underfunded public school that each Sunday morning holds a pool of Christ-loving people who say they love diversity, I lied. I lied by swallowing my words, too scared of the truth. I thought I was being respectful. I went home and cried with my husband because I didn’t know how to love, like Jesus loves, and speak, like Jesus speaks, what is true: No, we are not okay.
We belong to a barrio that doesn’t belong to us.
I tried making friends with a woman from church. I tried letting our families eat dinner together, letting our children play together. I tried praying for her and let her pray for me. But it was confusing. She is the owner of a business that started as a ministry in the church. Her business is now housed in a new development in the barrio we can’t afford to live in—a barrio where my family belonged for four generations.
Her business wants to celebrate where we live, yet she didn’t love this place when she first came to live here. It is a place she had to learn to love. That discovery is the foundation of her business. Sometimes it seems she spreads this newfound love of a very old pueblo as though it never existed before she arrived. She celebrates discovery and new love with colorful t-shirts and ball caps, with stickers and hashtags. She sells these products in a shiny, well-organized store in the barrio that she is not from.
Concerned about her role in gentrification, she asked me to speak to the staff of her business to offer what she called “cultural awareness training” about the barrio that doesn’t belong to my family anymore. My insides howled at this request. I knew it was not okay, but I felt a sense of obligation to her. I lied. I agreed to lead the talk. I parked in front of her house on a gorgeous spring morning but my body wouldn’t get out of the car, and I couldn’t tell whose voice was inside my head preventing me from fulfilling this obligation. Was it God, or the enemy? Was it just my own voice?
Out of shame, I finally pulled myself into her dining room where coffee and donuts were served. Somehow, being there meant that I was helping, which should have been good. Helping other Christians is a very Christian thing to do. But helping her business meant I was fostering the displacement of barrio people; it meant making the area more palatable to newcomers and developers Worse still, it was all disguised as benevolent cultural awareness sharing between concerned Christians. My voice shook trying to tell the truth about all of this, and I made my church friend cry. Soon after, I chose to end our relationship.
Friends don’t lie, my daughter tells me, quoting her favorite tv show. I believe her, so I can’t find a friend in my church.
Cultural awareness training didn’t work for us. Instagram feeds still celebrate murals, adobe houses, and a desert ripe with prickly pear fruit. But these images don’t celebrate barrio people, people like my family. We are absent in photos. We don’t belong in those celebrations of place. We don’t belong in the neighborhood anymore.
We leave what we don’t belong to.
After my husband and I decided to leave our church, we noticed that pieces of us got stuck behind. There are conversations that we can’t unhear, and smiles that can’t be unwelcomed. There are also lies that can’t be untold. And so we are always on borders, always in-between. In the middle of these worlds, we are still the ones who are someone else. But now, like daughters and grandmothers, we are not there in the church seats. We don’t belong to a church. In our absence we end up belonging only to what is invisible. We belong to ourselves and we belong to God.