Journeying Away from Fundamentalism to Jesus
“Lord, I pray against Barack Obama being elected president.”
These words were prayed at the beginning of class by a teacher during my freshman year of high school at a Christian school right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Fast forward eight years later, and, after not one but two Obama White Houses, Donald J. Trump (yes, that guy from The Apprentice) is elected president. A man who attempted to justify disgusting comments about women by referring to them as “locker room talk,” all while building a political platform based on a fear and utter disregard of different minority groups.
We know the headlines and sound bites, but my heart broke as I saw classmates, teachers, and community members, who once cheered me on at football games, supporting and voting for a man who I believed didn’t value my life. It was even more painful because these were the people during my high school years who introduced me to a new way of being Christian, probably best described as “fundamentalism.”
The Early Years
Growing up, my mom took me to predominantly black, Baptist churches. These services were lively, the music was bumping, and the pastors were animated. When I was a small boy, I clearly remember standing up on church pews and imitating these pastors while my mom shook her head in amusement.
Not understanding the reason for these people’s excitement, which I now believe comes from a true appreciation for what God has done in their lives, I became disillusioned with the black Church. I started to meet these pastors’ outbreaks with jokes and scoffs rather than admiration.
After my sixth grade year, my mom, sister and I picked up and moved from our suburb in Columbia, Maryland to a town 20 minutes outside of uptown Charlotte, North Carolina.
A few things became clear to me when I moved to North Carolina: the South is a different world, and the racism is a lot louder there. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I saw my first Confederate flag in person. It’s also the first time a girl told me she couldn’t date me because I was black.
However, I quickly settled into my new living situation by playing sports. I played Pop Warner football and recreational basketball during my seventh grade year. Then, in eight grade, I tried out for both the middle school football and basketball teams and didn’t make either of them. I went to a large middle school and, if the coaches didn’t already know you, you had a slim chance of making the cut.
As my mom and I started exploring options for high school, I knew I wanted to go somewhere small enough where I had a fair chance at being able to play sports.
Starting High School
One day, my mom was on her way home from work when she saw a mob of high-school aged kids leaving from what looked like a church. My mom decided to put her detective skills to the test and go see what the commotion was all about. She found out this church was actually a school, and, most importantly, she found out they had a basketball team that was holding summer open gyms.
I never had strong feelings about whether or not I wanted to attend a faith-based school. As long as I could play sports and didn’t have to wear a uniform, I was cool with it. However, I underestimated how much my life would be impacted by choosing to go to this Christian school.
One of the first things I noticed was there weren’t a lot of black people. Like at all. I was one of two black students in most of my classes. I also noticed the Christianity they talked about had a few more layers than I had remembered. I grew up going to church and never once heard there was a difference between “creation” and “evolution.” Both those ideas were brought up during my first day of science class.
Another interesting thing about when I started high school is that it was an election year — 2008 to be exact. If you remember anything about 2008, you might remember there was this guy named Barack Obama who was running to be the United States’ first black president. With a mom and grandma who raised me to be proud of my blackness and the people who shared that experience, I was pretty stoked I might get to see a man in the Oval Office who looked like me.
One day, in my U.S. History class, we were assigned to make a display of 10 notable Americans who we considered influential in our lives. I mentioned my mom and grandma raised me to be proud of my blackness, so a majority of the people on my display were black.
During my presentation, I shared about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Jackie Robinson. Then, I got to Barack Obama and the mood changed. Everybody in the room looked as if I had just collectively shot all of their dogs.
A Turning Point
I quickly became not just one of the only black kids in my classes, but “the black kid that liked Obama.” In a predominantly white, Conservative environment, this isn’t necessarily the best formula if you want to fit in and make friends.
Teachers seemed to become more outspoken about their dislike of Barack Obama. On a number of occasions, I got asked if I was cool with babies being murdered. On top of that, a few of the friends I did have said they liked me because I wasn’t like “them” (aka “ghetto” black people). I was “white on the inside.”
Something happens the more you hear something. You start to believe it, especially when all you want is to be accepted by your peers. I thought, ‘If I can’t beat them, I might as well join them.’ And that’s just what I did.
I began losing pride in my blackness. I stopped being as outspoken about Obama. I even started to believe the things my teachers and classmates were saying about him. And all the while, I became more receptive to their teachings about Jesus.
Honestly, a lot of it didn’t sound too bad. God loved me, a sinner, and, because I couldn’t save myself, He sent His Son, Jesus, to die on a cross for me that I might be able to have a relationship with Him. Through faith in Jesus, I was permitted to go to heaven when I died.
A lot of this isn’t too different from what I believe now, but, within Christian fundamentalism, especially in the United States, there are various nuances that don’t often look, love, or feel like Jesus.
Sometimes these nuances looked like having to support the Republican presidential candidate because that’s the “Christian” choice. Other times they looked like seeing Muslims as enemies, poor people as lazy, or gays and lesbians as an abomination to God. These are disturbing ideas I saw time and time again during my four years of high school.
Surrounded by Christianity, despite how skewed it was, I found myself seeking God more and what it looked like for me to have a relationship with Him. During my junior year of high school, a few friends and I made the decision to start attending a local, non-denominational megachurch many of our teachers and classmates weren’t too fond of — some of them calling it a “cult.”
While this church wasn’t perfect, I’m so grateful for my time there because it awakened me to the reality that life with God doesn’t have to be rigid; it can be a celebration. It was also the first time I clearly heard that living just for heaven isn’t enough; there’s work to be done here on Earth. Looking back, while I wish this church had been more outspoken about injustices against different people groups, I know God had me there for a reason.
During my senior year of high school, I cried out to Jesus in my bedroom:
“I can’t do it on my own. My life is Yours. Do with it what You will.”
I look back at this as my “decision” for Christ. A week later, I was baptized at my church and publicly committed to my journey as a follower of Jesus. That year, I went on to join a discipleship group with 11 other students, started a Bible study for the freshman guys with a few other senior guys, and even felt like God was calling me into youth ministry.
During my senior year of high school, I also heard lots of talk from my teachers and administration about making sure I was “grounded” in my faith because, if I wasn’t, I would stop going to church, which was pretty much synonymous with discontinuing my relationship with Jesus and going to hell.
While this kind of language made sense then, I now look back at it as coming from a place of fear. I feel like that’s where a lot of “certainty” comes from. We trick ourselves into believing we have it all together because we fear looking like “them,” whoever “them” is.
I took this fear into college with me. Unlike many of my peers, I decided to go to a non-Christian, liberal arts school; however, I still had this sense I needed to make sure I joined a Christian organization and found a church as soon as possible or else I would end up like the rest of the drinkers, smokers and partygoers.
This is where I really see how God can bring beauty out of brokenness because it’s that same misdirected fear and anxiety that led me to get involved with Young Life, which is now where I work and have learned so much about what I believe to be the true nature of Jesus Christ.
The beauty of going to a non-Christian, liberal arts school, getting involved in ministry at a public high school, and having the opportunity to spend my summers in places that weren’t home is that I got to interact with so many people who were unlike me and hear their stories. Two moments stand out that absolutely transformed what I believe about Jesus.
First, during the summer after my sophomore year of college, I got to come to Colorado Springs, which I now call home, and intern with Young Life at the organization’s headquarters called the Service Center. Throughout the summer, I heard multiple times how Young Life is for the furthest out kid. It forced me to ask the question, ‘Who are the furthest out kids at the high school where I do ministry?’
For me, it was the kids of color who sat on the side of the lunchroom my teammates and I would never go to. It was way more comfortable for me to hang out with the white kids who were like my friends in high school. That summer, I made a conscious decision to focus my time on ministering to those kids of color when I returned to the high school that fall.
I was blown away by how easy it was for me to jell with these kids. There’s a lot I didn’t have to know about them yet I still knew them. The more I showed up in their lives, the more they showed up at Young Life events. We started seeing the dynamic of our Young Life club begin to change. It used to be the “rich, white kid” thing to do, but we started having more representation from kids of color spanning all types of economic backgrounds.
I used to think God didn’t see color, but now I know He not only sees it; He created it. Our ethnicities are beautifully handcrafted in God’s image, and He desires to use the privileges attached to our unique skin colors for His purposes.
The second big moment for me was during the summer after my junior year of college when I traveled to Atlanta to do an internship with UPS at the company’s headquarters.
My supervisor did a lot of work helping support UPS’s LGBT & Allies Business Resource Group. As her intern, I got roped into helping with a big event, hosted by the group, where they had executives from UPS and the Human Rights Campaign speak and also invited LGBT workers and allies to share their experiences.
I stood in the back as parents with gay children, professionals with trans best friends, and coworkers who are part of the LGBT community shared their stories of strife and triumph. But within me I was having this struggle I’m sure many Christians have experienced before:
I hear these stories. They’re powerful stories. Stories that could just as well include me. Stories that belong to people I’m called to love. But I can’t show it. If I show that I love these people, Christians are going to think I support being gay. But I’m supposed to support people, right? But wait… Homosexuality is a sin, right? If it’s a sin, I don’t want to outwardly support something that goes against Jesus.
While I was stumbling through all these thoughts, it’s as if Jesus spoke to me and said, “It’s not your job to pick and choose who you should love based on who they are, who they believe their true self is, or what they do. Your job is to love people. That’s it.”
In that moment, I realized I’d rather err on the side of love than shut someone off because of how the world views them. The more friends I’ve made in the LGBT community, the more I’ve realized they’re no different than me. They’re just looked at differently by other people. God still says to them like He said to Jesus, “You are my beloved [son/daughter]; with you I am well pleased.”
I used to think Christianity looked like distancing yourself from oppressed people, but now I know Christianity looks like Jesus. And He sat with the people the world turned away.
The more I see Jesus for who He is and Christian fundamentalism for what it is, the less the two look alike. These days, I couldn’t care less about looking like a Christian. But I couldn’t care more about looking like Christ.
As I write this, there’s still a lot I don’t know. There are aspects of God I’ll never be able to wrap my mind around. But if I had to sum up my faith in a few short sentences, I think this will suffice:
“Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.”
(Ephesians 5:1–2 NLT)