Faith & Culture
What I Wish My Evangelical Upbringing Would Have Taught Me About Life Instead of Avoiding
I don’t have many regrets in my life. And I think it’s because I accept that many (not all) things happen for one reason or another. To teach me lessons and grow me as a person — blah, blah, blah.
Life, I have come to discover, is in a constant state of change and evolution. As PARTYNEXTDOOR once said, “Things change, people change, feelings change too…”
And as it turns out, our journeys in faith do too.
I grew up a pretty sheltered kid. I was an only child to Jamaican immigrant parents, living on the West Coast in a community of predominately white people. I went to private Christian schools from elementary to high school, and it wasn’t until college that I chose to attend a public university. Partly because the Christian colleges I applied to were outrageously expensive, and partly because I was just curious about what else would be available to me to learn and experience outside of my “good little Christian girl” bubble.
It’s safe to say that my experience as an undergrad was pretty tame compared to those of others — even compared to those of the friends I know who ended up going to Christian colleges. While my “good girl” tendencies didn’t quite get the undoing that I expected they might, my eyes were opened to much more than I bargained for in terms of my faith and understanding of who God was in my life.
I became a member of a Christian fellowship on my university campus almost right away. Worried that I would become one of those dreaded statistics of college students who immediately walked away from Christianity when they went off to college. It was in this organization that I was introduced to the idea of ethnic specific ministries. Though at first I was highly skeptical of any organization that tried to “other” me into a category of an identity that I was quite honestly not interested in embracing, I went to my first Black Campus Ministries bible study in the fall of 2010.
From there, I would say, I had a sort of spiritual awakening. Life began to look much different than it had when I was too afraid to step outside of my comfortable little bubble. And I liked it. I craved to know more about my faith and spirituality — and how all of me fit into the bigger picture.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the start of what I believe to have been an exponentially pivotal journey of deconstruction and renewal of my walk with God.
Sexuality is healthy and something to be embraced.
“Think of yourselves as this piece of paper,” we all squirmed in our seats under the dimmed auditorium lights listening intently to our high school drama teacher explaining purity. “And think of sex as the glue. Now imagine you and another piece of paper gluing yourselves together.” Lifting the Elmer’s glue bottle up high for us all to see, she unscrewed it and placed a few spots on the white copier paper. Grabbing another piece of paper, she continued.
“Now, imagine that this is your boyfriend,” She smirked and a few stifled giggles murmured through the crowd. “And you two have decided to do the do.”
She stuck the copy paper with glue on it to the other piece of white paper — to symbolize sex, naturally — and set it aside to dry.
“Now, let’s say that you both are enjoying yourselves, having a wonderful relationship. It’s all very lovey-dovey and perfect — but then…you guys break up. What do you think might happen next?”
Taking up the semi-dried papers, now pressed tightly together, she pinched one corner and began to split them in two in a very melodramatic fashion. Leaving two pieces of now destroyed papers, one piece taking most of the damage with it.
If you’re unfamiliar with Christian purity culture, this demonstration probably puzzles you greatly. If you’re like me and grew up fully immersed in it, you know this analogy only too well.
In essence, what she was saying was that sex is a unifying act. One that literally makes two people one flesh. Because of that, it should be done only in the context of marriage. And if it’s done outside of the marriage bed, it was a direct punch in the gut to God. Well, maybe she wasn’t that dramatic about it, but the message was loud and clear.
Sex = bad.
Waiting for marriage and then having sex = good.
But what about other things? You might be asking. You know, of the self-pleasuring kind?
Nope. That was off limits too.
But to be honest, I wouldn’t know. Because only the boys were lectured about the sin of masturbation and self-pleasure. Girls were always left out of the conversation.
Because girls don’t do that.
But I did. And I was deeply ashamed. I was never sat down and told that masturbation is actually extremely common — and a natural experience for boys and girls.
I was never told that it was a healthy way that people learned about their bodies and what made them feel good.
I was just told not to have sex before marriage, and then once I was married, all I had to do was show up — virginity and all — and I would just know.
But that’s not how it works, is it? At least not in the real world. I’ve heard many stories of men and women who “did it the right way” and waited until that first night to consummate their marriage, only to find themselves left deeply hurt and confused. Either they really didn’t know what to do, or if they were doing it right, or they felt a burden of guilt after doing what they were now allowed to do, or even still, they couldn’t bring themselves to do anything out of fear and shame. Leaving their beloved, hurt and unsure of what to do next.
It’s sort of insane that growing up in purity culture, the people who waved the “wait until marriage” banner, expected that message to be enough. But it wasn’t. It still isn’t.
If I could go back in time, I would tell them that preaching abstinence is fine and dandy but only if it’s balanced out with a big dose of reality. Sex happens. I’d rather have a bunch of teenagers openly asking about what safe sex is and how to express their sexuality in a healthy manner, than having a bunch of teenagers, hormones raging, walking around ignorant about how to keep themselves safe and feeling grossly ashamed of their wonderful, natural bodies.
Opening up the conversation about sex and healthy sexuality would have saved me a lot of confusion and a whole lot of shame growing up. And I’m sure for others like me, it would have done the same.
Taking time to understand who you are as a woman of color is an essential component of your walk with God.
When I first joined my college bible study, I was skeptical. Why was it so important that I be in a small group with other black kids? What would we even have in common? Aside from the obvious.
To say I was extremely uncomfortable, was an understatement. In my experience, I was usually the only black one in my friend groups — and as such, I often felt like I didn’t quite fit in well anywhere. I was too black for the white kids, but too white for the black kids.
Deciding to join my small group in Sacramento, California for a region-wide conference for Black Campus Ministries was a HUGE step for me. For the first time in my life, I would be surrounded by people who looked like me and who shared my faith — and I was terrified.
Never in my life had I been around that many black people. People whose skin tones varied from the lightest shade of caramel to the deepest shade of cocoa — but all of us having one very important thing in common: we all were seeking God and looking for community.
All of us, standing together in worship. Hands raised. Eyes closed. Praising God. It was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had to date.
And it was then that I understood, how powerful it was to be around people whose stories were as varied as our hairstyles and skin tones, but we were all choosing to say “yes” to a God we so loved and journeyed intimately through life with.
It also struck me in that moment that I’d never actually realized how intentionally made I had always been. And how dangerous it can be to simply brush off such a key piece of my identity as the white Christians in my past often ought to do — because talking about race made them uncomfortable.
“I don’t really see you as black.”
“You’re black but your not that kind of black, you know?”
No, I don’t know. I am black. Blackity-black black.
And anyone who dares to tell me they are “colorblind” will be in for a mouthful from me.
When you deny the color of my skin, you strip me of a part of who I am. Ultimately yes, we are all made in the image of God. And that truly is the greatest identity I bear. However, the same God who made me in His image, made my skin the color of glistening copper.
And when we deny God’s intentional plan for creating the variety of races we as humans are made up of, we deny His goodness and sovereignty.
And if we, as the “church” are too afraid to have real conversations that matter — about sex, sexuality, race, etc. — then what are we even doing here? Do we even dare say we have a right to be a voice in the crowd telling others how to live their lives?
To me, it sounds like we have a lot to discuss, church. And now is the time to do it. Boldly, with grace and humility. With ears that listen and don’t ignore, and with mouths that speak from a place of understanding and truth, not judgement or spite. With hearts that aren’t afraid to dig into the nitty gritty places of life.
What say you?
Like I said, I don’t have many regrets in my life.
And if I had to do it over again, I don’t know that I’d actually change a thing. Because having had the experiences I did growing up were no mere mistake or smudge on the timeline of my life. In fact, I would counter, these experiences have made my life all the richer and allowed me to have an even bigger faith than ever before.
All the questions. All the confusion. All the unpacking, unfolding and rearranging that’s been done in my life in the last decade of my walk with God. It’s all truly been worth it just to be able to see God as a much bigger God than I used to know. One that simply doesn’t fit into that teeny-tiny box anymore.
Walking with God has frankly, only gotten that much sweeter.