Last year, I Facetimed my pastor to let him know I wasn’t coming to church that Sunday and I didn’t know when I’d be back. He hadn’t done anything wrong and I didn’t have beef with anyone there. Yet, the joy of going to church was gone for me. It was largely why I was always late or didn’t come at all. And, because the guilt I thought I should feel wasn’t there either, I needed to talk to him about it.
Our relationship is a close one. I'm grateful for the fatherly and pastoral presence he provides in my life. He’s one of few people–men especially–who has permission to tell me about myself and I listen. I’ve entrusted him things I haven’t shared with anyone else. He is my pastor. Thanksgiving dinner with his family is an annual tradition. He will officiate my wedding; he will dedicate and baptize my children; and, should I transition before him, he will commit my body back to the earth. It was important to me to be clear that my transition away wasn’t because of anything he’d done.
He understood when I told him I needed space to process the hurt and resentment I still harbored toward my pastor before him. He empathized when I said I needed time away to reckon with why Mama always told me never to fall in love with a preacher and to really heal from the fact that I didn’t listen to her. And, as someone whose faith was becoming more fluid, my pastor heard me when I said I needed room to honor my emerging spiritual hybridity. All of this meant regular church attendance no longer interested me, nor was it healthy.
Church has been one of my life’s constants. When my mother was pregnant and felt me kick for the first time in a church service, she took that as a sign everything would be okay as long as we both stayed in church. Yet, even as I honor that there is something sacred about the house of the Lord, I’m also honest about the harms that happen in it and by the people who lead it. For many, including myself, church has been a place where traumatic experiences have taken place and where church leaders escape accountability for the havoc they wreak in the lives of others. That alone makes it unappealing. There are some who can come back Sunday after Sunday, shouldering these burdens and pretending it doesn’t affect them in ways it does. I’m not one of them. While my mother and many like her saw the church as the main place to be spiritually fed and sustained, I don’t see it that way. But even as I’ve needed time away from church, it doesn’t mean that I want to be disconnected.
This was difficult, considering my church doesn’t stream services or bible studies. Like many others across the country, the leadership is a bit resistant to technology in this way. Many feel we’re simply using technology to replace the importance of church attendance. And while I understand the fear, it's still ableist and trifling. First, it suggests churches have done all they can to make worship accessible to differently abled persons and that’s just not true. Meeting ADA building requirements and having interpreters doesn’t go far enough when elements of the worship experience itself and many of the preaching analogies still prioritize normalized bodies. And it reinforces the notion that, no matter how the church ignores or dismisses people’s needs and experiences, nothing excuses our absence. We’re to come to church regardless. That might be okay years for the masses but, for some of us, that ain't it. Many of us have been shut out of the ability to connect with our preferred congregations because we physically and emotionally are unable to do so or because our desired interaction with the church does not look how leadership believes it should. As a result, we’ve been piecing together what we need from the congregations that will have us.
As pastors were forced to wrestle with the impact Covid-19 would have on their congregations, they had no choice but to reimagine pastoral care and outreach. Begrudgingly, they came online. This created opportunities for many of us to peak in and worship with our beloved congregations. Pastors, who had long dismissed technology, began to utilize the very tools we’d been talking about for years to connect with members–including those of us who had not been in traditional worship for quite some time. While it’s sad it took a global pandemic for pastors to expand their idea of church and ministry, we’re benefiting from it and are glad they're here.
For the past three Sundays, several of us have made our rounds. We’ve headed to some church streams exclusively for the praise and worship and gone to others for the preached word. We’ve given to general offerings online and Cash App’d youth ministries. We have had church.
For traditionalists, this is scary. They believe in faithfulness to one congregation and anything else is consistent with the behavior of unstable “church hoppers”, who find themselves the topic of conversation whenever they show up at a new church. These traditionalists are also the ones who wholly dismiss the existence of “church hurt” and how manifestations of it can permeate every area of life. They’re also the same ones who refuse to honor spiritual hybridity and fluid faith expression as present within the Black religious tradition. They will also say that our churches have done enough to make service accommodating for everyone who is differently abled and, if we don’t come, it’s because we don’t want to. Even as we love these spaces dearly, they will never embrace the totality of who we are. So we get what we need and then we go where we are fully loved.
There are many of us who love the church yet we have found sustainable, healthy community outside of it. We are not looking to one place to fulfill all of our spiritual needs and we’re willing to be honest that no place ever did–or can. Perhaps, this moment calls pastors to be open to the reality that they will also help shepherd many they will never see. My pastor is part of a community of spiritual leaders I look to for guidance. This decentralized model of leadership isn’t vested in the Messiah complex largely associated with Black pastoral leadership. Rather, it embraces that we thrive best in community and more than one is capable of leading and speaking into a life.
I don’t know what will happen when the church is able to fully open its doors again. I would hope that pastors and church leaders will continue to employ many of the methods they used during our time of social distancing. I would hope that, as they consider their congregations, they include us and honor that we still deserve connection even if we just desire it online. And, one of those Sundays when it’s safe to do so, many of us will attend worship and celebrate that the gates of Hell did not prevail against the church. I just pray that we are seen as a part of that church when we do.