when church works

People who know me well know that I am not a fan of church. In fact I’m quite the cynic when it comes to traditional ways of doing church. That cynicism comes from lived experience, not from theory. I like church in the “we are the body of Christ” kind of way but it’s all the institutional stuff that kills my spirit. My adult life has been plagued with unhappy church experiences. I admit that sometimes it’s me. I am the problem. However, many times it’s simply church. Whether it was sexism and male dominance and my refusal to comply, or racism and white power, and my refusal to comply, or some mono-cultural dominance, and my refusal to comply… power in some form is abused all over the place in the name of God. And I guess I’m not very good at compliance. I am not perfect but I do have questions and comments and critiques that have frequently annoyed others. As a result, I don’t have many churchy type friends… but ok, I can live with that. Sometimes church feels like a gang… you know, people who beat you up and beat you down, especially when you don’t agree with them or conform to them.

When I grew up people went to church. Some people also joined gangs. When I think about my formative years growing up in a male dominated black Baptist church, oddly enough I have warm memories. Not of sexism, but of nurture and family bonds and caring relationships. The men believed it was their job to take care of and make decisions for the rest of us. I was a kid so that felt safe and ok back then. Yes, it was also problematic on many levels but they were just ordinary people doing what they believed to be right in ordinary ways. It was the post-civil rights reform 1970s, and from where we sat black liberation was on the table, not the liberation of women or sexual minorities. Of course, by the time I got to college I began gaining new ways of thinking and seeing, and gathered some tools of analyses, and began critiquing some of the things I learned and believed as a child. But still, growing up in the church was safe and served a purpose for me at that time. For many of the same reasons that some guys were joining gangs, belonging, safety-net, purpose. Gang warfare was also prevalent in Philly in the 1970s.

In Rio most of the young people I met were religious in some way. Brazil is a very religious country and church seemed to work for many poor teenagers of color, just as gang membership worked. Pentecostalism which the folks there called “Evangelicalism” which I learned to interpret more broadly as “not Catholic” was spreading quickly and teens were significant in that number. Andre, who I wrote about last week in Street Urchins 2016 is an example of that group. He went from street kid outcast to gang involvement to church membership. Besides loving God and committing his life to Jesus, it was Andre’s way of creating a new social identity, one of dignity and purpose. He was no longer an outcast; rather he was part of something larger than himself which also served as a protective symbol in a violent landscape. Church belonging can offer a sense of personal power within otherwise powerless realities…alongside nurture, family bonds and caring relationships.

Yea, I guess when it’s doing what it’s meant to do, sometimes in some places, church works. Perhaps the cynic is softening.

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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care