I grew up churchy.
Yet, I have a complicated relationship with the Black Church. It is a relationship filled with both wonderful and painful memories. It is a place of deep community, culture, and love. It is also a place I’ve had to critique and live in tension with. The past few years have marked a shift for me, regarding all church spaces. In this iteration of my life, most of my Sundays are spent as a ‘rent-paying member of Bedside Baptist Church’.
But I love the church. And I love the Black church. So, recently, I ventured out to a Communion Sunday church service with friends who I hold in high regard. They are artists, ministers, activists, scholars, and each absolutely brilliant in their own way. We’d all heard amazing things about this service. It gained a fair amount of notoriety in the area and as something that we ‘just had to see’. So, we went to see.
The choir stood flat-footed in the loft and gave us good-Gospel-sangin realness. (Wished I had a tambourine but I managed to fit some varied stomp-clap sequences into the mix). However, when we were all seated, the Minister began a message that was both difficult to follow and deeply triggering.
It’s sufficient to say that we spent an hour and a half experiencing what I can only identify as corporate gaslighting, which Shea Emma Fett defines as “the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality. (Gaslighting) uses threats as well, but has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior” (2015).
Some of the refrains shared over the pulpit looped around and around in my mind:
- “We’re tired of you… We can’t love you… because you’re rebellious”
- There are spirits always lurking around from “before you got saved” (and when you’re prideful, they can jump back into you)
- You’re transforming before our very eyes and turning into a monster
- We need to get back to the days when church was uncomfortable
- “People will believe their own lie until it seems true… Some of you are believing you’re actually a woman…”
I scanned the room to see if anyone outside of my group of friends (and our ongoing Facebook group chat) was vexed and upset by the harmful theology and anti-trans ideology. If this was the case, it didn’t show. Instead, scores of ‘Amens’ and ‘That’s right’s’ filled the room. We decided we would leave directly after prayer / altar call and forego the sacred meal of Communion at this particular place.
But we didn’t even make it to ‘Amen’.
We stood in the parking lot to debrief. My mind immediately recalled the years I spent ingesting harmful theology, unlearning harmful theology, and finding ways to live freely. It was deeply upsetting to watch the transitions on the faces of the congregants: looking physically pained as they listened with furrowed brows but split-seconds after, filled with anticipation that maybe today was the day that they would be able to ‘get right’.
In the parking lot, a friend pulled out some cookies she’d baked for us before the service, prayed over them, and prayed over us. The words that were spoken were both healing and life-giving. They re-affirmed our constant community with the Divine and with each other, JUST as we are.
The power in this moment was not just that we were breaking bread. It was that we were breaking bread in the parking lot outside of church, after a service gone desperately wrong.
The parking lot has an interesting spatial function. It’s not quite here… and not quire there. It’s meant to hold you and the vehicle that you came in. It’s a place of entry and exit.
I often employ ‘The Parking Lot’ method when I’m teaching or facilitating a session. The Parking Lot is an intentional space for all of the questions that we need to address, re-address, and think through. In this context, the Parking Lot holds individual and collective tension with the material provided.
That night, the parking lot held us and our collective tensions. The parking lot held us until we figured out how to proceed. (For the record, we had drink specials after Cookie Communion).
I believe that Jesus knew how powerful it was to ‘break bread’ with people outside of the temple walls, in the places that held them… using whatever sustenance Providence gave. This experience reminded me that for all of the harmful theology that is yet in action, there are also those that will come alongside you, love you, pray for you, hear your story, affirm your person hood, and break delicious dark-chocolate-almond-cherry cookies with you in the parking lots of life. It is my deep hope that persons of faith continue to find creative, healthy, and affirming ways to engage with God and with God’s people.
For more on gaslighting in theology, check out this post.
For more on ‘recovering from damaging church experiences’, click here..
Also, feel free to contact me, should you simply need a listening ear / debrief of the post.