Toxic Concepts I (Un)learned from Church (and How Rituals Helped Me) – Pt. II

In a previous blog post, I unpacked “3 toxic concepts that I (un)learned from church, and why they were important to name”. I intimated that I would pick up with these concepts at the end of the initial post, so  I’ll do that in this post!

My religious context began with a church-of-origin situated as a nondenominational Black church (with Pentecostal leanings). Its doctrine was fundamentalist and there was the perception that we were Biblical literalists. This sentiment was offered every time a new member stood for our welcome. Leadership told them, “We believe the Bible from Genesis to Maps & References” (which were often offered in the back pages of the King James Version Bible). It was a space that was often given to charismatic movements of the Spirit, which taught me a great deal. Yet, when I became a teenager, I longed for a practice of Christian faith that I THOUGHT was more intellectual.

So, I started rockin’ with Reformed Calvinists on a quest for urban missions.

One of the tenets of Reformed Calvinism is total depravity. When I arrived to this place of worship, much of the framework was centered around the notion that humans came into this world ‘totally and morally depraved’. Thus, now that Christ had saved us from moral depravity, we were now to sift all of our thoughts, intentions, hopes, dreams, relationships, friendships, etc. through a rigorous process of self denial and spiritual questioning.

To that end, I learned how to distrust myself.

I offer commentary from John Piper (deep sigh… Lawd) to help illustrate my point of this particularly type of teaching:

Not relying on God in any action or thought takes power and glory to ourselves (1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 2:20). That is sin, even if the external deed itself accords with God’s will.

An example might make this radical indictment of much human “goodness” clearer..

So, in this post, I will unpack just one more toxic concept that I (un)learned from church and that is, “My thoughts, my body (my Self) is inherently flawed and not to be trusted”.

I. My Thoughts

Years after I’d left formal fellowship with a house of worship, I sat in a meditation group with other women and femmes of color. Our facilitator, Sojourner Zenobia, guided us with care throughout the process. In the beginning, my thoughts were all over the place. I would try to concentrate very hard on ‘meditating’, my thoughts would wander, and I noticed that it was almost a reflex for me to think badly… about my own thoughts.

After quite a bit of fidgeting, I’d gotten to the place where I could be STILL, in every sense of the word. In the space, I heard our guide tell us, “Develop a ‘thank you’ relationship with your thoughts”. In this moment, I realized I needed to unlearn what I will name here as ‘thought penance’. A quick Google search of the word penance brings up the definition that it is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong”. Thought penance, for me, was a reflex learned over many years and many times of hearing that even my good thoughts were not necessarily good. Even after YEARS of abandoning (and critiquing) a Reformed Calvinism faith practice, I found myself at meditation group still distrusting all the things that came into my mind.

“I shouldn’t be thinking about that! I should be meditating! Oh forgive me!”

In that moment, I heard (literally like… from our meditation guide lol), “Develop a ‘thank you’ relationship with your thoughts”. While I had intellectualized that my thoughts were good, this called me deeper – to embody this knowledge.Each time my mind drifted from meditation, I began to say, “Thank you”. Even when my thoughts got a bit… interesting… I showed gratitude to the mind that created the thoughts. I started off awkwardly. There’s no immediate switch from thought penance to thought gratitude. But by participating in this ritual, I decided that my days of reflexive thought penance were over. I decided to be mindful and learn to hold positive emotions around my thoughts.

II. My Body

I also learned that my body was not to be trusted as a girl in these worship settings. Countless sermons rolled down from the pulpit (and were further enforced in the mouths and sentiments of church parishioners) that my body – my curves, my legs, my lips, my thighs, and ESPECIALLY my vagina – were inherently dangerous and filled with lust. In these settings, a woman’s body could cause men to “fall from grace”, to become irredeemable. So, I learned to cover myself. I learned to overthink my wardrobe choices in sacred spaces (to read more about that, click here). I’d heard that sexuality was only appropriate in a marriage context, but also that my body could not even be trusted to “make it” to that social institution. So, I shied away from all things sensual.
Needless to say, for those who’ve followed my work here, I am NOT about that life anymore. LOL! I am clear that human sexuality is good and is a gift. Yet, I am ever-embodying that knowledge #bodyroll.
In a guided meditation practice, we were led to practice loving touches. We began with the third eye (the space a bit above your eyebrows, middle of your forehead) with gentle, loving, light touches. Then, we went down our body, exploring our neck, limbs, thighs, hands, feet and learning to extend kindness to our bodies.
I thought about how my past context taught me shame through pulpit preaching and through touch as well: the pulling down of my skirt, the covering of my shoulders, thighs, breasts with a scarf, the pulling of my shirt closer over my cleavage. Yet, until that moment, I had not noticed it. Unlearning the distrust of my body began as an intellectual journey (resources for that are below). However, it was essential to continue the unlearning process by being open to and receiving loving (platonic and sexual) touches from my self and from others. These rituals have been helpful and effective.

(For more notes on church, women, & sexuality, please read Ebony Janice’s ‘A Love Letter from an Erotica Goddess: Because the Body is Not an Apology, and Candice Benbow’s A Church Girl Confession: How Embracing My Own Sexuality Made Me an Ally)

Closing Notes

One day, I was sharing all that I’d learned with an old friend who was at a different stage of their journey. Their face projected a look of concern:“Well… are you angry? Angry with the church? Angry with God?”

My instant and most authentic answer was:

“No, I’m just clear”.

I’m clear that the church can be so valuable and helpful when we acknowledge people in holistic ways. I’m clear that the feelings that I get in ‘my gut’, those truths that I ‘know in my Knower’ are valuable and effective for my everyday life! I’m clear that the God that made me, made me good and desires my wholeness. I’ve also learned that it is important to name that which I’ve learned and that which I’ve unlearned on this journey.  That means, these types of posts will be flexibly-ongoing! In the mean time, check out my first blog post on this subject. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, you can check out the formal panel called #DetoxifyChristianity which will be taking place tomorrow evening. (Shout out to Alicia Crosby & Pierre Keys for letting me know about it!)


This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.
Image Credit: Creatherstock Photos, Isha Gaines’ “Black Women in Formation”