By Akilah Richards
I was raised among the island of Jamaica’s largest religious denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist church. Jamaica once held the world record for the most churches per square mile, and in our household, church going was a two-to-three-days-per-week obligation. Sabbath school, Bible study and youth prayer meetings were part of my norm because I was being groomed, like most (not all!) Black folks, to be a good Christian. I followed my family’s faith — with plenty of unanswered questions and personal disconnects along the way — right through to my college years. But after some sobering life experiences in college, I began to search my own soul and seek God through my own needs. That exploration helped me shift from my circumstantial Christianity and over to a space of real connection with God and with myself; a space I still nurture today.
This piece is about what God looks and feels like in my life today, but perhaps moreso, it’s an opportunity to speak as one voice among the growing number of American citizens who are happily unchurched and unapologetically non-Christian.
Today, I have the privilege of being in a healthy, happy marriage where my husband, Kris, and I share the same belief — God is absolute, and Jesus is a story. And that’s exactly what we tell our children, too. But we don’t tell them that our belief is “the truth” either. Instead, we tell them that we arrived at our beliefs as a result of our own soul-searching, that they have that same right. As a natural part of our unschooling lifestyle, we encourage our daughters to ask questions, to feel through their feelings, to read various books on any religious or spiritual practice of interest, in efforts to derive their own meanings. Whether their awareness brings them to Christianity, non-belief, Zen Buddhism or Islam is for them to decide and define.
I am writing this in opposition to a dominant narrative that almost always excludes or marginalizes my family. I write on my own behalf, and perhaps as one of the voices for other Black people who deal with ostracism, along with negative, sometimes hateful, and often tremendously hurtful responses from Christians who can’t fathom why another Black person would “stray from Jesus.”
My intention is simply to offer insight and perspective, and honestly, to say what I wish I had the understanding (and courage!) to say back when I was incredibly insecure about my own spiritual path. These statements are not meant to represent all Black non-Christians — just the ones with whom I live. These assertions are highly personal, likely biased and may be offensive to some. Nonetheless, I will share how my family and I seek and see God, and how we navigate the criticisms and judgment that comes with being spiritual, but not religious … while Black.
My Beliefs Do Not Contradict My Cultural Appreciation
To be clear, this is not an attempt to bash the Christian community or the Black church. I don’t have to be Christian to understand and value the role of Black Christian churches in the building of thriving Black communities.
Historically, mainly after the Civil War, Black churches — meaning Christian churches whose congregation consists mostly of African-American and other Black people — were the cornerstone of Black communities. Often doubling as schoolhouses, infirmaries or orphanages, the churches and their clergy were loved and respected parts of life-affirming communities. Church leaders often provided training and resources for initiatives that fed poor families and provided the homeless with temporary care and shelter. Church leaders, with the help of their congregations, provided counseling, meeting space and financial help, positioning the church as a safe house of sorts for Black activism.
It is no wonder then, that as varied as Black people are in how we look, what we believe and where we come from, church and Christianity are, in a sense, part of our collective inheritance as Black folks. Most of us take on the faith of our parents, and eventually some of us settle comfortably into that faith. Others, like me, do not.
I am among the growing number of Black people living in America who do not identify with a particular religion, including Christianity. I believe, as Desmond Tutu so brilliantly put it, “…we should not succumb too easily to the temptation to exclusiveness and dogmatic claims to a monopoly of the truth of our particular faith. You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith that you are now denigrating, but for the fact that you were born here rather than there.”
I also believe that people’s relationships with their own spirit or soul is profoundly personal. This is why I have no desire for anyone around me, including my daughters, to interpret God or even believe in God in the same ways as me.
Now, as I take part in the raising of children, those beliefs give me strength and clarity I need as Kris and I manage what comes with parenting, nurturing our marriage, running our businesses and prioritizing our individual emotional wellness.
Jesus Ain’t Everybody’s God, and Everybody Doesn’t Need God
One of the most pervasive realities I encounter is that my people aren’t educated on what non-Christians believe. Since Christians hold the privilege of being part of the dominant culture in America and Jamaica (both places where my family and I spend several months at a time), they don’t have to get to know the difference, for example, between an atheist and a non-Christian. I can’t count the number of Kint is Keyser Soze looks I’ve gotten when I share that I don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Most times, people (read: Black people) take that to mean I don’t believe in God, as if God and Jesus are the same to everyone, and not just to them.
Point of clarification: I am not an atheist, as they do not believe in God. Nor am I an agnostic, as they believe the existence of God or the creation of the universe is impossible to know or prove. Unlike Christians, however, my beliefs do not guide me toward the need to change any nonbeliever’s mind. Nonbelievers include atheists, agnostics, humanists, and to my knowledge, other categories of non-God, nonreligion focused people. For a thorough example, see the African Americans for Humanism website, the digital representation of a national organization that, in their own words, “exists for those who are unchurched or free from religion and who are looking for a rational and ethical approach to life.”
As I see it, many Black nonbelievers are coming together to explore and express what matters to them, with a focus on ethics, community and free thought, not religion. This is surprisingly difficult for Black people to grasp, but apparently, it’s become less and less so. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, recently released the results of the second U.S. Religious Landscape Study, surveying more than 35,000 Americans between June and September of 2014. Results showed that the Christian portion of the U.S. population is on the decline. Though seven in 10 Americans identify with some branch of Christianity, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans who self-identify as “atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular” – jumped from 16.1 percent to nearly 23 percent.
Of course, this only speaks to a small segment of a large population, but still holds relevance because it means more people are willing to step outside of what they have been offered (religion by way of circumstance) and explore what they themselves need. That may lead a person to a Christian church, or to a mosque or to a home altar where they chant and incant from intuitive spaces. All of that is beautiful and nourishing, and everyone has the right to feel connected to his or her practices for their own personal reasons.
Black Non-Believers and Non-Religious People Aren’t Lost Souls
The other notion I encounter is one that Black people who don’t believe in Jesus have somehow been whitewashed or over-intellectualized, and are non-believers as a result of “losing themselves.”
Because college is often the place where young people find the courage and the context to define themselves outside of the lens of their parents or families, it is met with an odd blend of curiosity and resistance among traditionalists. What starts out as good, open dialogue between a 19-year-old and their potential “church home” when they go off to college, for example, can quickly turn into dialogue about not letting school and studies separate them from their foundation.
That was my experience as I explored churches and books to help me feel connected. I wanted to “find Jesus” at one point. I felt sure that Christianity had to be the route to spirituality because so many brilliant and kind people around me were of that faith. I learned, thankfully, that their brilliance and kindness were based on their personal choices, and perhaps fortified by their faith. Since other people of the same faith made very different choices, but held the exact same religious belief, it is personal choice, not religious belief that I admired in those people.
That led me to start examining my personal choices, comparing them to my beliefs and holding myself more accountable for my actions and the direction of my life.
That is when my spirituality started to become a more real part of my daily experience. Nearly 20 years later I created a space for other people to explore their spirituality, and by the number of students, I see that people are still happening upon themselves, connecting with God, or in some cases, simply examining their personal choices and changing the direction of their lives.
For people like me, it’s not about how we connect with God, it’s that we connect with God, consistently. It has to be practical for us, and not something we do out of cultural obligation or fear of God’s wrath. Here’s how it generally looks for us:
• We say grace before every meal.
• We talk about ways other people see/feel God because we’re curious about the ways God shows up, and we don’t believe that one way is right and the others are wrong.
• We see God in ourselves, without shame. We are of God, and we have access to Godliness right in our own souls and bodies.
• When I get exercise, I am communing with God by honoring my temple.
• When I eat a meal, I’m in gratitude for all the things that must happen each day in order for my family to have food on our table.
• When I meditate, I get my thought-volume low so that I can empty my cup and let Source work through me. I stop feeding ego, fear and limited knowledge, and I let God guide me beyond my own understanding.
For someone to tell me that my process is somehow incomplete or inherently wrong because it is devoid of Jesus Christ is not only offensive, it’s ignorant.
It Is Every Person’s Right To Seek Meaning For Themselves
Just as our ancestors mixed Evangelical Christianity with various African beliefs and rituals to create their own practices on foreign soil, I mix aspects of my foundation with my personal beliefs to create meaning and guidance in my life. Spiritual exploration is a vital part of each person’s self-actualization process, and unfortunately, that process is often only afforded within the confines what other people already understand or believe. Be that as it may, I reject the idea that I should build on a foundation that doesn’t serve my highest truth.
Every foundation isn’t meant to be built upon. Sometimes, we have to take what we learned from our foundation — including religious beliefs and ways of handling everything from disciplining a child, to their approach to of personal issues, etc. — and turn it on its head. As we make sense of who we are outside the context of our backgrounds, we have the opportunity to mix in new knowledge, intuitive aspects, our questions, our sense of love and our own moral compass, and we get to the beliefs that help us live the lives we choose to live.