Tomi Obaro began keeping a diary on her 13th birthday when her parents gave her one as a gift. She quotes extensively from this journal in a biographical, coming-of-age essay for BuzzFeed that documents the changes in her spiritual life. The musings are cringe-worthy, yet forgivable due to her naïveté:
The world is going crazy. Everybody’s obsessed with atheism and abortion and stupid stuff like that.
It’s so pathetic! I feel like this entire world is becoming corrupt with atheists and gay people that want to get married. Everybody keeps talking about tolerance and it’s getting scary. On TV, the Christmas ads all say Happy Holidays never Merry Christmas. Don’t they get it? Christmas is about Christ! The hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” is really being put to the test. I feel like I’m in a war, in a war to stop this atheism garbage!!!
If only those were the biggest problems Christians actually faced in America. But for people of color, like Obaro, the struggle is a bit more real than that.
For many former evangelicals, their gradual awakening begins as they discover that the religious teachings they grew up with may not be true — usually in a secular setting like college. Obaro gives no indication that she’s left her childhood faith behind, but she has shed the evangelical label. American Christianity’s complicity, if not outright dismissal of racism, was what eventually drove her out:
…it’s clear that the story of evangelical Christianity in the US and, to be honest, the world, has often included ruthless white supremacy. There was never really any place for someone like me.
Evangelicals like to preach that we are all one in Christ, but sadly, they don’t often know what to do with people like Obaro who don’t quite fit the typical mold. From portraying Mary, Joseph, and Jesus with Aryan features in art, to whitewashing the history of indigenous peoples in homeschooling textbooks, Christianity has a long and unfortunate racist legacy. But continued dwelling on the imminent dangers of gay marriage and abortion, when black evangelical voices were crying out to be taken seriously, was a turning point for Obaro:
… what I viewed as an insufficient response to racial injustice was the first thing that made me begin to break with the conservative Christian orthodoxy of my middle school years. Like conservatism in general, American evangelism often centered around the individual — an individual conversion experience; an individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ; individual sin; individual repentance. Racism, then, was always a personal failing, and one that, by and large, didn’t seem to matter in comparison to the horror of abortion or the perceived impending threat of same-sex marriage. Addressing racism was just never a priority in the churches we attended, or on the radio, or in the Christian music we listened to. That there could be a form of Christian faith that recognized these injustices never occurred to me.
There was no dramatic renunciation. Instead, the change happened very gradually, in bits and pieces, while watching forbidden art, reading books, and talking with thoughtful friends with different opinions. My worldview expanded. In time, the unyielding conservative Christianity of my youth seemed too narrow and too fixed for such a complicated, broken world.
I’ve attended evangelical churches for most of my adult life, and it wasn’t until I found an Episcopal church that I heard a sermon about Black Lives Matter — and how white Christians should take ownership of their racist history. There are progressive strands of the faith that are starting to address these issues, but doing so means running the risk of offending parishioners who likely don’t see themselves as racist. That’s a chance that more pastors should be willing to take, since Jesus offended people all the time.
For a while, I attended an evangelical mega-church that treated racism as a “sin problem,” and nothing more. Supposedly, if everyone embraced the values of Jesus like they ought, racism would disappear. But this approach will never work when it fails to point out that Jesus himself was more dark than light — and racism is far more embedded in the structure of American society than many white people realize. White people, for example are far less likely to be killed by police for wearing hoodies than black people. We statistically have more options when it comes to choosing which neighborhood to move into.
These injustices are far more pressing than gay marriage will ever be.
(Image via Shutterstock)