Let the Church die, here's why

Essay by Rev. Aurelia Dávila Pratt on 12 September 2019 2 Comments

I was nine years old the first time someone asked me, “What are you?” Fast forward twenty-five years later, and I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. I am Chicana. I am Filipina. I am the color of the earth. I am a dark haired, dark eyed, brown skinned woman. Throughout my life, I have been profiled because of these features. I have experienced blatant forms of racism. I have been the recipient of all sorts of micro aggressions. My identity has been the butt of jokes by strangers and friends alike. People have spoken degradingly about my ethnicity right in front of me, with complete ignorance of the fact that they were speaking about me.

On the “bright” side, because of tokenism, I’ve been offered speaking engagements and board positions. Although people are usually disappointed when they discover I don’t actually speak Spanish. Personally, this has long been a source of deep shame. It has taken me several years to begin to understand the intersections between this deep-rooted shame I carry and the white evangelical-influenced culture I grew up in.

The truth is, the more I consider it, the more I am convinced my language was stolen from me long before I was born. Seventy-three years after the Mexican-American War created a new national boundary at the Rio Grande River, my grandmother was born in the border town of Brownsville, Texas. She was a product of what her ancestors experienced first-hand when their land was stolen and their culture left on the other side of an unwanted boundary line.

The Gringo, locked into the fiction of white superiority, seized complete political power, stripping Indians and Mexicans of their land while their feet were still rooted in it.” (La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa) My grandmother was a part of a people forced into a new paradigm over the course of generations. It was a culture marked by “in between-ness.” No longer fully Mexican, but unwanted and unvalued by American society and government.

Because of this liminal space my grandma inherited, she spoke a Spanish unique to the borderlands. She was fully Tejana. But she never taught her children her language. Instead in the late 1940’s, along with countless other Mexican-Americans of their time, she and my grandpa became migrant fruit pickers as a way to travel north. Chicago is where my dad was born and raised. He is part of a generation of young Latinos in middle America who were physically punished if they were caught speaking Spanish in school. White supremacy stole both language and culture from him and his siblings, by means of societal assimilation.

My dad married my mom, a second-generation Filipina, and by the time I was born, they had relocated to Louisiana. Eventually my parents divorced, and my mom moved back to the north, leaving my dad to raise me and my two older sisters. We grew up in a small, rural town where everyone identified as either “white” or “black.” So it didn’t take long for the teasing and questions to begin. “What are you?” teachers and students would ask me. Through my experiences with racism as a young child, I came to subconsciously believe that my skin was ugly.

I didn’t have words for this then, but now I realize that falling asleep to my brownness was required of me in order to be accepted. By adolescence, I had become a pro at it. By college, I was able to laugh along at the jokes directed toward me. By graduate school, I quit thinking about it at all. It wasn’t until I became an adult, a pastor, and mother, that I began to look back and process my experiences with racism. I began to remember, and I began to wake up.

So, “What am I?” I am Chicana. I am Filipina. I am the color of the earth. I am a dark haired, dark eyed, brown skinned woman, and throughout my life, I have been profiled because of these features. Does my name sound like I speak Spanish, and do I look like I speak it? Yes. Definitely. Do people assume I speak Spanish? All time and from every direction. But I do not. I don’t speak Spanish, pero estoy aprendiendo! I am learning!

The fact that I can say these words is important because they are a symbol of my awakening and inner liberation. They represent a great undertaking of courage. They are a rejection of shame and assumptions. Estoy aprendiendo! I will claim my autonomy and self-worth. I will reclaim what was stolen from me. My grandmother may be gone, but her story and my father’s story are mine, too. In them, I find identity and power. I find language. I find home.

In the past I would not have been brave enough to even believe it, but my story and experiences are relevant to the future of the Church. Over the last several years, there has been a shift in society, including in many progressive white churches. For the first time, white people are attempting to make significant room for black and brown voices.

But, alongside this beautiful work is something white people were not prepared for. Many have been caught off guard by the collective pain of black and brown people. They don’t understand it, egos become fragile, and they become reactionary and defensive when confronted by it. This is happening everywhere, including in the Church. The progressive white church can be among the most difficult places for progress because it commonly assumes it is not complicit in the racist foundations and tendencies of our social structures.

Regardless, the tides are changing. And as a woman of color who is also a pastor, I have been taking notice. My assessment is that Christianity and its Church can either join the flow of justice or flail against its changing tides. This flow is happening with or without you. Spirit is moving, creating a path of love, equality, and peacemaking in its wake. If you are of the mind to jump in to this divine current, then I have several points of advice for you.

First, people and communities of faith: listen to people of color. In listening, make room for our stories, understanding that they won’t be pretty. Most likely, they will sound like pain; like grief; like anger. And it will be difficult to hear some of it without feeling offended. It will be hard to absorb the anger without getting angry back. But the challenge is to listen, to empathize, and to question how you might contribute to the wound, instead of denying the wound exists. It’s a lot to ask, I know! But listen. Become a practitioner in radical empathy and bear our burdens.

And then, do something totally radical: put us on your staff and leadership teams. Actively value our perspectives, and highlight our opinions. For the first time ever, center our voices. Make room for all of what we bring to the table, not just our black and brown skin, our exotic names, and our smiles. Do the hard work necessary to get and keep people of color in the room.

Become truly inclusive. The inclusive church environment should be willing to engage multiple diverse perspectives in such a way that will define organizational policy and practice. I learned this from my cousin, Hanif Fazal, who is the co-founder and CEO of The Center for Equity and Inclusion in Portland, Oregon. Hanif has spent over two decades addressing issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in organizations, and he says inclusion is about more than a sense of belonging. It’s not enough that someone feels welcome or seen. Inclusion is a shift in power so that diverse voices are shaping the culture.

When Christianity and its Church become truly inclusive of marginalized voices, be prepared for the image of God to evolve and expand. God is transformed because God is freed from her box now. Make space; make room. It will deepen your faith to hear from the God of a person of color. The change will likely be uncomfortable. It will be different. Make space; make room. Let this liberation happen.

Avoid copying and pasting. It is a tool that prevents good change. I have been very attuned to the way church culture will often try to “copy and paste” their expectations onto pastors, especially women and people of color. This is often unintentional, so becoming aware of these tendencies is really important. I can’t preach with the same style, tone and intonation as the mainly male preachers I learned about in seminary, because I am not a male. I can’t pastor like a white man when I’m a brown woman.

When I try to do anything other than be fully who I am, my creativity is stifled, and my imagination is held hostage. It may seem simple, but realizing I no longer have to conform to this “copy and paste” mentality was like being set free. Churches, set your pastors free! When they thrive, you thrive. The Church thrives. And if it’s not obvious by now, let me be clear: the Church must change in order to thrive. It has to do more than change. It has to die.

In fact, the church is already dying. Evangelical Christians are grasping at thin air, desperate to protect oppressive traditions from “secular” culture. Politicians have combined their power hungry paradigms with a destructive, patriarchal image of God, and are using it to manipulate the masses. The teachings of Jesus are being completely abandoned for the sake of Christian nationalism. And yet, young people aren’t buying the institutionalized hate, and people of all ages are quitting church in droves. The flailing isn’t working. The pews are empty. The Church is dying, and I say: let it die.

But letting the Church die doesn’t mean we abandon it. Instead we need to sit with it, hold its hand and keep vigil, ushering it from one life to the next. We need to let it die, so it can be reborn. This isn’t easy, but I believe rebirth is possible. On the other side of this rebirth is the transfigured Church. Transfiguration literally means a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. At his own transfiguration, Jesus shone so bright that his dirty travel clothes became sparkling white, and his face shone like the sun. He must have been nearly unrecognizable.

A transfigured church would also be unrecognizable. It would mean that it experienced a complete change of form or appearance. It would mean that everything old has passed away, and everything has become new (which sounds a lot to me like making room, by the way). What if we made changing and transforming until we didn’t even recognize ourselves anymore the work of the Church? What if we stopped at nothing until that work was done?

The future of the Church has big implications. It has been the catalyst for much good, but also so much evil. Its power continues to be used to sustain oppressive domination systems, propping up -isms and phobias. The power of the Church is immeasurable, and because of this, I have come to realize that it is not enough to abandon ship. If we leave, not much will change. But if we work to reclaim, reimagine, and recreate, then people can be set free. People need permission and a safe space in which to shift their theological paradigms. These same paradigms influence their social understanding all the way to their political vote. We need to be a part of the Church’s rebirth, so that we can offer this important and sacred space. If I could sum up kingdom work, it would be this: Let the Church die, so it can be reborn as a catalyst for change.

I’ve lived a lifetime of isolation from my heritage. I have lived in a house of shame that has kept me from moving, from doing my work in the world, from believing and sharing my own truth. I know shame when I see it, and I can recognize its mark permeating throughout the Church. Instead of owning how we have wounded people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA community, the Church has kept its head down, pretending these wounds don’t exist. Instead of acknowledging the ways in which racism continues to inform American Christian culture, the Church’s actions reveal a refusal to listen and an underlying assumption that the past is not our shared responsibility.

But I think of my grandmother and her ancestors’ stolen land and culture. I think of how this shaped the trajectory of lives for generations, including my father’s. Including mine. For years I thought I was unique in my pain; alone in this liminal space. I was too ashamed to find my people, much less share my experiences with them. When I finally did, I realized they carried the shame, too. Every person I’ve asked: pain. We’ve all inherited it, and like it or not, we each carry it with us daily. The evils of white supremacy have kept us isolated and silenced. Pero estoy aprendiendo! But I am learning! No more! I will reclaim the language that was stolen from me. I will take back my voice.

~ Rev. Aurelia Dávila Pratt

 

Question

What exactly is meant by the word ‘spiritual’? If it only refers to ghosts, angels, (theistic) gods, demons and such then it’s clearly just a metaphor for the unexplainable aspects of life. In what way is ‘spiritual’ different to emotional, psychological or even just our individual ‘personality’? We refer to body, mind and spirit – but aren’t mind and spirit just the same thing? Is the term ‘spirituality’ an outmoded concept?

Answer

Great questions Jeff!

Unfortunately, the word ‘spiritual’ is often used as a sort of catch-all for a lot of different meanings. For example, a First Nations person or a traditional Hindu might have a very different sense of what ‘spiritual’ means than a contemporary Western person like myself. In the West, the word ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirit’ derives from the Latin which is a transliteration of two Hebrew words ruach and nephesh. Ruach means ‘breath’, ‘wind’, and ‘spirit’. It is not differentiated from the Creation, the invisible not yet differentiated from the visible. The Spirit is the animating and animate living presence of the divine in and through the creation, which is consequentially closer to many indigenous and animistic understandings of the cosmos and the Creator. An orthodox Judeo-Christian view would be that humans participate in this life-breath as does the more-than-human world. We derive the word ‘inspired’ from this sense of being in-breathed by the presence of divinity that fills the whole world.

In the Old Testament the inspiration of the Spirit of God contributed to master works and the craftsmanship of artisans, as well as the oracles of the prophets. The Roman sense of ‘genius’ or the Greek ‘muse’ would be somewhat close to this understanding of the inspiration of the Spirit. Nephesh on the other hand, often interpreted, ‘animated being’ or ‘living soul’ is the psycho-spiritual mysterious ‘personhood’ that transcends and includes our physical body. This term is closer to the animistic vision of animal guides and spirit beings of the otherworld who traditionally were associated with sacred places.

When you refer to ghosts, angels, gods, demons and heavenly beings and the like, this sounds to me closer to a sense of the ‘spirit world’ or ‘spiritism’ than how many people use the word ‘spiritual’ as our personal transcendent function. This is significant, because we have a tendency in the West to psychologize the spiritual mysteries in a way the indigenous do not. The animistic view of the spirit world maintains the autonomy and freedom of spiritual realities and powers in themselves, without resorting to contingency or fabrication of the human mind or ego.  I do not believe the study of ‘spirituality’ and the importance of it for our age of climatic transformation is outmoded in the least. The reason is because we stand at a threshold in ecological history. We are summoned to undergo a major collective shift in consciousness. Any exploration of spirituality must be experiential, and we must ask the double edged question: what is the Earth/cosmos really? And in light of that question, what does it mean to be truly human?

Thank you for your question.

~ Rev. Matthew Syrdal

 

Comments

 

2 thoughts on “Let the Church die, here’s why

  1. I grew up in the Catholic Church and we too, even the white kids, felt pain. It wasn’t only white supremacy it was the power wielded by ‘the Church’ (at all levels) over and against all of its people. The Catholic Church is still run by males, mostly old guys, many/most? are white but, regardless all seem to be tied to power. We felt this power and were under its thumb for most of our lives from birth through high school – and many beyond those formative years. From the terror of being told you were a sinner, to not being worthy, to the more mundane and even to physical assaults. Some faced sexual abuse, I never did but I felt the wrath of a nun hitting me about the face (when I had never, ever been hit by my own parents) to years later, as a theology teacher in a Catholic high school ‘fighting’ against priests, brought over from Ireland, who were a bit too free with their hands (hitting and punching) kids who were being ‘disciplined.’

    I also ran up against the power of the Church when I proposed to my Protestant wife. We were ‘interviewed’ by the pastor and once he discovered my future wife wasn’t Catholic, he switched to how we must raise the kids Catholic. From that point on, he ignored the love of my life, never looking at her. Thus the debate started and ended with us walking out and refusing to have him associated with our wedding. Many years later I stopped into another Catholic Church in another part of the country and the pastor was mocking Protestants. Nothing had changed: there was still an active discrimination and degradation of the ‘other’ in the same space where ‘love of neighbor’ was preached.

    Years after that, I visited a former professor of mine: a priest, who taught me theology in grad school. This was a man whose teaching and insights enabled me to rethink most of what I had learned in 16 years of Catholic education. Yet when I visited him at his church where he was the Monsignor, it was as if I stepped back in time – my progressive professor had left the room. Nothing had changed – the Church was (seemingly) doing nothing to help its people, as this Professor had once helped me, by raising consciousness and thereby, changing lives.

    I cannot fully comprehend and have no doubt that the pain experienced by Aurelia was different in kind and degree. My experience was very, very different – but it was not always pain free. However, I realized that a lot of the old nuns, a lot of the pastors, even the ‘enlightened’ ones, and a lot of the lay leaders – were also caught up (perpetrators and victims) in that which oppressed many/most in that Church. In my experience and in my judgement, many of those people were ‘good’ people who did not know any better, “who know not what they did.” So, what is to be done?

    Jesus never came to oversee the death of the Law, he came to fulfill it. And we can discuss the so called Temple predictions but Jesus was a Jew who participated in the life of the Temple. Although I believe I understand what Aurelia is calling for in her statement about letting the Church die, a slightly different approach is to insist that the Church must be fulfilled or we must be the fulfillment of the Church (just as we believe Jesus was the fulfillment, the living realization, of the Law, the great commandments). We, as Church, must truly become and be, individually and as a community, the living Christ in the world.

    I think this is close to what Aurelia is saying but I fear that calling for the death of the Church will not be heard and, therefore, might be resisted by some. But who among us doesn’t want to fulfill our promise?

    I agree that many young people aren’t buying the institutionalized hate, and people of all ages are quitting church in droves. However the pews are emptying but there are still (too many) young faces in white supremacy groups, among mass killers and in terrorists organizations. The Church dying helps no one, the Church fulfilled has the ‘power’ to make a difference.

  2. Dear Aurelia Dávila Pratt: I feel the pain you had experienced in your life. I also feel the pain Thomas has gone through, especially for your poor wife who had decided to marry a loving and kind man, but had to face the pain in a power hungry Catholicism.
    For my whole life time I have been lucky to have grown up in a Protestant environment without facing white supremacy (I was in China facing a national extinction by the Japanese military power hungry supremacy from the Japanese emperor Hirohito. We saw mass killing, raping, burning, and lack of food, and homelessness from the time I was born.). But my living parents were wise enough to get us through it all. They had started to escape in 1937, even three years before I was born. And our family lived through thick and thin. Then there was the civil war in China as I grew up, escaping to Taiwan when I was 9. I followed them at my 18th to USA, again escaping from the Cultural Revolution as well.
    I have lived through only covert discrimination a few times, losing my job, but I was never unemployed till the end when I retired. I was a “good citizen” in the Presbyterian church and was later elected as an elder.
    Through a slow process I came to understand, with the help by Bishop John Spong in 2001 as I turned 61, and became a ProgressiveChristianity.org until I am now 79 with a much better understanding of the bible and of how the Roman emperor had forced the Catholicism onto its citizens during 350 AD, making everyone believe in a hateful god who had superpower, in the original sin inherited from Adam and Eve (written not by that god but by the Jewish slaves under Babylon only in 600 BC), in those new testament stories written by people who had never even met Jesus, only 40 to 75 years after his death, and in heaven and in hell. Therefore, for people in the 21st century to believe or have faith in the first century Christianity is like putting our minds in a neurotic pretzel, now wonder the pews in the church are going empty now.
    Last Monday Jarrid Wilson, a well-known pastor in the evangelical community committed suicide, along with another pastor named Adrian Crawford, who had also committed suicide at age 41, and in August 2018, Andrew Stoecklein, lead pastor of the Chino, California, megachurch Inland Hills Church, took his own life a few days after preaching a sermon about his struggles with mental health. All these pastors are making us wonder about the lack of mental health when an increase in the suicide of (young people ) today is huge, 45,000 in 2016.
    So the old-time Christianity needs to be allowed to die, indeed. As Bishop Spong has suggested, a new and perhaps a complete reformation would be required.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

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