Some of the fondest memories of my childhood in Milwaukee, WI revolve around the Church. Between my grandmother, grandfather, and my mother – all who attended three different congregations – I had ample opportunity to encounter the divine. It was in my grandmother’s church, Evangel Assembly of God, where I first came to faith. It was in my grandfather’s church, Greater New Birth, where I learned to sing, learned to fall out in the Holy Ghost, and first got baptized. And my mother’s church, Parklawn Assembly of God, nurtured my faith and instilled in me a sense of vocation from an early age. Though each church was different, each of them were pivotal in my identity development.
Multiple things can be true at the same time. For while the Church filled me with this sense of connectivity to the Divine, on the other hand, the Church was where I also learned to feel shame around my body. Somewhere along the way, I learned that my body as a dark-skinned Black young woman, was bad. My body was a site of sin, both my own sin and those of men who I caused to stumble because my pants were too tight, the slit on my skirt to high, or simply because I existed in their presence. I was trouble because of my own growing interest in learning about sex and the ways bodies worked; shamed because I dared to have questions, have feelings instead of anyone taking the time to help guide me through those questions without threats of hell fire and brimstone.
As an adult, I now realize that the Church’s insistence on the innate waywardness of Black girls and women is historical. The brutalization of our bodies under enslavement, including rape, forced surrogacy/wet nursing, and the conduction of medical experiments without our consent much less anesthesia, were all justified because Black women were deemed hyper-sexualized sinners. In fact, the idea of sin in the United States was formulated against the bodies of Black women, because of what our bodies could “make” other bodies do.
After enslavement up until the present, the topic of Black women’s bodies and sexuality has been controlled by church and other institutional leaders for the sake of control and continual subjugation. If a Black woman isn’t married, it is assumed it is because she is not submissive, too strong, or not waiting for her husband before she gets it in. If a Black woman has children out of wedlock, she is looked down upon and may not be able to serve in her local congregation until she has repented enough. If that same woman happens to also be poor, her sexuality is to blame rather than the system that continually makes those who are already vulnerable more disenfranchised. If a Black woman is queer, she is ignored, silenced, and eventually pushed out of the congregation so that she does not lead others astray. Basically, Black women are demonized inside of the Church and without for having any sexual desire or agency outside of a heteronormative, married relationship to a man. And then actively punished for it.
With all of this, it is no wonder why so many Black women are leaving the Church! We are leaving as congregants but we are also leaving as people who have been in ministry, who have been discipled to preach and proclaim the good news. For if the bodies of Black women are the fulcrum upon which the concept of sin is developed, Black women’s leadership and genuine autonomy threatens the church body’s commitment to the status quo. For Black women to push back against the framework that has governed the church in the U.S. for centuries, is to force the church to examine the very foundations upon which it exists.
Fortunately, there are spaces outside of the Church where Black and African women are leading and speaking the truth about our existence, about our experience. Unapologetically and without restraint. Dr. Melva Sampson leads a space on Facebook on Sunday mornings called the Pink Robe Chronicles, dedicated to healing and self care. EbonyJanice is an activist who does organizing around black women’s bodies as a justice issue. Lyvonne Proverbs is a body and sex-positive pastor doing activism work to put an end to male violence.
The Aya Collective, formerly the Kinky Curly Theological Collective, is another space, developed specifically for Black and African women, for the purposes of doing theology and practicing spirituality from the basis of our experience and our expertise. The Kinky Curly Theological Collective is a space that is intentionally open to Black and African women across faith and spiritual expression because we recognize that spirituality is not limited to four walls of the Church, much less any institutional. Rather, spirituality predates every formalized religious institution and is deeply connected to our culture, our language, and our sense of self at a deep level. Spirituality is our organizing principle because spiritual is who we are.