When I first attended mainstream bodies of Christian faith on Dartmouth campus I felt extremely uncomfortable. It was as if no one could see me. People looked at me. They smiled and greeted me, but it felt as if they couldn’t see me. I remember one time I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt. I made my “Oh it’s so nice to meet you. Where are you from?” as agreeable and high-pitched as I could manage yet I still felt out of place. There was one particular incident in which a young woman stood up and remarked on how much she loved being surrounded by people that were “just like me”. I repeated those three words to myself over and over. “Just like me”. “Just like me”. With each time it became increasingly more disturbing. “What did she mean ‘just like me’?” I asked myself. Christian? White? Because as I looked around the room there wasn’t anyone I could say was anything like me. It was in that moment I knew that was not my space. It had not been created for people like me. But it bothered others when I mentioned this discomfort. As if by speaking about it I wasn’t just acknowledging the problem I was creating it.
I accept the idea that all are “children in Christ”; it doesn’t matter what race I am, what gender I am, what sexual orientation I am, what class I am, or whether I have a disability I am still considered a “child of God”. But the reality is that I am woman. I am queer. I am Black. And to deny that you see a queer black woman before you when you look at me is to deny me. If you are denying how you are seeing me you are not doing it for the sake of the cross, you are doing it for the sake of feeling comfortable. When you pretend not to see me as me-Mayowa Willoughby- and instead cast a shadow over me, I am stripped of my true self.
It is impossible to approach people with “the Word” if we do not first acknowledge how their unique life experiences and varying identities might shape how they understand Jesus. And if we do not acknowledge the history of hurt the church has enacted on people of color, on women, on homosexuals, on non-cis people, on people with disabilities, we will never be able to move forward as a body. Christ demanded that we struggle together. That we pick up our crosses. And in doing so we must acknowledge that some people can’t even pick up their crosses and that some crosses are aided by cranes. We must acknowledge that there are structures present in this world that not only give some advantage but also actively hurt others that do not benefit from that advantage.
I’m advocating for a social justice agenda in Christ because that is what Christ was. He was flipping over tables and fucking up the systems that dehumanized and oppressed people based on their social category (the very systems that crucified him, mind you) ‘til the day he died on the cross. I’m advocating for a relentless love-one that recognizes that if one of us is suffering, we all are- because that is what Christ advocated for.
I personally do not want to be a part of a Christian body that thinks itself too righteous to acknowledge its shortcomings. It’s okay to mess up sometimes. It’s okay that we have biases and prejudices. The goal is not to pretend that we don’t have biases but to acknowledge that we do and work through them to make spaces of Christ welcoming for all. To say, as Christ did, “There is love for you here”. But until then, I will stay with me and my Jesus and anyone else who cares to recognize that God made us different not so we could pretend not to see it, but so that we could see it and struggle through it.
I am Christian. But I am a Black woman too. And to pretend that I am just like you-when I’m not- is not the same as seeing me for me. It is erasing my identity, and minimizing my experiences. If I wanted that I could find that in any space at Dartmouth. It is exponentially more painful to find it within a body of people who are supposed to be struggling together for Christ. Who are supposed to be dismantling the privileges that cause suffering in this world. Who are supposed to be abolishing the structures that place some higher than others.
We are all equal partners in the faith and if we are a part of perpetuating ideas and structures that gives white people more value, wealthy people more value, men more value, non-trans* people more value, straight people more value, non-disabled people more value, then shame on us. Shame on us. What we need to be doing is focusing our energy on re-evaluating a system that makes certain identities feel like they do not have a right to exist. With the notion that Judgment Day will soon be upon us all, how can you stand facing God and say you were a part of that? How can you look Him in the eyes and tell Him you were a part of hurting his people, his children, our brothers, our sisters?
~ by Mayowa Willoughby