With my arms stretched to heaven in worship, the full expanse of my blackness is revealed for all to see. My full lips, broad nose, and naturally curly-kinky hair all point to the cradle of civilization—Africa by way of Afro-Brazilian and Jamaican mixed ethnicities. I am fundamentally, wholly, and proudly a woman of color. Yet deeply seeded in my race is a long history of slavery, exploitation, prejudice, and shame. When I look in the mirror, I am too often reminded of the pain associated with the color of my skin. And as someone who believes in God, I have wrestled with reconciling my faith with the historical implications of being black.
Being born to Rastafarian parents meant that my path to discovering Jesus (or, rather, discovering that He was in fact pursuing me) didn’t begin with routine Sunday morning church services. I didn’t grow up in a Christian household. Our home, though dysfunctional in its own right, was not one where religion was forced as a moral requirement. Spirituality was approached abstractly, and God only made guest appearances during moments of frustration, moments where my mother would often bellow in exasperation, “Oh, Christ!”
Our limited scope of faith allowed my siblings and me to freely explore this God-being through a unique lens that gave us the vision to bring the world to God rather than bring God to the world. I appreciated Rastafarianism, a religion rooted in Afrocentrism, for what it offered, though it did not leave the greatest impression on my life. What stuck with me was the inherent celebration of black people. God or no god, Haile Selassie looked like me—black skin, dark hair, out of Africa.
When I decided to follow Christ at the age of twenty-seven, I encountered the Holy Spirit while going through a dark period in my life. I was a little more than a decade removed from my father’s untimely death when my husband decided to abandon our marriage. The feelings of betrayal, the sense of abandonment, and being forced to face the painful areas of my life I suppressed pushed me to rock bottom. God’s voice was not audible, but it was apparent He whispered to my heart for me to trust Him—a Him that for so long I only viewed arbitrarily. I had only tiptoed around God with niceties: please, thank you, amen.
It was in the throes of my darkness I learned what it meant to have a true relationship with God. God made it clear to me that He was Lord over my life and, as a result, I came to believe in what Christians identify as the pinnacle of the Christian faith: Christ died so I may live. I now believed God sent His Spirit as a counselor to empower me to glorify His name on earth. I believed in sinning, repenting, and the Bible stories—even the hard-to-imagine ones. I became Team Jesus. But as a black woman, I struggled with seeing myself as part of God’s image because so much of history had told me otherwise. From slavery to the depiction of a starkly white skinned, blond haired, and blue-eyed Jesus in movies and on church murals, blackness did not seem to be a welcomed part of the Christian narrative. Even more, the modern church seemed to perpetuate the racial divide between blacks and whites.
In their book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Faith and the Problem of Race in America, authors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith interviewed thousands of white evangelicals across the country who proposed the solution to America’s longstanding racial wounds was to convert everyone to Christianity. After all, Christians see everyone as made in the image of God. Thus, no race is superior to another.
But while relying upon conversion as a healing balm for racial segregation may sound like a reasonable solution on paper, statistics show that Christians in America are more segregated than the country in its entirety. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said America must acknowledge the truth that the church is still the most segregated major institution in our nation. More than fifty years later, not much has changed. According to a 2014 research study by LifeWay, 8 out of 10 churches are composed of one predominant racial group.
More disheartening than these statistics are the real-life systematic racist experiences I’ve seen my white brothers and sisters of faith dismiss, experiences that dismantle the simplistic notion that the inherent prejudices are not running rampant in America. Even worse, their silence on major racial issues speaks louder than having an opinion at all. When it comes to understanding where blackness fits into Christianity, looking to the church has unfortunately not provided answers.
But my newfound love for God and acceptance of His love didn’t allow me to stay outside the gate for too long. I leaned into the racial discomfort and made efforts to find spiritual reconciliation within the tension. As with all steps in my spiritual journey, I realized that I had to start with God. For me, this meant praying for healing in the hearts of black people across the nation as well as praying for healing in my own heart. Prayer led me to the Scriptures for wisdom on how to resolve the sense of pride I felt in being black while navigating my new identity as a child of the King, Jesus Christ. In this search I came across Psalm 139:13–14:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
Some come from the school of thought that God does not see color, and consequently, we should look past race. I disagree. Based on David’s praises in the psalm, I know God was intentional in the way He created me—brown skin, full lips, broad nose, naturally curly-kinky hair. God purposefully made me a black woman.
What I couldn’t find in the church was the space to celebrate my blackness while collectively acknowledging what being black in America means. God expanded my perspective and reminded me that I am divinely woven together, crafted with detail. This broadened my view of God. I realized that He is, in fact, black like me. He is also white, Asian, and Hispanic. He is all of these and none of these because He is the great I AM, not an idol relegated to social construction.
And we, regardless of race, are made in His image—a vast kaleidoscope of heaven.