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White Jesus, Black Stories
An Excerpt from our New Book, Faith Unleavened!
The following article is adapted from KTF Press’s new book, Faith Unleavened by Tamice Spencer-Helms, which came out today! Order it here! You can also listen to today’s episode of Shake the Dust to hear Tamice reading this excerpt.
I arrived as a new intern at the mission's base of a large, Midwestern, mostly white ministry in 2007. I had full confidence in the organization I was joining. People in charismatic circles knew it as a place where God was moving. It had an atmosphere where Heaven was “open” and the “fire on the altar” never went out. People who joined saw themselves as “special friends” of Jesus, like the disciples in his inner circle.
Of course, I was the lonely only in many meetings, but I was used to that by this point in my journey with White Jesus and his followers. Being Black in a white ministry in a red state hit different during the Obama years, though. Barack Obama’s campaign was an exciting time for my family and for many people with skin like mine. My brother and sister-in-law stood in line outside for hours early in the morning so they could vote before classes started at their HBCU. My mom and dad texted me pictures with grins and stickers saying “Yes, We Can” and “I Voted.” They even sent me a picture of my nephew holding hands with Obama at the Democratic National Convention.
The Obamas made me feel proud, but I was too ashamed of that pride to tell anyone at the ministry. It would have made them question my devotion to Jesus. The relatively few Black staff were all at war within ourselves in one way or another. The white people kept reminding us that we were different by laying their hands on us unprompted and praying for "your community.” The Black ministry leaders, who didn’t seem to be at war within themselves at all, constantly exhorted us to show allegiance to Jesus above all else.
Many of my Black siblings walked out during this time. I should have, but I didn’t think I could. I was so afraid of being wrong about God. I was going to be faithful to Jesus even if it cost me all my friends and family.
When MSNBC announced that Obama had won the election, the leaders of the ministry called everyone into a Solemn Assembly. I sat down and was pulling out my Bible when my phone rang. It was my grandmother. A wave of remorse and regret came over me.
Her name was Dr. Leah Naomi Omega Goldsborough Hasty. I called her Mom-Mom. She grew up in a segregated town on the eastern shore of Maryland. She was the second youngest of twelve siblings. They hunted their own food, and they all shared one outhouse. Mom-Mom had seen so much, done so much, and this election victory must have felt like her experiences had not been in vain. But here I was in a quiet room of devastated white people. I was grateful for the opportunity to step outside.
“Hello?” I answered the phone. I could hear people in the background cheering and crying.
“Hi ... Meecie?”
“Yes! Hi, Mom-Mom!”
“Are you watching the news?”
“No, Ma’am. I’m at a prayer meeting.”
“A prayer meeting?”
It took a moment for her to reply.
“Oh, well, it’s a momentous night, and I was just calling to celebrate and say I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom-Mom. Thanks for calling. Tell everybody hi for me.”
“I will. Take care of yourself.”
I headed back into the assembly. The juxtaposition between my life before and after I met White Jesus was never more jarring than the moment I opened that door. The room was an echo chamber where white intransigence obstructed Black jubilation. My family was celebrating. My church was crying.
As I sat back down, I pushed away the rumbling of roiling memories of stories my grandmother had told me that were threatening to erupt inside me and disrupt the noiseless gathering. I remembered her telling me that my great grandmother, Ida Jane, worked for a wealthy plantation owner as a laundress and maid. One day while ironing, she laid a white sheet out on the board and saw two holes. It was a Ku Klux Klan hood. She folded the uniform up, put it in a drawer, and gave the missus her notice.
Then there was the time Mom-Mom took the train to hear Mary McLeod Bethune speak at a convention. She had complained that she looked ugly because of a scar that developed on her face after she fell onto a metal can. Ida Jane dragged Mom-Mom to the convention to show her that worth comes from the heart and mind, not outer beauty.
Mom-Mom marched for voting rights and participated in the sit-in that desegregated the ice cream shop in her neighborhood. She always said she did the latter because Ida Jane loved French vanilla.
White Jesus needed me to forget these stories in order to follow him. Myths like him can only function in the absence of reality. Story is too powerful. Notions, fabrications, and falsehoods cannot withstand the test of a testimony. White Jesus cannot endure the presence of people who need real-life liberation because his architect was the imaginations of the privileged. He needed me to downplay my inheritance because he could not stand up to it.
It was the last year of Obama’s first term when Trayvon Martin died. After his reelection, he went on national TV and said Trayvon could have been his son. I wondered if the president wasn’t getting any sleep either. He may have been the only person who spoke to what I was feeling at that time. The pastor sure as hell didn’t. That was the moment I finally let the dissonance in my soul take the reins. The heat from my tears washed the scales out of my eyes. Someone—and certainly not just anyone—in a position of power had actually named my experience and validated the pain I was in.
There is hardly anything I regret more than missing out on the joy of Obama’s election—such a crucial moment in the story Blackness is telling—because I was bowing to White Jesus. I can't help but feel a little like Ida Jane when I think about how Trayvon woke me up to the white supremacy in my theology. I’d stretched white evangelicalism all the way out over the years, and I, too, found holes.
I think my grandmother always knew that day would come. Mom-Mom died while I was in the middle of writing this very essay. I find comfort and redemption in the fact that I drove her to the polls to elect the first Black, female Vice President of the United States. I held her storied hands while Kamala Harris was sworn in. A cancerous tumor had grown in on the jaw where the scar was. She was having trouble talking, but she managed a “go girl!” when Amanda Gorman let her literary light shine. She squeezed my hand when Michelle gave Kamala a fist bump on her way out of the arena, and I squeezed back. I’d finally come home.
When I told her I wanted to write about my journey one day, Mom-Mom winked at me. I’m winking back at her now.