When I was a senior in college, I took a theology course unlike any I had encountered. Instead of books by Barth and Bultmann, I was given articles about the life of Dorothy Day, poetry by Maya Angelou and what would become a prized possession, a book of selected works by James Baldwin. Inside were thoughts on poverty, race, patriotism, history and God. At the time, I was disappointed. Surely this wasn’t theology. I was preparing for seminary; I wanted to hear what the “right people” thought.
The “right people” were white European men of a certain age who, to my 21-year-old mind, were foundational for my future as a pastor or teacher. These important concepts and ideas could not, I thought, be taught through an author I had never read who wasn’t even Christian. I was wrong.
For Baldwin, everything tied together. Growing up black in Harlem could not be separated from American history, which could not be separated from classism, which could not be separated from one’s concept of God. This quote from The Fire Next Time was a slap in my face: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” Getting rid of God? What right had we to dictate what the notion of God does or does not do? Yet there was something sacred in this assertion that kept me reading then and keeps me reading now.
In Baldwin’s connectedness, I saw correlations with my own story. I could not separate my experience of God from my experience of being Latina or from growing up female or from my family’s poverty. All these were the link between God, me and others. In these merging experiences were stories, and the theme of these stories was resiliency.
Resiliency is the ability to bounce back and self-regulate after a period of turmoil or hardship. The ability to be resilient is the essence of who my people are, and it’s an attribute I hope to possess. My people were migrant workers, factory workers and ranch hands, people whose skin was dark from the sun and indigenous genes that went back centuries, people who are either persona non grata in their own country or the “diversity” tipping point of a well-meaning white, liberal institution. This is the catch many people of color face daily; either a person of color is not wanted due to a perceived sense of overpopulation or very much wanted due to a perceived sense of guilt, both speaking little of actual people of color but volumes about white folk.
Resiliency is found in the stories of our common faith tradition. Not only does the biblical narrative illustrate God’s people persisting against all odds, our Anabaptist tradition holds myriad stories in Martyrs’ Mirror, literally illustrating joy and faith in the midst of great strife. These Anabaptists were also the persecuted minority at a certain time in history, and Martyrs’ Mirror is our window into the lives of people who confessed their faith, and resilience, unto death.
For those of us who claim the Anabaptist tradition as full heirs and claim their heritage as people of color, Baldwin’s words carry weight. They carry the heaviness of living under the thumb of institutionalized racism. They carry the burden of both joy and suffering in the same body. They carry the force of someone who is tired of pushing yet continues to do so as a means of survival. Baldwin’s words hold the story of the resiliency of people of color. No one is calling to be rid of God, especially not Baldwin. He calls us to be harbingers of a freer, bigger, more loving God, a God bigger than the institutional church, a God who doesn’t wither under the stress of racism that lurks under the guise of diversity, a God who perseveres in the face of a nation that conflates “white” and “right.” One need look no further than the stories of the Civil Rights movement to see that people carried this concept of resiliency unto death, not unlike the martyrs of our collective tradition.
For many people of color, talk of resiliency calls to mind times when our resiliency has been tested. For me, many of these stories originate in the church. I have worshiped with mostly white people my entire life. There were times when this was the only option, while at other times it was not and other factors caused me to choose a church that happened to be mostly white. For people of color, this often comes with a price. To be in, take up space in and move into white space frequently means giving up something. Sometimes that’s comfort, parts of our identity or our history.
Difference makes people uncomfortable. A concept I hear many white people talk about is a twisted version of equality: “We are all equal here. Your background doesn’t matter; we don’t see race; we all are one in the body.” Churches love to tell this to new members. It’s a nice concept, but people do see race, our backgrounds do matter, and not all of us feel as if we are one. I don’t want to be one; I want to be me.
For decades I have appeased and placated those who insist I become white. I have listened to those who insist I read white authors, listen to white music, speak like other white people, dress like a white woman, worship a white god, become what they are trying to become, which is their version of a “Christian woman” born out of experiences of privilege, power and perceived virtue.
That’s not going to happen.
My God has taught me to be resilient. And with that resiliency comes resistance to those who homogenize personhood. My God has taught me I can be both myself and a Christian. I can worship a broader version of God, a God who looks like me, who sees my difference and celebrates it, who knows my experiences of racism and deplores it, one who appreciates my worship for what it is, a reflection of who I am and who God has created me to be. In the midst of this, God transcends my perceptions and who I am as a person and is at work in me, moving me beyond myself and my own experience, allowing me also to share God with my neighbor, someone God also loves in their uniqueness. The world would have us narrow our vision of God, making God a being who speaks to certain people, in a certain way, who would have us exclude and deny instead of embrace and celebrate.
This is the god we have no use for, the one Baldwin spoke of. This god does not want people to become bigger but smaller, doesn’t want us free but wants us in chains. This god doesn’t want us more loving but more fearful. This is the god of white supremacy. And we have no use for him.
Maybe Baldwin is calling us to lose our idols and follow the God we know who provides freedom, a voice and unending love? Maybe this is the God of the Martyrs’ Mirror who delivers us from our temporal pain and suffering and opens their arms, inviting us to eternal welcome and joy. In this God there is no room for the rich and powerful but plenty of space for the poor and resilient. For this is the God of our salvation, who will lead us through our trials and tribulations into a stronger, more resilient kingdom.
Joanne Gallardo is pastor of faith formation at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship, Goshen, Indiana.