Culture Spirit

And Let The Heathen Say Amen

When I left the church I also largely left behind regularly holding space to celebrate and mourn with others in a culturally authentic way without double consciousness

by Nora Gaines

One of my earliest memories is of being with my grandmother, in the bathroom, standing with my shoulders just about sink level. She is using a wet cloth to wipe my face clean and slick my baby hair down. She does this gently but quickly before rushing down the hall to cook Sunday breakfast.

Growing up, Sundays began with gospel music playing from cassette tapes, hearty breakfasts that still make me want to smack my lips, being preened over and heading to Mount Calvary Holy Evangelistic Church of North America. I remember the music picking up in tempo and shoulders bouncing, feet tapping, older women’s elaborate hats dropping to the ground and their chapel veils flapping as they bent over and stepped with the Holy Ghost. I remember people speaking in tongues, crying and exhausting themselves exalting the Lord. I remember people speaking their worries and asking for prayer. I remember turning to the people on either side of me saying “I love you” and being told that I am loved in return.

After service, there’d be a lively three-generation family dinner. At night we’d watch television or a movie together. Mount Calvary was a place where I got to wear ribbons in my hair and test the limits of how many times I could kick the pew in front of me before being sent out to pull a switch from a nearby tree. Church was a place where people seemed free and more accessible; in the family photo album, there are pictures of me smiling bright eyed and sincerely outside of Mount Calvary.

I am glad I was raised in the church even though I would stop going in my teenage years. I stopped because I found the dogma, doctrine, and declarations of absolute knowing, eternal damnation, people being born needing saving and views on women and sexuality warred with my newly-developing sensibilities. In the years after renouncing Christianity, I studied other religions from around the world and settled on piecing together my own practice of trying to be decent and generous. I believe that there is something that connects all things. I pray and create vision boards to set intentions. I live with uncertainty. I have no idea how everything got here, what ‘everything’ is, what ‘here’ even is. I suspect people don’t just cease to exist when their body dies. And although I haven’t a clue what the purpose of life is - I’m convinced it’s a tragedy that we spend so much time working for money to buy things we don’t need rather than eating sticky fruits by large bodies of water. I wish I had more answers - some kind of assurance that all of this is not for not. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so restless. But I don’t know and as a skeptic, I am cautious of those who say they do.

Although the number of non-religious African-Americans is growing for a variety of reasons,1 Black women remain among the most religious people in the U.S.2 Being to the margin of this narrative has caused me to feel disregarded and shamed. Religion, or rather my lack of religion, would become a great source of contention between my family and me; including my Grandmother. I was told that I was an instrument of the devil and aligned with evil because I no longer used Christianity as a moral compass. I was given paperbacks and pamphlets with demons anguishing in hellfire on the front. I was told that I was wrong and that I would suffer. Instead of seeing it as a place of comfort, I braced myself when entering my grandmother's home for Sunday dinners.

I felt harassed, disrespected and outnumbered; I considered disassociating from those who refused to live and let live. But there was love between us and it felt extreme to walk away from it. Instead, I accepted my role as black sheep and tried to strike a balance between resigned silence to keep the peace and speaking up when I felt things had gone too far. After some time passed the pushback slowed down to a forbidding acceptance. I felt both salty and grateful for that.

I tried to create my own version of the Sundays of my childhood. I’d wake up naturally, play music that I feel not only in my feet but in my stomach, and prepare more involved meals than during the workweek. I’d spend the hours in between breakfast and dinner vacillating between house chores, grooming, making to-do lists and laying around. After dinner, I’d watch television and retire early to get a good night's sleep. These days were lovely but I realize that I can never create the Sundays of my childhood by spending time alone. Because what I’d been missing was the community. When I left the church I also largely left behind regularly holding space to celebrate and mourn with others in a culturally authentic way without double consciousness. Although the solidarity I felt at The Movement for Black Lives Convening and during my intermittent participation in actions and conference calls in this current Black Liberation Movement felt amazing and familiar; it wasn’t until recently that I made the connection that the work reminded me of what I cherished about Mt. Calvary. Knowing that there was always a day ahead where I could turn to someone who knew my story and we could share our visions, plan their manifest and say Amen.

1 The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion- and Others Should Too by Candace R.M. Gorham


Nora Gaines
is a Chicago-based
essayist for
Stories Connect

Photos by Christopher Flowers and Noah Dobin-Bernstein 



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