How unchoosing inherited religion taught me that the glue is our relationships
While I may be rejecting a specific aspect of her traditions, I am aligned with her belief that all Black life is holy.
I was not with my grandma, Audrie Jean Lowe at the onset of her stroke. But my uncle remembers it as if it were yesterday.
When she started to feel sick, she walked into the house, immediately going to the edge of her bed to kneel down and pray. She held her hands up and told God that she trusted him in everything. And that if he willed it, he would see her through.
She prayed for exactly one minute, until her body started to spasm. And her breath caught as she struggled to release it.
My grandma’s faith was like that, solid. Unquestioning. Always present. I remember wanting to be steadfast like that.
Though both sides of my family are Christian, I never really felt at home in church. I often felt like I was missing something. As if a memo had gone out the Sunday before and it somehow skipped me. I felt invisible and too seen at the same time.
And when I read the Bible, I couldn’t quite connect with it. The stories left me confused and raw and I got the distinct impression that this God didn’t like women.
There were no women preaching in our church. They were either ushers or in the choir or making someone’s plate. And I remember the confusion of seeing all the women in my family lead at home, in community and at school and thinking, “Where are all the women pastors? What days do they preach?”
I also didn’t like the way Black women in our church were policed, from their choice in attire to the way their children behaved. I also noticed a particular disdain for single Black mamas, even though they were the main contributors of the church. And though I most wanted to wear pants in church, it was considered inappropriate and manly. So I often sat in the pew, smoothing my dress to ensure it covered my knees, trying to look the part of a good church girl.
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Before I was born, my grandma was a member of a Seventh Day Adventist church in North Oakland on 55th Street. When she became pregnant with her fifth child, she was excommunicated for producing a child out of wedlock. When folks saw her in grocery stores, they pretended she was a stranger. And though she was already a single and widowed mother of four, they iced her out of everything.
So she went back to a non-denominational church, volunteering and making connections with other members. But for me, her home was the real church. It was and continues to be the holiest place I have ever laid foot in. It transformed me and made everything possible, even when I disagreed with her God.
We’d light a fire and read Bible stories and my grandma would answer our questions with patience. At church, we weren’t responded to with patience. We could not fall asleep, no matter how tired we were. And we needed to know where he was reading from in the Bible, what the story was about, preparing to debrief its lesson later.
I wanted to know why I didn’t see a lot of women in the Bible. And I think now, having come into my queer identity, I also wanted to know who God was, who Jesus was, and why none of my desires were represented in the text. More than anything though, I wanted to know where the Black people were in these stories.
When we finally watched The Prince of Egypt on VHS, I sat on the floor rubbing my grandma’s feet and sobbing uncontrollably. Outside of church, it was the first time I saw someone holy look like me. I mourned for the children who’d been sacrificed in the movie because it mirrored similar violences that Black children faced around me.
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I’m starting to realize that my grandma’s faith wasn’t just about Christianity or her relationship with Jesus. Maybe, her faith wasn’t even specifically Christian.
I grew up in a multigenerational, two story home with ten people. My grandma also unofficially adopted several children in our neighborhood who became my aunts and uncles, making no distinction between chosen and biological. My uncles, two gay men, lived in the basement. And we all contributed to building deep connection and community with one another.
Months before my grandma passed away, she asked what it means when I say I’m queer. And when I told her, she asked more questions. She generalized and perpetuated some stories about queer folks either being pedophiles or having been abused. But she also eventually responded with, “That makes sense. Thank you for explaining it to me. I love you.”
My grandma’s faith in Black folks was unwavering and expectant. She required us to hurt each other less. To make a regular practice of praying, singing to and speaking affirmations over those we love, even when we didn’t agree. Her faith was a faith of relation and a testament to how connection can transform even the most rigid amongst us.
My house is a space of protection for all Black folks. When they come over, I seek to build what my grandma built for so many others. I don’t know if I always get it right, but I do know that each time I share a story about her, the house transforms into a more breathable space. Not unlike how I felt in her living room, burning wood and newspaper over a fire while rubbing her feet.
I’m affirmed in the fact that while I may be rejecting a specific aspect of her traditions, I am aligned with her belief that all Black life is holy. And that she and her living room will always be my first entry point into Black nuance and complexity.
As I prepare to enter into another year without her, the tradition of sharing food, storytelling and being with each other is alive within me. I want to live like my grandma. With my faith intact and my values clear.