I'm (amazingly) Christian

December 7th, 2020

My father taught me never to trust preachers and church people. He would say they are only after the money. The lack of trust in the religious establishment gelled in Black American culture between the 1930s and 1950s. The distrust solidified in the 1960s during the first revolution. This lack of trust has an iron grip on today’s generation. I believe the great undoing of the church’s prominence in society began when church leaders started focusing on numerical and financial growth as the benchmarks of success, while ignoring the fact that government policies were put in place that would ultimately incarcerate millions of Black people who had become victims of state-sponsored drug addiction. Millions of missing Black people who could have potentially become participants of organized religion vanished to prisons and into the dark crevices of drug culture while the ideological turn from the church as a proponent for civil justice became a mission to build mega-ministries with prosperous participants. The unfortunate part of the American success story is the Western Christian church’s participation in how it provided religious sanctions to culture’s ravenous excess and insatiable greed, as it mimicked the materially self-indulgent Western culture’s penchant for prosperity. This addiction to material prosperity was a contingent benefit of at least four hundred years of free slave labor, which spawned religious, economic, and political doctrines that supported and undergirded the atrocity of slavery for centuries and even until today. 

Dad was tricked by a professional con man when he was in his early twenties, and he was hypervigilant for the next fifty years by looking for a con until he died in 2004. The trick was called the “pigeon drop” because the trickster would attract the prospective victim’s attention by dropping a dead pigeon in front of the person and wait for a compassionate reaction. The dialogue would always encompass the victim, assumed to be the recipient of a benefit without doing anything for the benefit while making a financial investment with the professional huckster to show the victim’s commitment to the scheme. My dad always viewed the pastor and the related request for financial offerings as a form of the old “pigeon drop,” and he resisted subsequently to give validity to religion. Amazingly, Dad joined St. John’s and converted to Christianity in our seventh year of ministry and became one of our top givers. When asked one day about his change of heart in relation to church membership, he replied, “I finally found a pastor I could trust.” The running joke around our family for years was the fact that he was referring to Juanita and not me (his son). 

The unfortunate side effect of the American success story is the church’s participation in how it gave a platform to insatiably greedy con men and con women, as it mimicked the materially self-indulgent American culture. Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen declared, “When a church does what it is supposed to do, as a church, it transforms not only the lives of its members but the life of their culture as well.” [1] Well, the church has failed. Kate Bowler, in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, chronicles the Black sojourn from oppressive Jim Crow South to Northern cities in the 1920s and 1930s, where those who had been exposed to more traditional expressions of religious doctrine began to encounter spiritualism, New Thought, hypnosis, mesmerism, and other metaphysical expressions of religion. Religious leaders like Reverend Ike and Daddy Grace “promised to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and industrialism with theologies that countered poverty, disease, and despair.” [2] Black theological modifiers took the original product of Essek William Kenyon, considered the grandfather of the modern faith-message movement, offered religious solutions to economic woes, and made it culturally relevant to masses of Blacks who were leaving the Jim Crow South for a better quality of life in the industrializing Northern American cities. The message of physical health, financial wealth, and good fortune as divine repayment for doctrinal and ritual compliance attracted millions of impoverished Black and White Americans, the number of which ultimately exploded along with the prosperity church movement, and which gradually waned as younger culture changed its opinion on the ethics of religious prosperity. The prosperity gospel at its peak represented American triumphalism as religious pseudo-entertainers mastered the fusion of Black Pentecostalism, New Thought, and metaphysical religion. The syncretism opened an escape hatch for its devotees from the oppressive regimen of poverty, which held communities of color hostage for centuries in America. The escape was created by a distinctive thread of prosperity theology within Black religious culture, which became the fuel of Black megachurches nationwide as church attendance exploded along with new economies and optimism. 

The tension for me in ministry has always involved balancing my gangster proclivities with my love for Jesus and people. My early years in ministry at St. John’s United Methodist Church were preoccupied with driving membership growth. The formula was magical for the first twenty years, and we were successful because our first surge of church attenders in the early 1990s were part of the generation of baby boomers (born between 1946– 1964) who were materially focused and success-driven following the end of the war in Vietnam. In many ways, the church became a social outlet for adults, a youth entertainment venue, and a facility-focused mammoth that took very seriously serving the needs of our homeless and hungry neighbors. One thing on my mind constantly was the absolute requirement to not fulfill my father’s diminished view of pastoral integrity by making a misstep that could call into question the validity of Christianity. 

As a Buddhist in college and during an interest in Islam during my post-college years, I was fascinated with the fact that Black people were, in large part, Christian in America in spite of the atrocities of the slave trade and the transgressions of the church, the cosigner for the slave industry. I asked my wife one morning, “How did the descendants of African slaves become Christians in the midst of the intentional misinterpretation of biblical scriptures and the dissipation of anything resembling the character of love represented throughout those scriptures?” Her answer was swift and concise. She said, “It was somehow through divine dispensation the descendants encountered the spirit of the slave-holder’s religion and not the malicious interpretations of their intent.” Cornel West speaks with poignant clarity to zealous Christian traditions when he suggests it “began the moment that slaves, laboring in sweltering heat on the plantations owned and ruled primarily by White American Christians, tried to understand their lives and servitude in light of biblical texts, Protestant hymns, and Christian testimonies.” [3] He puts into perspective the “miracle,” revealed in the decisions of slaves to create a religious rubric, “This miracle came into being when slaves decided, often at the risk of life and limb, to make Jesus their choice and to share with one another their common Christian sense of purpose and Christian understanding of their circumstances insisting upon both otherworldly salvation as the proper loci of Christianity.” [4]

Among the many American generations moving through history’s timeline are 70 million people between eighteen and forty years old filled with palpable suspicion of the church’s intent. This distrust is valid, and one way to transcend this cynicism is by presenting a balanced and honest narrative of the Christian faith. Just as the slaves brought their life experiences to bear on early Black Christianity, we too, in the age of global pandemics and the dire impact of climate change, must look for ways to more powerfully connect our current life circumstances with our faith, rather than resting on our traditional models of gathering, which are nearly extinct. Disruption in the Christian church has already taken place (1) as it grapples to understand church on computer screens and imposed by in-person limits, and (2) as we get truthful about the obvious decline in participation that started long before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Today, I’m amazingly Christian in spite of how White supremacist heteropatriarchy and racial capitalism used the faith for dominance and power. I’m amazingly Christian in spite of the silence of my non-Black peers in ministry across all denominational lines. Finally, I’m Christian because I believe a combination of love and resistance can make a difference in the presence of a landscape lacking moral leadership and possessing a weakened political will in the face of a historic global pandemic, a crippling economic recession, and growing social unrest at the outbreak of police violence enacted against Black Americans.

1. Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen, The Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1988).

2. Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 25.

3. Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 15.

4. West, Prophesy Deliverance, 15.

This is an excerpt from I'm Black. I'm Christian. I'm Methodist. edited by Rudy Rasmus. In this book, ten Black women and men explore life through the lens of compelling personal religious narratives. They are people and leaders whose lives are tangible demonstrations of the power of a divine purpose and evidence of what grace really means in face of hardship, disappointment, and determination. Each of the journeys intersect because of three central elements that are the focus of this book. We’re Black. We’re Christians. We’re Methodists.

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