My husband (let's call him Diva's Husband or DH) is reading Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith which deals with how white evangelical religion reinforces the racialization of society. In the book there's a story about a couple who moves around a lot because of their job and must find a new church home in each city. Because of this constant movement, they have created a system to help them find a church home. They call the domination's state organization and ask for all the churches in the area. Then they call the churches and ask specific questions about the church. Based on the answers, they narrow the churches down to three. Next they visit the churches and invite people from the church to their house for dinner and interviews. Based on the interviews, they visit the churches again and decide which one they want to join. All of this takes two months. We have been in Biblebelt for three years, and we are still searching. Their methods seem like a pretty good idea.
When we were looking for a house, we had certain criteria that helped us refine our search. We had to have a separate dining room or we would not buy the house. We didn't even want to look at houses with garages in the front. We were willing to give in on whether we had three or four bedrooms. Having such standards helped a lot and we were able to find a house that makes us happy in a fairly short amount of time. Considering this, and the couple from above, we have decided to come up with criteria to help in our church search.
These criteria are in no particular order:
1. The pastor should be politically and culturally aware. He/she has to understand that the world outside of the church affects the way that people view the world and their spirituality and he/she must allow that knowledge to bear on the sermons and teachings. Don't tell me, for instance, that the prisons are full simply because people are sinful. Understand that there may be some social, political, and/or economic factors at play.
2. The church must be financially secure. This may sound elitist, but we don't want a church that has three offering periods every Sunday followed by a sermon that talks about sowing seeds. At one church we attended, I kid you not, the entire service was dedicated to raising money, from the songs sung to the testimonies given to the pastor's sermon. Plus, when a church has resources, they have the freedom to actually focus on ministry.
3. The pastor must respect education and be engaged in his/her own scholarship. The African-American church gives a lot of lip service to education, congratulating people when they graduate from any school and telling people that it's a good thing to go to college. But in the next breath the preacher will get up and say "I don't care what kind of degree you have, if you don't have a BA (Born Again) degree, you ain't got nothing." I get that our relationship to God is of the utmost importance, but statements like this devalue education. And as someone who has spent years in school to earn a Ph.D., with God's help, it's hard for me to appreciate such sentiments. Also, I need to know that as a pastor, you respect the enterprise of learning so that I can trust that you will constantly be reading and studying more than just the scripture itself. I need for you to understand history and society and human nature. If you're going to lead me, you should be equipped. I mean, no one will let me get up and teach my students without education, why should I accept less from someone who is supposed to be my spiritual leader? DH thinks the pastor should be seminary-trained. This quality is not as important to me, but he/she must be reading and studying.
4. The Sunday School must be challenging and engaged with contemporary issues. We don't want a class that talks to us only about Daniel's stint in the lion's den. How many times have we heard this story? We need a class that is going to help us live in 2008, in America, in a world that is racist and sexist and classist, in a place where people can be overflowing with the milk of kindness and at the same time fearful and intolerant as they were after 9/11. I don't need religious cliches.
5. There should be young adults (I think I still am) who are active in the church. It's just disheartening when you attend a church and all you find are older members and their grandchildren, who are literally children.
6. The church should not be far away. Because most of the churches around us in Biblebelt are white, we have to be negotiable on this one. It can't be so far away, however, that it will take me an hour to get to it. I would never go to that church at any time other than Sunday morning.
7. It should be African American. We like the music, the preaching style, the comfort of just being understood without explanation that we get at a Black church. At work and other places, we don't have this comfort. Church should be a place in which we can be ourselves. Also, discussing how the gospel speaks to who we are as Black people and affirming our Blackness is probably not discussed at White churches. At least, that's what I assume.
8. It should have an 8:00 am service. Okay, this is not a deal breaker, but it is nice.
9. The church should be progressive in its stance on women's issues. This is not a deal breaker for me either, but it will color the way I hear things in the church. At the White church we attended, the minister talked about sexism from the pulpit and I nearly fell off the pew. At no other church have I heard a pastor mention the word "sexism;" forget discussing the phenomenon. What I hear essentially is that I should be quiet and accept my place in the hierarchy of God, Jesus, Man, Woman, Dog, Cat. Yeah, okay.
10. It should be racially affirming. I know this is not popular in our politically correct world of diversity, but I'm not ashamed of being Black and my church should not be either. On yesterday we attended a church where the pastor made a point to say that people often got tripped up because of the color the artists have painted Jesus. However, it doesn't matter to him what color Jesus is. Well, obviously it does matter to some people and you should deal with that and what it means that people are asked to identify with a God who is consistently painted as being completely different from who they are. You can't just brush that away. In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Celie says God is an old white man and white folks nor men have ever paid attention to what she has to say. Now why would she be interested in a white male God? (See, here is where being politically and socially aware and critically engaged comes in to play.) Then the pastor went on to say that all he cares is that Jesus's red blood washed his brown soul white as snow. That is replete with racist imagery. Subconsciously, it reaffirms that white is good and black is bad. And this preacher said brown, which is a little worse because at least black is the generic for soiled. Brown speaks specifically to his coloring as a Black man. And, really, that line has been used so often it's cliche. Just say, Jesus's blood made my sinful soul pure. See, we need a church that will not say things like that. We don't have any children yet, but when we have them, I want them to go to a church that will help them love themselves as Black people as well as children of God.
11. The pastor must be humble. He/she doesn't know everything and he/she ain't God. We need a pastor who recognizes this. The pastor should be open to learning and seeing ideas from different perspectives. For instance, if I bring it to your attention that saying Jesus turned your black soul white is racist, be open to considering that. Maybe you'll decide after careful thought that I am wrong, but be open.
12. There should be a good music ministry. Again, this is not a deal breaker.
13. The church should be either Baptist, United Methodist, African Methodist, United Church of Christ or Non-Denominational. I grew up Baptist all of my life except for the 2 years in college when I was AME. DH is mostly Baptist, but has some Methodist history. We are open to other denominations, but not many others. We disagree with some of the doctrines of other denominations that are posited as essential fundamentals to their faith.
14. The church should be active in the community. A church should go beyond its walls and be engaged in making the community better. DH prefers that the church be politically engaged, such as advocating for educational policies that will effect positive change for its members who usually find themselves on the wrong side of the achievement gap.
15. The sermons should be thought-provoking and challenging. We're tired of hearing the same ol' same ole. Yes, I know that Jesus is bringing me through the storm and I should praise him because he is a doctor in the sick room and I promise that I will immediately stop shacking and make my husband pull up his pants and, of course, we will praise Jesus. Preach about something else already! Is there nothing else going on in the world? Is there nothing else going on in the Bible? When the Gospel of Judas was in the news, I listened to see if any preachers would even mention it. None did. There are stories in the Bible that tell us about how to live under oppression, how to parent, how to respond to global warming, how to treat people in business dealings. I have yet to hear a sermon in a church in Biblebelt that deals with any of this (except at the White church). The Bible is filled with so many topics, but all the sermons ever seem to deal with are praising Jesus and coming through hard times and praising Jesus for bringing you through hard times. Challenge us to view our faith in new and powerful ways. Not doing this is a deal breaker.
I don't know if we will find a church that meets all of these criteria. In fact, I don't think we will in Biblebelt. Some things we can negotiate on, but we are having the hardest time finding the must-haves. Often, the churches trip up on #15 probably because they don't meet #1 and #3. But we'll keep searching. And praying. There are hundreds of churches here.
11 months ago