GENE DEMBY, HOST:
What's good, y'all? You are listening to CODE SWITCH, the show about race and identity from NPR. I'm Gene Demby. On this episode, trying to find your place as a Christian when your church doesn't love you back.
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DEMBY: If you've listened to us at all over the last couple of years, you've heard us cite this nonpartisan polling company called the Public Religion Research Institute, like, a lot. You know that stat we always throw out about how 75% of white folks don't have any friends who aren't white? That stat comes from them. And they've looked extensively at the racial attitudes of one of the most influential religious populations in this country, white evangelicals.
At the Public Religion Research Institute, they did this big survey - they called it the Structural Racism Index - where they ranked respondents on how likely they were to agree with statements like, quote, "Today, discrimination against white Americans has become as big a problem as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities," end-quote. White evangelical respondents - they ranked higher than any other group on the racism index. And as you might imagine, that makes that population very distinct from the many, many, many Black Christians in this country, like my colleague J.C. Howard. He works on the show How I Built This. You've probably heard of it. But over the last few months, he's been reporting on the stories of Black Christians and in particular those like him for a time who found their spiritual homes in white evangelical churches.
Welcome to CODE SWITCH, J.C.
J C HOWARD, BYLINE: Thanks so much, Gene. Glad to be here.
DEMBY: OK, So Black Christian is a category that includes people like you. It includes people like me.
DEMBY: I grew up in Black Catholic parishes. I was an altar boy. I even had a stint as an abstinence-only speaker, which I'd rather not talk about. But you...
DEMBY: It's not about me. It's about you. You grew up Pentecostal, right?
HOWARD: Yeah, I grew up in the Church of God in Christ, which is a Black Pentecostal denomination. Yeah.
DEMBY: OK. So COGIC - the COGIC folks - this is what I know about y'all. I think of people speaking in tongues.
DEMBY: That's not something we did as Catholics. And the COGIC girls that I went to school with - they were not allowed to wear pants to school. That's what I - I distinctly....
HOWARD: Yes, that is - that's us. You've got us to a tee. You know, long church services - we're talking, like, five, six hours sometimes - dope music, though, I will say, you know, lots of shouting. But it's a very Black denomination kind of overall, a little more than 80% Black in the United States. And I was pretty much a church kid. And I will admit to you kind of in this safe space that I also - I did wear a purity ring well into my adult years.
DEMBY: Oh, man.
HOWARD: Yes. So...
DEMBY: Wait, so can you just describe this purity ring for a second?
HOWARD: Oh, yeah. So it was a ring that I was to wear on my ring finger. And it said, emblazoned in all caps, vow of purity on it. And, you know, my mother gave it to me, I think, when I was in middle school.
DEMBY: Oh, wow.
HOWARD: Yes. Yeah, yeah. And, you know, and I had to sign the little contract. And I will say I took it very seriously.
DEMBY: Oh, wow. OK. OK.
HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah. And as a kid, you know, most kids play dress up or pretend to be their favorite TV character, like Power Rangers or whatever. But I used to gather my family in the living room and hold these sort of, like, mock church services where I'd, like, deliver the sermon.
HOWARD: There'd be a choir. It's, like - I would direct the whole thing.
DEMBY: So what did baby J.C. preach about? Like, what were the - were your fascinations?
HOWARD: I mean, honestly, I preached about whatever the arts and crafts project we did in kindergarten at my Christian school. I even did a little voice, you know, like, you know, and when the storm came, the disciples said, wake Jesus up. You know, I'd do the whole thing.
HOWARD: And, you know, at the time, like, we had an organ in the living room. So my brother is, like, on the organ, like, playing the keys and, like, I'm, you know, (singing) wake Jesus up. Jesus was asleep in the boat.
DEMBY: That's what a preacher might...
HOWARD: And, like, you know, yeah, (laughter). Yeah, exactly. And there's a lot about the way that I grew up that I kind of laugh at, you know, but, but I still love, and, of course, some parts that just don't quite fit anymore.
DEMBY: So which parts don't fit anymore? What changed for you?
HOWARD: So as I got older, I kind of started church-hopping, which is not something I was encouraged to do as a kid. Like, you had your home church, and that was it. But I grew up in the Bay Area in Oakland, which is really diverse. So I started trying all these kinds of multicultural, nondenominational churches, just kind of trying to find the right fit. And, you know, around this time I even started going to white evangelical churches.
DEMBY: OK, yeah, I have some questions.
HOWARD: Yeah, I figured you might.
DEMBY: OK, so what made you decide to go to white evangelical churches to begin with? Like, that's a big jump.
HOWARD: Yeah, I mean, but it was different, right? But not just the environment. The preaching was also different, and not just the style or sound was different, but how they preach or teach is different. When I got to white evangelical spaces, that was the first time I was introduced to a scholarly side of Christianity. Sometimes a sermon felt like a classroom lecture. And honestly, I kind of liked it, right? Like, plus it was right around the time I started going to college. So it's kind of that time in your life where you're figuring yourself out and just trying new things. You know, some people experiment with drugs. I experimented with churches.
DEMBY: Wild boy. OK. You started experimenting with white evangelical churches, though.
HOWARD: Yeah, yeah. And I think if you asked me at the time, I would have said that these churches were more intellectual spaces. Now I know that that was some of my own ignorance...
HOWARD: ...Of, like, Black theologians like James Cone and Alice Walker and Howard Thurman. But I just wasn't exposed to them at the time.
DEMBY: For sure.
HOWARD: Like, in the church where I grew up, my pastor was my great uncle. You know, he had a high school education, and he didn't talk much about, you know, the Greek words used in the New Testament or the context for when and where the Book of Job was written. And I think there might be plenty of Black churches that do that, but I hadn't seen that very much at that point.
DEMBY: OK. But J.C., J.C., going from a Black Pentecostal tradition to a white evangelical church - it's not like, you know, going to two different McDonald's on the opposite sides of town.
DEMBY: Like, they're not really serving the same thing - different worship styles - I mean, just the music alone.
HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, the wardrobe is different. Like, the church where I grew up - you know, little Pastor J.C. would wear a double-breasted or a three-piece suit...
HOWARD: ...Yeah, of course - versus, you know, the white churches where I would go later - you know, the pastor was wearing jeans.
DEMBY: But J.C., it's not just differences in praise and worship styles, right? I mean, like, we're talking about big political difference - like, they're different political spheres.
DEMBY: I was looking up some stats, right? Like, according to Pew, 9 in 10 - 9 in 10...
DEMBY: ...Black people who go to church at least once a month voted for Joe Biden in 2020. But when it comes to white evangelical Christians, 85% of white evangelicals who go to church at least once a month were Trump voters. I mean, so we're talking about big, big partisan differences...
DEMBY: ...Between Black folks who are Christian and white evangelicals.
HOWARD: Yeah, that's been the other side of white evangelical outreach to Black folks. There's been something of an exodus of those Black folks who joined white evangelical churches since 2016. They've really been leaving those spaces.
DEMBY: An exodus, huh? Exodus.
HOWARD: Listen, I'm a church kid - a little bit of Moses for you.
DEMBY: I appreciate it.
HOWARD: But seriously, I mean, I left those spaces, too. And it's not just a symptom of 2016 or Trump exactly. I think in general, it's just kind of hard to ignore when your race is being ignored. You know, Monday through Saturday, you're not allowed to forget that you're Black. But then all of a sudden it's supposed to be irrelevant on Sunday.
HOWARD: Like, that doesn't work.
HOWARD: And so I wanted to tell the stories of people on a similar trajectory as me because, you know, there are a lot of Black folks who are trying to find where they belong within the institution of Christianity and who are wrestling with the role of the white church in the oppression, not just of our ancestors, but in many cases of us.
DEMBY: With that in mind, I'm going to turn the keys to the show over to you.
HOWARD: All right.
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HOWARD: So being a Christian has always been one of the primary ways that I identify. But finding my place in Christianity has been a journey - from being the little Black Pentecostal kid playing church in the living room to about 10 years ago, being the young Black man surrounded by white evangelicals and beginning to realize that this place might invite me in, but it wasn't built for me. And right in the middle of my own trying to make sense of the ways that I fit in but was also deeply uncomfortable in those spaces, I had a conversation with this girl that I liked that really challenged my sense of belonging.
OK, tell me your name and who you are.
VIKA ARONSON: My name is Vika Aronson, and I think what you're getting at is I'm your wife.
HOWARD: That is...
HOWARD: ...What I'm getting at, for sure.
OK. But long before she was my wife, one night, back when we were just friends, we were sitting in Vika's car outside my apartment in Oakland, and she asked me a question.
ARONSON: I was just like, you are a Black man in America who also says you're a Christian, you know, pretty quickly and strongly. That's how you identify. And I was like, so explain to me how exactly that works.
HOWARD: And I should mention, she wasn't being snarky. She genuinely wanted to know. Vika comes from a Russian Jewish family - both of her parents were born in the Soviet Union - and she didn't grow up around very many, if any, Black Christians. So this question was earnest.
ARONSON: Because my understanding is that Black people, along with other groups, have been oppressed by the Christian Bible and by Christianity. And, like, especially when it comes to enslaved Americans, which I think I knew that was your ancestry, you had your own religion pre-slavery, and they used Christianity to replace what you had before. And now, like, you still claim this thing as your own religion despite the history of it.
ARONSON: So I think the pithier way to say it is, how can you hold on to and identify with a faith that was used to oppress your ancestors and people like you?
HOWARD: I had only known Vika for, like, three months, and she's basically asking me to make a case for Black Christianity. But as a Black Christian, this wasn't foreign territory, and I liked her, so I wanted to let her in on my thought process. And what I told her is that the Bible as I read it is basically a series of stories about liberation and freedom, and it's highly critical of oppressive empires. In the early 1800s, slaveholders in the West Indies distributed a version of the Bible that's now known as the Slave Bible and used it to convert enslaved Africans. And in it, about 90% of the Old Testament was just cut and about half of the New Testament. Any tiny part that they thought might inspire rebellion, they removed. So in order to use the Bible to oppress people, you basically have to ignore most of it. And that's what I told Vika.
ARONSON: You said, yes, it was used as a tool of oppression, but essentially, Black folks have, like, learned to reclaim Christianity in this liberation theology way, this way that's about freedom and joy and everything that's the opposite of oppression, basically.
HOWARD: Yeah. What did you think of that answer at that time?
ARONSON: I liked that answer.
HOWARD: I was glad she liked that answer, but there was something about it that didn't quite sit well with me. I mean, I believed the answer, and I still do. But to some degree, I think I didn't trust myself. Maybe I was missing something because some of those white evangelical spaces I was still in at that time, they weren't engaging in questions like this.
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HOWARD: I went to white spaces because I thought they took a more critical view of scripture. But then with this issue, many of them lacked any critical awareness. I think that's part of why Black folks have been leaving those spaces. And I wanted to talk to someone else who, like me, did that as well.
DEMBY: JC has that conversation after the break.
DANTE STEWART: People wanted a part of me because, like, people think there's something exotic about, like, Black people in white space, especially in white, Christian space.
DEMBY: Stay with us, y'all. You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR.
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DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH, the show about race and identity from NPR. I'm Gene Demby. And JC Howard has been reporting on the struggle he and some Black Christians face in trying to find their place within mainstream Christian institutions, especially the white, evangelical variety. And as JC was rabbit-holing on this, he read the story of another Black Christian who started off in a very similar place.
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HOWARD: So Dante Stewart is an ordained minister and an author. He wrote this book called "Shoutin' In The Fire." It's part memoir and part letter to the Christian church in America. And it's all about being Black and learning to love in an anti-Black world. And when I picked up his book, it felt like I was reading my own autobiography. Dante grew up Black Pentecostal, started going to white evangelical church when he got to college, met and married this girl who did not feel like she belonged in white evangelicalism or understand why he felt so comfortable. I mean, page for page, the parallels kept coming, so I thought talking to him would allow me to explore my own story but in someone else. So I'm interested in what he found when he left the tradition of his parents and grandparents, a tradition that, for Dante, started as a kid back in rural South Carolina, where he went to his small Black Pentecostal church every Sunday.
STEWART: Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday.
STEWART: Sunday afternoon. Yes.
HOWARD: And your family was pretty involved at church?
STEWART: Oh, 100%.
STEWART: From my immediate parents to my aunts and uncles to my grandparents, to cousins, to friends, pretty much everybody was involved in church.
HOWARD: What did you think about that as a kid? I mean, I say that because, like, I grew up in a Pentecostal church as well. And, like, if I were to describe Pentecostal, I would say that it's kind of a charismatic branch - right? - of Christianity.
STEWART: Indeed. Indeed.
HOWARD: It emphasizes a personal experience with God through being filled with the Holy Spirit, or what we used to call in Black church baptism in the Holy Ghost...
STEWART: Oh, yes.
HOWARD: ...Which was characterized by speaking in tongues. And what did you think of being a Pentecostal? I mean, there were - I mean, listen, when the church got to hopping, the church was hopping.
STEWART: Oh, 100.
HOWARD: So like - you know, that was...
STEWART: Nothing like it.
HOWARD: Yeah. Exactly. There was nothing like it. But, like, there was some bit of it that was - you know, that - it caused my, like, my little, you know, 5-year-old soul to be like, what is going on here, right?
STEWART: Yeah. So, like, I remember as a kid, like, faking speaking in tongues and running around church just so, like, I could play the drums. So it was, like, a transactional faith.
HOWARD: Just to be clear, you would fake speaking in tongues because, if not, you were not allowed to be in ministry, so to speak, by playing the drums.
STEWART: Oh, 100%. Like, I faked it 'cause I really, really, really wanted to play drums. So, like, it's, like, you know - it's a thing. When you pretend, you can't stop pretending until you leave a thing.
STEWART: You know, we ate, slept and breathed Pentecostalism.
STEWART: It was literally all we did. Like, it was all we knew, and everything was judged through the litmus test of what we knew and named from the Pentecostal church. Like, in order to visit another church, you had to ask bishop for permission. You know, or in order to play sports, you had to ask bishop for permission. And so, like, as a kid, there was a part of me that was like, I don't like this, but I don't know how to talk about I don't like it.
STEWART: And I knew that, like, yo, I didn't want to be in that space forever. Like, something about this space just isn't right.
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HOWARD: Eventually, you wound up attending predominantly white megachurch. I want you to just give me the steps of how you ended up there. Like, you know, you grew up in this kind of small regional area of South Carolina going to Black church, eating, sleeping, breathing, Pentecostalism. What were the steps that ended up getting you to a white - like, white spaces? Where did that start?
STEWART: It started at Clemson, 100%.
HOWARD: Clemson University, a school that's almost 80% white. When Dante got there, he tried to find ways to feel like he belonged. So he joined the football team and the Clemson FCA, or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which he describes as a white evangelical campus group. He also started playing the drums for the gospel choir on campus, which is where he met his future wife, Jasamine.
STEWART: I distinctively remember wanting to show up because she was there. So it was a little bit of, like, connection, but it was also a little bit of, like, love too, bro.
STEWART: So gospel choir rehearsal was on Thursday nights, and we would practice, I think, for, like, an hour. And then straight from there, I would go to FCA weekly meeting, which was, like, the polar opposite of what I came from. There were no gospel songs there. It was, like, acoustic guitars, big stage, big lights and way more white people than I ever been around in my life.
HOWARD: Yeah, yeah. What appealed to you about those spaces?
STEWART: It was kind of that you can get lost in there, and it was just something different. It felt enough like home but different enough I didn't feel like I had to read the Bible. I didn't feel like I had to speak in tongues.
STEWART: I didn't feel like I had to be something to somebody else that I wasn't. It was simple. Really, in some sense, I really didn't have to think that much, you know, in a sense of, like, yo, they're trying to get you to, like, trust in Jesus. And the thing is, like, that's all you hear about, is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
STEWART: It allows you to forget about everything else.
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HOWARD: After college, Dante marries Jasamine from the gospel choir, and the two of them move to Monterey, Calif., and start going to a mostly white church there. Dante is far from home for the first time in his life, and he's feeling kind of lonely. Jasamine is in the military and is spending a lot of time with her responsibilities there. But Dante - he really pours himself into their white evangelical church.
STEWART: By that time, I was already kind of, like, sold out for white evangelicalism. You know, it allowed me to, I don't know, recreate, reinvent myself, bro.
HOWARD: And so you're getting, I'm sure, more and more attention. Like, I've spent some time in white evangelical spaces. And one of the things that you've said is that, you know, you're there for what you can offer, right?
STEWART: Facts, facts. Like, you know, there's this opportunity - you'll be a great guy to lead this thing, or you'll be a great guy to do this. You know, people wanted a part of me because there was something - like, so many people think there's something exotic about, like, Black people in white space, especially in white Christian space.
HOWARD: Jasamine is not very excited about this particular church or the kind of person they're asking Dante to be. But Dante finds a place to belong, and he starts to get more involved - volunteering, leading small groups and even seeking mentorship in that church.
STEWART: You know, I became a person that, like, went full all-in. And I had become one of them.
HOWARD: So, I mean, your family back home in South Carolina - how did they see this, like, newfound Dante - right? - this newfound culture that you're kind of clinging to? Like, I mean, I can imagine your mother, grandmother, father, you know, grandfather saying, like, look, at least he's in church. Or maybe not - maybe it was painful for them. Did that cause tension?
STEWART: I think it was most painful for my mama. You know, my mom is the type of woman who tried to protect us from a lot that this white world forces young Black people to endure. My mom invested a lot in us, and she gave us a lot, you know? And so she felt it intensely.
HOWARD: I read at a certain point that you called your mom and you expressly told her that Black Pentecostals are wrong.
STEWART: Yeah. It was a very sad conversation 'cause she felt like she was losing her son because I was basically telling her that everything you gave us was wrong.
HOWARD: What did you think that Black Pentecostals were doing wrong?
STEWART: I just felt like we was just performing and not being honest.
STEWART: As much as the Pentecostal church gave us so much, I believe also that the Pentecostal church I grew up in robbed us of, you know, our ability to remain open to other people or question faith or whatever. You know, Black Pentecostalism has taken so much away from us.
HOWARD: Dante was told by his Pentecostal church as a kid who he was supposed to be. But he saw the white evangelical church as a blank slate, a way to figure out who he wanted to be. And just as he's settling in, he and Jasamine move again, this time to Augusta, Ga.
STEWART: In South Augusta, one of the Blackest, Blackest, most beautiful parts of town - you know, and I'm now around Black people again because, like, my social networks became almost exclusively white.
HOWARD: And in finding himself back among people who look like him, suddenly, the predominantly white faith community he called home started to show cracks in the foundation.
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STEWART: The catalytic moment, bro, that really changed things was when, you know, Alton and Philando were murdered.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Breaking news - a deadly shooting...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Shooting of Alton Sterling. Sterling was...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Philando Castile was shot several times. His girlfriend...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Two Black men are dead after encounters with police in Minnesota and Louisiana, and social media has sent both of their stories viral.
STEWART: At this time, I'm, like, fully in white evangelical church. I'm preaching, teaching, leading. I'm in seminary at this time in the white space when all of this is going down. And Philando Castile and Alton Sterling's murder and the Donald Trump presidency - it's catalyzing and it's taking full root in white evangelicalism.
HOWARD: Dante started growing skeptical of the people and the institution he was surrounded by, but he also spent a lot of time defending them and trying to be like them. At this point, Dante was working at an Enterprise Rent-A-Car and was preparing the first Sunday sermon he would get to deliver at his church when an interaction with a coworker caught Dante off guard.
STEWART: I'm working at Enterprise and, like, I'm having this conversation with Michaela (ph), my homie.
HOWARD: Dante was telling Michaela about the sermon he was preparing and about how great his church was because they were using a certain phrase - racial reconciliation.
STEWART: And I'm like, yo, like - I'm talking about racial reconciliation 'cause, like, now this was the thing.
STEWART: You know, when Black people die, it's time to start talking about racial reconciliation, you know?
HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah. In the white evangelical spaces.
STEWART: Yeah, in the white...
STEWART: Yeah, in the white evangelical spaces that I was in, you know?
HOWARD: No time to feel anger or hurt or sadness.
STEWART: Oh, yeah, no, not at all.
HOWARD: It's time for reconciliation.
STEWART: Yeah, yeah.
HOWARD: We got to move forward, move past it.
STEWART: Oh, we got to move past it. We got to move past it.
HOWARD: And that's where you were. You were telling Michaela at Enterprise - you were saying, now is the time.
HOWARD: I mean, I laugh at it now, but...
HOWARD: ...Like, you were serious in that moment, right?
STEWART: Oh, no, no. I was very serious.
HOWARD: You were very serious.
STEWART: Like, I was like, yo, I'm the first Black dude to preach at the church.
STEWART: You know, these white people are changing. Like, they're great white people. They're good white people, you know, etc., etc., etc. My microphone for white evangelicalism was real high and real wide and real loud in this moment. And I'll never forget when Michaela, who was sitting in front of me, turned around and told me in front of everybody, like, Stew (ph), you don't got a damn thing to offer Black people. And in that moment - I head home after that. So I'm pissed off. Like, I'm mad, you know, 'cause I'm like, I'm Black. I know what it means to be Black, you know? You know, like, being Black in white space, like...
STEWART: ...You're always trying to, like, overcompensate your Blackness while, also, you don't even understand it.
STEWART: You know, and you're distancing yourself from it. And so then I get home. I'm griping and complaining with my wife about what happened. And my wife simply tells me, you always listen to other people, when I've been telling you this the whole time. And, bro, it broke my heart because it was at that moment that I realized that I probably became something that I don't even know and I need to deal with it.
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HOWARD: And where did you go from there? I mean, did you immediately walk away from the white evangelical church or did you try to - did you try with them and...
STEWART: Oh, man.
HOWARD: ...Try to get them to listen and say, like, look...
HOWARD: ...We need to be a damn thing for Black people?
STEWART: Yeah, bro, I tried. Like, I never forget me and my friend, my best friend Nefertiti - you know, I had tried to talk with the pastor - meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. They tried to give us the assurance that the white people who were being racist overtly and covertly races were changing when, in actuality, bro, like, now that I think about it, bro, we were around white people that probably were the type of people that would throw rocks at my daddy. I was in front of white people and around white people that blamed every dead and dying Black person for their death. And, man, that was one hell of a revelation, bro.
HOWARD: Did that revelation - did that make you angry?
STEWART: Oh, bro, angry? Bro, my God, I was enraged. Like, I was more than angry. I was liable to, like, fight white people at any given moment. It was a moment where, like, I think that, like, I realized that, dang, bro, I had been lied to for years. And I got to do something to make this right.
STEWART: And, like, I was angry, like, enraged because I left my family for these people.
STEWART: I left my friends for these people.
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STEWART: When I say that white Christianity is a problem, I'm personally not talking about individuals. I'm going back to what Reinhold Niebuhr said in 1932 in his book "Moral Man And Immoral Society," where Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that, no matter how much individual white people identify with Black people and our causes, the white race will not unless they're forced to do so. What he's saying is that, no, it's not about, like, your own individual morality. It's about what you allow other people to experience in the space that both of you exist in.
HOWARD: It seems to me like the problem, as you said, isn't with individuals, but it's with the institution.
STEWART: Facts, facts. That's the problem. It's the Christianity that has been inherited all the way from a time of colonialism, a Christianity that has learned, through centuries of discipleship and socialization, that it's good enough to be around Black people, but it's not good enough to actually protect and love Black people.
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HOWARD: Dante didn't feel like he belonged within white Christianity anymore, so that led him to look for something that actually spoke to him. And he found it when he was given a copy of the book "Where Do We Go From Here" by Martin Luther King Jr. And in it, he came across a passage from James Baldwin's book "The Fire Next Time."
STEWART: It's impossible to read "The Fire Next Time" and actually read "The Fire Next Time" and remain the same in your relationship to Christianity, or at least your relationship to white Christianity. And, like, the church was just in my bones and in my blood. Faith was just in my bones and in my blood. And, like, I found a new faith in, like, Black literature. What I found in Baldwin or what I found in Morrison, what they gave me let me know, like, this is not the only idea of God that is out there for you.
HOWARD: I was watching this video of James Baldwin. And he says - I'm just going to give you the direct quote, what he says. "I don't know what most white people in this country feel."
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JAMES BALDWIN: I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don't know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is Black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That's says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means that I can't afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
HOWARD: I then have to ask you, in light of what Baldwin said - 'cause Baldwin left, you know?
HOWARD: He grew up in Black Christian church - same as you, same as me - and he hightailed it out of there. Why did you hold on to Christianity in any form? I mean, you eventually would go back to Black Christian spaces. What was the point?
STEWART: Yeah. For me, I just knew that, like, going back to the Black church - and I'm in a Black progressive church.
STEWART: I knew that, like, giving a - giving Black faith a chance to heal me and love me was my obligation to the Black people that formed me. I lean back to Baldwin. You know, he has a section in "The Fire Next Time" - there still is nothing quite like the ethos of the Black church space, when those tired, weary souls declare the goodness of the Lord. And even though I lost something in it, I still remember the sound. I still remember the ethos. And that power is beyond simply the Black church. That is Black spirituality. That comes from the ancestral planes. That's beyond Jesus. It is beyond just the church. It is the Black spirit. That's a thing that cannot be controlled. That's a thing that cannot be contained to one space, but a thing that continues to call us back to ourselves as Black people again and again and again and tell me...
STEWART: ...That there is so much for you, young Black child - that you do not have to lose any of yourself, your Christianity or your Blackness or your humanness.
STEWART: Like, I'm going to infuse it with a thing.
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HOWARD: In many cases, our ancestors found hope in the very thing meant to oppress them. They clung to it as an act of resistance because in it, they found the opposite of what their oppressor tried to give them. Or to put it in the Christian speak I grew up with, what that institution meant for evil, God turned to good. Growing up, my faith was important to me. But I didn't choose this to begin with. I was born into it, so it was also almost expected of me. And, yes, I believe it, but I'm glad I faced that question from Vika. How can you hold onto this thing that's been used to oppress you? Because more than belief, that question and the conversations that it started helped me find something deeper, something true.
I'm not holding onto a dusty old book tailored to control my behavior. I'm holding onto the faith and the tradition of my ancestors and to their hope. I'm holding onto what they found when they heard folks out in the fields or in the church house singing about deliverance. So yes, it's been tainted. And yes, some churches are ready for that conversation and others aren't. Some welcome Vika's question and others are too afraid to answer it. But also, for me, maybe the question isn't how can I hold onto this thing that's been used to oppress me. Maybe it's, how can I let it go if it brings peace to my mother, if it empowers my grandmother and liberated her grandmother? I'm not holding onto this thing so much as this thing is holding us together.
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STEWART: You know, one of my favorite songs - and it's because of my grandmother - is - you know, my grandma would always sing this song. (Singing) I feel like pressing my way. You remember that one? (Singing) I feel like pressing my way. I'm on my way to heaven. Lord, I feel like pressing my way. See, I loved that song...
STEWART: ...As a kid because I knew what it made my grandmama feel, bro. Like, that song did something...
STEWART: ...To my grandma.
STEWART: Like, it was like, I want that. Whatever grandma got...
STEWART: ...Where she'd be, like - she's shaking her hands up and down. She's shaking...
STEWART: She started shouting, shaking her hands up and down.
STEWART: Now, at that point, like, I wanted that...
HOWARD: (Laughter) Yes.
STEWART: Like, the whole kind of - and, you know, I never seen my grandma speak in nary a tongue, nor my daddy, you know? But...
HOWARD: Yeah, yeah.
STEWART: And that's the thing, like, there were people that I know, like - I know you don't speak in tongues.
HOWARD: Yeah (laughter).
STEWART: You know? But, like, you have something beautiful that I love.
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HOWARD: That's kind of the point of holding onto any of this, right? Dante finds something beautiful. I find something true. Not everyone finds that in a particular faith system. But if you find truth or beauty or freedom, you hold onto it, wherever you found it. There was a song we used to sing when I was a kid, "Give Me That Old Time Religion." It says, it was good enough for my mother. It was good enough for my father. It was good enough for my grandmother. Lord, it's good enough for me.
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DEMBY: J.C., thank you so much for bringing us this story.
HOWARD: Thank you, Gene. It was a pleasure to be on the show.
DEMBY: And that is our show. And we just wanted to give a quick shout out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate y'all. And thank you for being subscribers. When you subscribe to CODE SWITCH+, it means you get to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks. And it also helps support our show. We appreciate that. So if you rock with us, please, consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch, all one word.
HOWARD: This episode was produced by Schuyler Swenson with help from Max Freedman. It was edited by Lauren Gonzalez and Cher Vincent. It was produced for CODE SWITCH by Jess Kung and edited by Courtney Stein.
DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Christina Cala, Kumari Devarajan, Dalia Mortada, Leah Donnella, Veralyn Williams, Lori Lizarraga, B.A. Parker and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. The audio engineer for this week's episode was James Willetts. As for me, I'm Gene Demby.
HOWARD: And I'm J.C. Howard.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
HOWARD: See you.
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