Back in October, I was a presenter at the mini teacher self-care conference in Chicago. Afterward, a black educator said, “How do you balance your mental health and the black church?” Without hesitating, I responded, “I’m about to leave my church.”
I’m one of many teachers that is part of the growing self-care movement for educators, and thanks, Fran Warren for your leadership in this area! In Atlanta, June 21-22, 2019, I am presenting at the annual self-care conference, and my presentation title is “The Stigma of Mental Health Among Teachers of Color.” Yes, I know all black people do not believe in God, or they do, but they may have abandoned attending church. I’ve been asked about church so many times from other black educators specifically about how it relates to our mental health and taking care of yourself. I thought I’d be transparent and tell you my story. I dedicate this post to the educators, especially black teachers, who are trying to stay mentally well while dealing with the pressures of the church.
I wish I could say this will be short, but it won’t. You’re on winter break, so grab a snack and dive in!
In the beginning…
The easiest way for me to tell my church story is in chronological order. Yes, I know the Bible isn’t told that way. I need to start my story before I was even a twinkle in my Daddy’s eye because the foundation of my family has always been an issue and one that has been thrown in my face…even as a child.
My dad is 13 years older than my mom. When my parents met, neither one was attending church. My dad is from Indianapolis, IN, and my mom is from Jeffersonville, IN. My mom is the youngest of her family. Her two sisters had already left little ‘ole Jeffersonville and moved to the big city of Indianapolis. My parents had both had been raised in the church but stepped away. In an odd twist of fate, my dad’s uncle had left Indy years prior to my parents meeting to Pastor a church in Jeffersonville. That was the church my mom’s family attended. Maybe it’s a small world, maybe it is fate, or my it was divine.
My dad stopped attending church after coming back from the Vietnam War. My mom didn’t attend church after she moved to Indy. My parents dated, and as the church folk say, “They shacked up.” Then, my mom got pregnant with me. My parents broke up, and my mom moved back to Jeffersonville where I was born. My parents decided to give it another go, but they broke up again, and my mom and I moved back to Jeff. The third time was the charm. My mom moved back to Indy for the final time and got pregnant again. My parents married before my sister was born, and all was right with the world except with my dad’s mom.
My grandma wanted her grandchildren to be raised right, raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord. It seemed she had determined getting my dad back into the church was a lost cause. She set her sights on my mom. My mom joined her mother-in-law’s church. My grandmother attended New Garfield Missionary Baptist Chruch on the south side of Indy. This is the church where I learned all about God.
Church is a lifestyle, not an event.
As a good Christian, I learned about the Bible, confessed my belief in Jesus in front of the church, and was baptized. My younger sisters followed this same path. My parents kept us sheltered. My life was home, school, and church. Even though my dad did not attend church, he supported my mom’s and his mother’s belief that we needed to attend church.
Every Sunday, we would go to church with my mom, and my dad would stay home. He would work around the house and then go to his second shift job. Most of my childhood, my dad worked seven days a week. He did this to save money for his daughters to attend college and to pay off his house in 17 years. If there was a second service, we were there. If there was a service during the week, we were there. If there was a youth ministry, we were in it.
I hope I don’t miss any, but here are all the ministries I remember being in during my time at New Garfield: youth choir, youth praise team, youth usher board, drill team, and praise dancers. I also held some positions at church: Sunday school secretary, Vice President of the Usher Board, Youth President, Vacation Bible School Assistant Director. I was 16 or 17 when I became vice president of the usher board. This was controversial because I wasn’t an adult. The church had to vote to approve my appointment. Because my grandmother was the church’s organist, I was also in every church musical or play she organized. As a youth leader, I also put together a couple youth revivals and spoke at each one during one of the nights of the revival. At one point, I even helped print the church bulletins. I lived and breathed church. I memorized the books of the Bible, attended Holy Heroes night on Halloween to avoid devilish activities, participated in baptist convention events, and went on every church amusement park trip in the summer. I blindly followed any suggestion or church mandate…for a while.
But, I always had questions. My questions and my temper got me into trouble. Some days people would point to me and say, “…and a child will lead them” and other days, people would point to me and say, “The devil is at work.” I was known for going off on people and fighting at church. I even had a person up against the communion table, and the pastor had to literally pull me off of the person. My anger overshadowed the questions I had. Many church saints believed the devil was targeting me because of my many talents…oh yeah, I forgot to say I played the keyboard a little during Sunday school when I was taking piano lessons.
Any questions I had were my dad’s fault. People explained how my parents were unevenly yolked because my dad did not attend church and my mom did. Even though my dad no longer attended church, everyone knew him because he used to attend this church before he enlisted in the Marines. If only my dad would go back to church, I wouldn’t have questions. My dad had nothing to do with my questions.
The more I attended church, the more I questioned what was happening, and the more the answers I received were no longer satisfactory. For example, our married pastor got someone who wasn’t his wife pregnant and was voted out of our church. It was a mini Maury episode. There was a DNA test and the cops were called. Then, there was the church deacon that told me, “I was getting thick like my momma.” That was one time I wish my dad attended church so he could punch that guy. Sorry, I know I shouldn’t wish violence on another member of the church. He wasn’t the only man at church making comments or had hands that were too friendly during church hugs. Last, even though I was doing all the right church things, I was still angry a lot. Church was not helping me with this.
We were a missionary baptist church, and I had no clue was a missionary was. Once I learned what a missionary was in school, I questioned what work we were doing. I saw a deacon yell at a homeless person who came to ask for help on a Sunday; he literally waved the person away like a stray animal. After I inquired about his actions, he said, “You worry too much. We can’t help everyone. Some people are lazy and just want handouts.” As a child, it seemed that all the missionaries did was dress in white once a month and sit on the front row.
Speaking of marching, there were so many protocols I wondered about. Why could I go to the bathroom during the offering, talk to a few people, fetch something out of my mother’s car, and get back to my seat, and the offering was still not finished being collected? Everything took forever! Everybody had to march in for something, the choir, the ushers down the aisle, and the ministry that turn had come to sit in color-coordinated outfits on the front pew that Sunday. I once invited a white friend to church after much chiding from my Sunday school teacher to invite someone. She was so lost and confused that I told her to don’t worry about coming back.
Lost and confused is exactly how I felt when the time had me come for me to stand in front of the church to announce I had been accepted to Purdue University and would be leaving the following month. Is this church? Is this what it means to be close to God? I didn’t know.
I thank this church for providing a foundation, but when I left, little did I know, it would be time to say, “Next!”
When I left for Purdue, people from church told me I needed to find a church home quickly. I didn’t. I attended a couple nondenominational church services on Purdue’s campus. I liked the sermons and the brevity of the service, but I missed the music. I was in choir all through high school, so I knew how to sing the songs the way they were singing them. For some reason, the songs seemed lifeless. Attending a black church is like attending a mini gospel concert each Sunday. I quit going to church.
When I came home during breaks, I attended New Garfield. My mom was the Vacation Bible School Director, and I was the Assistant Director. I taught during VBS during the summer and participated in any event that was happening.
During my fourth year at Purdue, I met my husband. I also finally got connected to the Black Cultural Center (BCC). Until that time, the only black people I was talking to was on blackplanet.com which how I initially connected with my husband. At the BCC, I learned about a Baptist church I could attend, so I decided to check it out.
The Miracle on 18th Street
I went to Second Baptist Church a few times, and I really liked it. I didn’t know what the difference was between a Baptist church and a Missionary Baptist church, but the people were nice (and the music was good). I felt right at home, so I joined the church.
My husband, whom I was dating at the time, attended with me. He was raised Apostolic. All I knew about Apostolic people were they spoke in tongues and were apparently wrong about how church should be done. My husband didn’t know much about the Baptist church except they didn’t do church right. During college, my husband did what I did as a child; he confessed his belief in Jesus, and he was baptized.
At Second Baptist, I felt empowered and I learned how closed-minded my childhood church was. After we voted out the adulterous Pastor of my childhood church, the church voted in a younger Pastor. That was one of the last major acts my grandmother did at church before she passed away. My grandmother was a well respected Christian. If she said the preacher was alright, then he was alright. I liked him, and I still do. He tried to make changes, but those old-fashioned stubborn saints resisted. For example, I got permission from him for the youth to wear jeans during one of our revivals. You would have thought I had cursed the name of God. A church elder told me, “Your grandmother is rolling around in her grave.” I was (and still am) a tomboy, so being able to wear pants in the church was a relief. I hated getting so dressed up every Sunday. (Did you see my Easter picture at the beginning of this post? Good gracious!) Once many of the youth I grew up with left for college or began working, they did not return. We didn’t know anything else because we all lived at the church. Once they had the chance to experience other churches, like I had, they didn’t want to return either.
Now, back to Second Baptist. During my time there, I was a praise dancer and sang in the choir. I also was the ministry leader of two newly created ministries, the drama ministry where I was the director and playwright, and Saving Our Souls (S.O.S) Campus Ministry, a ministry connected with the church but was an official Purdue student organization. Later, I quit my job at the pizza place in Purdue’s student union to work at the church’s daycare. I was already there multiple days a week, and they paid me a dollar more than Villa Pizza.
Even though this was not a missionary baptist church, mission work was happening. The pastor Paul Wm. Barrett, Sr. did not seem to be threatened by women. When I was younger, and even now, I have been told I’m too dominant, too assertive, and need to remember the woman’s place. I know my place, and it isn’t carrying the coattails of a man.
When graduation came, I knew a few truths. First, I was going to marry Jermaine right away. We got married three months after I graduated by Pastor Barrett at Second Baptist. Second, I was not going back to my childhood church.
I thank Second Baptist for showing me the possibilities of ministry work and showing me how women should be treated in church. Since I moved back home after graduation, I had no choice but to say next to Second Baptist. Also, Pastor Barrett and Dec. Wright were good mentors and guides. Both of the ministries I led were part of the Outreach Ministry branch of Second Baptist. Dec. Wright oversaw all of the outreach ministries. They helped me learn to control my anger, and deal with difficult people. I had a few verbal spats, but I didn’t put my hands on anyone. That’s was real progress and growth for me. Learning how to be angry, but in control was a life skill I needed to learn.
Apostolic, Baptist, or Neither?
As I stated earlier, my husband’s family is Apostolic and my family is mostly Baptist. A few people in my family are Apostolic and a few attend Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.). We decided to leave the domination out of our church search and visit whatever church we could find.
I support and understand my dad’s choice not to attend church. He believes in God, but not the structure of the church. But for my family, I didn’t want one of us attending church and the other staying at home. I was harassed by other Christians because my dad didn’t attend church. I even had church members tell me my dad was going to burn in hell, and I better convince him to come back and get right with God. That’s a lot for a child to handle, and I didn’t want my children to have those experiences.
First, we started with my mom’s new church. After I went off to college, and then when my sister Alice went off to college, life at New Garfield became hard for my mom. She had been to Second Baptist for every play I produced and any other time I invited her. She heard how happy I was and wanted that for herself. My youngest sister was trying to figure out who she was and was making some poor choices. The support my mom received from some church members was criticism. If only she was only a better Christian, my dad would have come back to church by now. If only she was a more Godly mother, my sister would change her ways. And my favorite, if only she would pray and read her Bible more, life would magically get better. My mom, who loved going to church, had started skipping church. She was barely going once a week.
She switched her membership to Greater Morning Star Baptist Church. My dad’s brother had my grandmother’s talent. He also played the organ and keyboard. This was his church. This made him happy. Although my grandmother had given up hope, he didn’t. Maybe my dad would ‘get right’ and go back to church now that my mom was attending his brother’s church.
We checked it out and my husband didn’t like it. After that, for about a year, we went to a different church each Sunday. Out of everything I have ever done on my spiritual journey/church journey, that was one of the most meaningful. Some stuff is happening in places called churches, but I’m not sure if they should even be called that. If you are a church leader and happen to be reading this, “What would visitors see or experience if they only came to your church one time?”
My new husband and I couldn’t agree on any church, so I decided to contact Pastor Barrett. Although he was the pastor of our college church, he was from Indianapolis. Maybe he would have some recommendations. He recommended Oasis of Hope Baptist Church, and we joined.
An Oasis in a Time of Need
When we joined Oasis, the pastor was Frank Alexander. I love him and his wife Shirley. This church reminded me of my uncle’s church. I forgot to mention that my mom’s brother attends a Methodist church in Jeffersonville. When I would visit him and his first wife (who later passed from breast cancer), I would attend church with them. It was a mostly black church, but all the extra marching wasn’t happening. Oasis was like that. It was more conservative. And yes, the music was also good, but so was the word coming from the pulpit unlike some of the churches we visited in Indy. Pastor Alexander gave you thoughts to consider, but he wasn’t one of those unrealistic prosperity preachers.
By this point, I had received my infertility diagnosis. People at church were supportive of me and kept praying. I wanted to do some ministry work, so I put together a presentation around Christmas time. I even got the youth I worked with at Second Baptist to come to Indy to participate. Then, I helped with Black Marriage Day. I wanted to be involved more, but I felt limited in my ministry work.
Although nothing bad happened at the church, after two years, we decided we had to continue our search and look for a new church that we chose as husband and wife. I could do so much more in ministry at Second, and I was looking for a church that would let me branch out more.
To Oasis, Pastor and Sis. Alexander, and members, thank you for being supportive and being a calm place in a time of a troubling diagnosis. This wasn’t exactly, next. More on that later.
After some more questionable church services, we started attending Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Chruch (EMBC) on a regular basis. We joined at a bible study. Like any church I have ever attended, people quickly learned who I was. I enjoy ministry work. We were part of the marriage ministry and the dfree ministry. We joined dfree, which is a financial lifestyle created by Dr. DeForest Soaries that means no debt, no delinquencies, and no deficits, after winning a contest for paying off the most debt. My husband didn’t want to initially join. He has a demanding job and wasn’t sure about how much time he could commit. It worked out and we co-taught sessions together. I also wanted to do plays again, but the Pastor said I should do it with my husband. Jermaine quickly said, “No.”
When we were dating in college, I wrote an Easter play with Pastor Barrett called, “Tomorrow’s Not Promised. Get Salvation Today.” Part of the play took place in present day and the rest followed Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and resurrection. I had every part filled except for Jesus. Being a good boyfriend, he stepped in to fill the role. Some people in the play didn’t even realize we were a couple. When I returned the summer after graduation for the church picnic, a kid in the play said, “You married Jesus? I didn’t even know you liked him.” Like I said, my husband’s job is stressful enough, and he didn’t need being dragged into a starring role in one of my plays to become another stressor.
Then, I inquired about Vacation Bible School. I was told there was no interest so the church no longer had it. I was directed to use my teaching talents to teach a Sunday school class. I have taken the spiritual gifts class and assessment three times, once at Garfield, once at Second, and once at EMBC. My results were always the same and in the same order: administration, teaching, and service. I don’t want to teach professionally almost the entire year and then come to teach at church year-round. That’s why Vacation Bible School was such a happy place. Actually, for about five years after I came back from Purdue, I did teach at VBS at New Garfield. I believe church work should not be confined to one church and you should not have to be a current member of a church to work in ministry there.
Since VBS wasn’t an option, I wondered how I could get involved with youth but not commit to teaching. The pastor’s daughter started a girl’s mentoring ministry. I joined. Then, she decided to have a meeting the same evening as the church’s business meeting, which I questioned. I have been consistently paying tithes since my first job at 17, so I wanted to know what the church’s plans were. After inquiring, I was told she could have the meeting, and I should focus on doing ministry work than worrying about hearing the details of the church business meeting. That wasn’t a satisfactory answer. I attended the church meeting instead.
The following Sunday, the pastor over the pulpit said, “Some people are more concerned with church business meetings than doing ministry work.” Sometimes you feel like the Pastor is talking directly to you during the sermon; this time I was certain. We attended church at 8 a.m., so part of me wanted to stay for the second service or live stream it to see if this comment was mentioned again. I didn’t bother wasting my time, but my guess is it probably wasn’t.
I came to church that Sunday to hear the word of God, not a father defending his daughter’s choice to have a ministry meeting on an evening where no other meetings should have taken place. What other place do we spend our money where people tell you not to worry about where your money is going? In my heart, I put in 10% of my gross income and let it go. When we were visiting churches, I continued to tithe and prayed it was going to good use, but this was my church where I was a member. I didn’t want to hope and pray about it; I wanted to know.
At least if you are going to be that bold and make a statement about someone, you might as well address the person by name. It wasn’t like other people didn’t know it was me. Think about the unintentional message that sent, “If you ask questions, you might be put on blast in front of the entire congregation.” In my childhood church, I have been dragged up to the front and chastised by elders about numerous behaviors, my skirt length or my attitude to name a few. My grandmother was even one of the elders who participated in this behavior. She cut my lead part from a play and put me in the background for not attending all of the rehearsals. That happened in front of everyone. I was used to this in church. I had hoped this type of behavior would have been left at my childhood church, but on that day, I found out it wasn’t. At least I had such a thick skin about it at this point or was it just ambivalence?
But apparently New Garfield, EMBC were not the only churches who liked to blast people in front of the congregation. My mom invited my dad to an event at Greater Morning Star, and my dad decided to go. My dad only came to church if his kids invited him. He was never one of those people that felt guilty and decided to attend church on Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. He only stepped into a church for a wedding, funeral, or when we invited him for a church program we were in. For my mom to ask and for my dad to agree was huge. He came but decided not to take off of work. Hey, that’s better than nothing right? As my dad got up to leave to make it to work on time, the pastor called him out from the microphone. This was one of many reasons my mom decided to switch her church membership to Oasis. She loves it. We visit on Mother’s day and during other events when we are invited. (I told you it wasn’t exactly next.)
Over the years at EMBC, I wondered if I was going to church because it is something I had always done? I wondered how I was taking care of myself if this church was no longer adding value to my life? On social media, I would sometimes drop thoughts that were rolling around in my head. One day, I lamented about my neighbor who is raising her grandson. She wanted to know what church we attended and what youth activities they had. I wrote online about how I had to tell her I didn’t know. That bothered me. My sons are seven and they are not involved in church like I was as a kid. They also don’t care about going either.
After I made that post, my pastor daughter (yes, the same one I mentioned earlier), commented on my post. This is the dialogue that followed: (note: PD = pastor’s daughter)
PD: I see you make posts about the church often…more so negative, (imo) never uplifting. Could the church be better in some areas….MOST DEFINITELY… do we have it all together DEFINITELY NOT ( no church does)… are we STRIVING to better those areas that lack ABSOLUTELY… are lives being impacted in more ways then one…FOR SURE. Do we have a Pastor who had a passion for his people and pours into ABSOLUTELY… I always tell people if you see a problem or come with complaint, offer a solution or better yet get your hands dirty and come alongside and help. I apply that to the corporate world as well. Now speaking from a Pastor’s daughter’s perspective it can be quite frustrating heartbreaking to see someone constantly complain about things in a church that she KNOWS her dad works so hard to lead. He spends numerous amounts of time inside and outside of those walls, shepherding, counseling, consoling, praying etc. To the point to where growing up and even know we don’t spend as much time with him as we would like because ministry doesn’t stop. We may not have what all of these other new age and suburb churches have but you better believe we are striving to do what WE in the urban area can do and are improving and continuing to pray and think of innovative ideas to make things better.
Me: My initial response was to just smile. We are not looking for a new age or suburban church; we have never been inside of one just to clear that up. It took us over a year to decide that EMBC could be our church home. There is no perfect church and we know that nor are we looking for it. Here’s the problem. With any issue I have ever wanted to get my hands dirty and help with has been thwarted or blocked. I have made countless suggestions and have offered to help and get absolutely nowhere. I’ve never had this problem at my childhood church, at Oasis where we attended before EMBC or the church I attended at college. I know several PKs and have been well versed in that narrative and the sacrifices that come with it to the family of the pastor. What I refuse to do is not speak my truth. We don’t hate EMBC but the reality is we are raising two children who are disconnected; we are disconnected and it hasn’t been because we haven’t tried. Tell me how many more years is an acceptable amount to determine to exit? How many more times do you make suggestions and get nowhere? I don’t see my posts as negative or positive; it is where we are and it seems that the only people who care about where we are and the struggle and decisions we are trying to grapple with are people not at our church. Every single time a person from EMBC responds, it is to tell me, or us, that we are not doing enough. Or my favorite, someone takes a screenshot of my post and I hear about what I wrote from people at the church I’m not friends with on here. Any person who has known me from any of the churches I have previously attended wouldn’t even fix their lips to say I wouldn’t offer solutions or put in the work when it came to church. Real talk, Jermaine and I spent hours creating the dfree syllabus and providing ideas to help improve the class that we had to back out of teaching because the date kept getting moved. The stuff we created is being used without us even though we stated that if the date moved again we wouldn’t be able to participate. At the end of the day, people are being helped but we are disconnected from it, the one ministry we actually enjoyed doing together. I’m being honest about how I feel and I have come to the conclusion that some people can’t handle it. This honesty is not to hurt anyone but to address a real conversation that some people aren’t having. What do you do when your church is no longer valuable to you AND you have put in the effort to make it work? That’s the conversation I looking to have, not these, “you’re looking for a perfect church foolishness.”
PD: I said what I had to say and that’s my stance. You voice your opinions and have every right too and I was voicing mine. The Barnes have definitely been an asset to the dfree ministry at EMBC… prayerfully God gives you direction on what to do. Have a good night😇
PD: I’m a writer so I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing who and even how a person will respond when I write about certain topics. Jermaine, our boys, and I will be good regardless of our decision and it’s okay if people disagree or don’t support it. That’s life. G’night.
Her attempt to counter my point of view was no different than other people from EMBC who assumed we were looking for a perfect church or wanted to go to one of the popular churches that attract millennials in the suburbs, which I find funny. Some of those accusers actually live in the suburbs. I don’t. I live in Indy. I work in Indy, and I intend to continue to attend church in Indy. Like her, those people assumed I wasn’t trying to be involved. My husband and I have taught during every dfree session except the last one because they kept moving the date even though we gave the church our availability. Here’s the kicker, the church still used the materials we created. I didn’t even know that until some church members informed us. The truth is some EMBC members never knew us and weren’t trying to get to know our family. It is easy to make assumptions when you don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle.
We have been members for eight years and this church is no longer adding value to our family’s life. It started to feel toxic. For the sake of self-care, I have to say thank you, but next. We are thankful for dfree. As my husband and I shared on a recent dfree podcast episode, we have eliminated over $100,000 worth of debt, and the only debt we have left is our house and the SUV I had to get last Christmas to replace my totaled, but paid off car. In case you are wondering, in a year’s time, my SUV is almost 40% paid off.
But I have to say next because we are convinced this is no longer the place for our family, AND that’s okay. People are so fearful about what people will say or afraid they will end up in a dialogue like I did with my pastor’s daughter that they stay at places where they are not spiritually growing or being psychologically or mentally abused or manipulated. Don’t let fear make you immobile!
What do I want?
- I want a church where I’m not micromanaged in ministry.
- I want a church where they aren’t threatened by women leadership of ministry.
- I want a church with an early service because I’m a morning person and dislike large crowds.
- I want a church closer to my home.
- I want a church that has a strong youth ministry.
- I want a church that can plan a calendar and not constantly change dates.
- Most importantly, I want a church where I can grow spiritually and where I can thrive mentally.
My cousin commented on the dialogue I had with my former pastor’s daughter. He said:
It may not be a church that you are seeking.
It may not be a church that you need.
Spirituality may not know a house.
Spirituality may not need a house.
Guidance may be missing.
Guidance can be found.
The ‘night’ is young.
I don’t have the answers, but I know doing the same thing is insanity. “The ‘night’ is young” and I’m willing to search. I don’t do new year’s resolutions. I make goals and address issues when I can because honestly, we don’t know if we will see the next year. If we do, why wait until then? Church should compliment your self-care and your mental health. If you are reading this and are torn about church, remember the church is not confined to a building. When I was on bedrest for four months, I did not have to be at church to be close to God. Wherever you choose to worship should enhance your life and your family, If it doesn’t, say thank you, next!
Thought I’d stay at New Garfield
But it wasn’t a match
Enjoyed my time at Second
But to Indy, I moved back
Oasis was recommended
And for that, I’m so grateful
Wish I could stay at Emmanuel
But I’d be regretful
One taught me love
One helped my finances
One tamed by anger
And I’m still growing
I have to move on
And now my mind is clear
I know what I need
Look at what you taught me
And for that, I say
Thank you church, next (next)
Thank you church, next (next)
Thank you church, next
I’m so grateful for my ex-churches
Thank you church, next (next)
Thank you church, next (next)
Thank you church, next (next)
And where we land next, God will lead us there.