Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
“It’s really good that you adopted him. Then he won’t be ghetto like other black kids.”
My head snapped up from watching my 10-month old black son toddle towards the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the front of our church. Since he was too full of energy to sit through the sermon, we often ended up listening from a distance while he explored the lobby.
I saw one of our church staff standing there, a man in the operations department, watching my son while directing these misguided, hateful words at me.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Well you know,” he said, “I bet he won’t be like those black kids, because you are raising him right.”
Too stunned to answer, I scooped up my son and walked away. I had felt increasingly disconnected from our church since becoming a multiracial family through adoption. At that moment, it was clear to me that my family needed to break away from the church that had been so important to us for so long.
Not raised with any formal religion, I found faith and my church home in December 2000, at the age of 17. Walking through those doors to my sanctuary and seeing those familiar faces soothed anxiety and loneliness in my soul. Through years away at college and several moves around Pittsburgh, I never found another church that felt so right to me. The modern, suburban evangelical megachurch was my home through my new marriage, through changes in leadership, through many friends leaving for other places of worship.
During a building project, the pastor ceremoniously had us write names on a piece of paper on the floor of whom we hoped would come to find love in that space. We had just started the paperwork to adopt our first child. I wrote “our future children” on the paper, and tossed it into the foundation. I pictured babies, toddlers, middle school camping weekends, and high school youth groups in this building that housed my church family.
A few months after the building project dedication, when we walked through those doors with a beautiful blonde-haired blue-eyed baby we’d adopted locally, I sobbed. Sobbed with feelings of his loss mixed with feelings of our joy. Fear of loving him in the unknown. Other adoptive moms wrapped their arms around me, and my church home felt as comforting as ever.
Time passed with our son thriving in our church, and then our family grew through adoption again. Walking through those doors with newborn twins, a boy and a girl, this time with dark glossy curls and deep brown skin, I felt many of the same emotions as I did the first time we brought a child home.
But we were a multiracial family now, white parents raising black children in a white community and a nearly all-white church. We had educated ourselves about race issues, read books, and had personal experiences that showed us how far we are from being a post-racial society. But I never expected our biggest awakening to come from within our church family.
Hood-wearing, vitriol-spewing racists? Absolutely not. A thousand small comments or assumptions that began to shatter my heart? Painfully, yes. Isn’t it so good we rescued them from a life of inner-city drugs and gangs? “Don’t worry, we won’t ever view your children as...(whispers) black.”
I cried out to God: This is my safe place, this is my family’s safe place. These people love you, they love me, and they clearly love our children. What is going on? I prayed, I ignored, and we stayed.
Then Michael Brown was shot in the street in the summer of 2014, and my world shattered. On social media, I watched Brown be tried and convicted in the minds of so many, before he was even laid to rest. I heard the opinions of many fellow congregants, quick to criminalize a black boy and beatify the police officer who had killed him. He was poor and black, and that apparently erased any dignity he was owed.
I saw my infant son reflected in the graduation shot of Brown that showed up on the news night after night. My heart broke into a million pieces as I wondered if my church family would turn on my son that quickly when he was no longer a helpless baby. How long would they view him as my child, before they viewed him as the “demon” Darren Wilson saw in Brown?
This country is crying out for justice, but many of those within the white evangelical church cannot see it. Centuries of segregation, housing discrimination, and redlining have left most churchgoers in congregations where everyone looks pretty much exactly like them. Where we don’t have to have the hard conversations if we don’t want to, where my children’s lives become “political”—and the church doesn’t want to touch those kinds of politics.
This was the first time I had any of those conversations with my church family. It was “political,” it was awkward, it was removed from their daily life in the gorgeously planned middle class suburb. It had been removed from my daily life, too, until all of a sudden it wasn’t. The reality of police violence—and the vulnerability of black men to it—wasn’t unique or unexpected for the black community. It was just new to me because now it affected my black son and daughter. I was drifting, desperate for them to get it. I stuffed feelings down so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. And I was miserable.
I got into both real-life and social media battles. People from church unfriended me and blocked me. I didn’t have a whole lot of grace to my words at first, going on Facebook tirades pointing out the racism in articles or opinions shared. Several friends seemed fixated on the idea of “black on black crime” as the issue I should really care about. Several more, such as the staff member who confronted me in the lobby, reminded me that if I just raised my son right he would be fine. I shot back that no matter what I did, I couldn’t raise him white.
It was a terrible, lonely season for me as a mother. But I felt we could stay at our church, and we could change hearts. Somehow I thought my cute children would undo centuries of ingrained white supremacy in American evangelicalism. I was so naive.
Then it became clear to me: It should not be my children’s burden to change hearts, or be the sole element of diversity in anyone’s life. It was not their job to be every child in the church’s “safe” exposure to black culture, or to withstand well-meant yet hurtful cluelessness. I grieved, but I knew it was time to kick the dust off our sandals and move on.
We moved within our metro area to a diverse urban neighborhood. A new neighbor invited me to a city church that focused on diversity and racial reconciliation. Our first time there, for a special panel discussion on racism, I heard a message about the cries of the oppressed in our nation, about standing with our black brothers and sisters even when we don’t have the same life experience—a message that I needed to hear. At one point I broke down crying when Brown’s murder was mentioned. A black mom reached across the aisle of chairs, hugged me, and said, “I get it. I have a black son, too.”
We kept coming back to the new church. It was our home now.
Some friends I’ve maintained from our previous congregation have said they are happy for us—clearly that diverse congregation is the best fit for “a family like yours.” I wish they could see it’s the best fit for their white family, too. That if the Bible says we are all created in the image of God, then he is reflected in every hue of skin and every cultural background. I am encouraged by some relationships from our former church, by those individuals who have since sought me out to help them understand why we left, and how they can begin to seek racial justice as well. I hope that more follow suit.
I cannot aptly convey my emotions when singing in our new church surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation. White, black, Middle Eastern, Asian, refugees from around the world. The music team shifting from old English hymns to lively gospel songs to beautiful lyrics in Spanish. These relationships have begun to mend my broken heart. It won’t ever fit back together exactly how it was before, as my children grow into this world and into their black bodies. But it is mending some, nonetheless.
Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed. is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and three children. Meg’s background is in counseling and early childhood education, and her passion is to shed light on social and humanitarian issues through writing. Meg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @megstesprit on Twitter.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.