Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
As a black woman in America, moving to Wyoming was an extreme form of culture shock. At the mall my first week, I was greeted by an entire wall of Confederate flag paraphernalia. Though Wyoming wasn’t part of the Confederacy, it’s a state where the population is 1% black—and the store was capitalizing on the controversy surrounding the flag. For me, it was a reminder that I would never belong.
The only thing that put me at ease in my first few months was seeing other people of color. I would wave frantically whenever I saw another black person, an occasion so rare it couldn’t go unacknowledged. My wide, toothy smiles and flagging hand were met with anything from confusion to indifference. But more often than not, they understood.
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, surrounded by people who looked like me. While I’m opinionated and progressive, I refrained from expressing my more liberal-leaning beliefs in public—the black consensus can be an intimidating thing. Groupthink is common among the African American community, and those who stray from the expectations of blackness are often ridiculed. Being surrounded by people who looked like me also provided a false sense of security growing up—I assumed my interests would always be represented, and I moved through adolescence and college politically unengaged.
My husband’s relocation a few years ago threatened everything I’d been accustomed to. In the months leading up to our move, I’d lay awake at night worrying about how far I’d be from my family for the first time in my life, and wondering if I’d ever see anyone who looked like me. Where would I find friends? Where would I buy the products that best suited my hair and skin? Would anyone understand my struggles with systemic oppression?
Shortly after arriving in Wyoming in 2015, I started to crave the sense of community I’d grown up with. But other military spouses lived lives so intricately wound within their husband’s careers that I couldn’t relate. We found out we were expecting three months after moving, and I thought I’d find community with other parents. But many of them didn’t share my liberal (read: pro-gay marriage, anti-police brutality, belief in inclusivity) values or understand what it was like to give birth to a black child in America in 2017. Just when I was ready to give up, I took an on online religion quiz and was paired with the Unitarian Universalist Church. I was surprised to find there was one less than five miles away.
This church was different from any church I’d ever been to; it emphasized the importance of equality on all fronts—race, gender identity, sexuality, ability status, and all else you can image. I was hesitant at first. Back home, the church is synonymous with conservative values and strict gender roles. I never aligned with its beliefs and had all but separated from the idea of God. But this place of worship was different.
The church emphasized the importance of showing up to the polls and having an active role in the political process. I started going to town hall meetings and marches. I declared myself a Wyomingite by registering to vote and became invested in local politics. Each picnic, party, and community meeting I attended felt like I was taking more steps toward the person I’d always wanted to be: an activist. With each interaction, I was reminded that my beliefs in equality don’t matter unless my actions verify them. I also realized the church community was concerned about issues that affected me as a black woman. It wasn’t long before I forgot my fellow congregants didn’t look like me. (At the time I was the only black person who attended; now there are a handful of us.) For the first time, I felt like I actually belonged, and my opinion valued.
Engaging with active members of the community emboldened me to start share my opinions, first on social networks, and then, when I couldn’t find a job I enjoyed, I began writing about social justice. It didn’t take long before it became clear that not only did my thoughts have value, there were many who shared my views. After years of searching for a compatible belief-based community, I’d finally found it. But during the church’s annual Black History Month program, I found myself at a crossroads.
I walked into the sanctuary and unexpectedly saw a sea of brown faces. My eyes welled with tears. I had never seen so many black people in one place since living here, and I had no idea there was a thriving black community around me.
Shortly after the program was over, an older black man walked up to me and asked where I attended church. I informed him I wasn’t a member of any church, but this is where I attended service “because we have a lot of things in common and because they share my views and interest.” He looked at me impatiently and began to “educate me” on why I was at the wrong place. “Everything that feels right isn’t good for you,” he told me. He had taken a particular interest in me because of the color of my skin, but when I told him that I didn’t share his religious beliefs, he insisted my home was with his church, with the others with brown skin, and that I was going through a phase, that things would make more sense later.
Was he right? Did I belong to them simply because of the color of my skin? Should I go with the community that I had fallen in love with that didn’t understand all of my identity but did their best to look out for my interests? Or should I go with the community of like-looking people who held onto Baptist traditions that I had separated from?
I realized the answer was no. I didn’t want to be a part of a group of similar-looking individuals just because I was expected to. I’d been fortunate to find a few other young black people in my community who embraced the same values as I did, and I no longer needed a large community to reaffirm my identity.
But that experience reminded me of all the reasons I was happy to move away from home. As a young black woman in Dallas, my views were often overlooked. There was always someone older, wiser, or male. I didn’t have to deal with that in my new church and community in Wyoming.
I finally understood I had been doing things backward. Being around other black people in Dallas hadn’t magically given me a sense of belonging. In Wyoming, instead of seeking out people who looked like me then figuring out if we had common beliefs, I had learned to find people with common interests.
I hadn’t expected moving to change me for the better, but it has. I don’t have to worry about the groupthink or “black people shoulds” ruling my life anymore. I was a person reborn—an activist like I’d always wanted to be. As the elder said, “Everything that feels right isn’t good for you.”
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a content writer who specializes in sociology, health, and parenting. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, nymag.com, and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.