I've branded myself as a woman living at the intersections of Christianity, race and feminism, but I've begun to wonder how much longer my description of myself will be true. Although I know one can be a Christian without participating in organized religion, I think being a member of a church can enhance one's relationship with Christ, and lately, I have felt an unprecedented level of disengagement from church. It's not alienation; no one has done anything to me to make me feel this way. I feel accepted and welcomed when I'm at church, and judging by comments on Facebook and messages my mother relays to me from other members, I'm missed during my extended absences. But my attendance is down from twice a week this time two years ago to about once a month or less -- and it's not just when I attend the church I'm a member of. I feel detached from the institution of church and from the worship experience everywhere I go.
The issues that have brought me to this point are more deep-seated than space will allow me to go into, but sometimes, there are triggers for this feeling. Most recently, my spirit withdrew from the service more when politicians and political candidates were present. No, I don't think they usher in any more evil than anyone else, and I expect to see them every two years. This time, their presence was more difficult to tolerate because I saw a campaign manager snapping photos of a candidate in a group hug with several little girls. True, it happened during the appointed time in worship for welcoming your neighbor with a hug, but photos? Really? If I see those pictures in a campaign ad, I think I might become violent. But that's an extreme case. Normally, I'm bothered because for me, politicians' presence in the service, their reserved seating in the front of the church, and their opportunity in some (certainly not all) congregations to speak during service from the floor or from the pulpit highlight contradictions in the church's power.
Churches, as in established institutions and physical structures, have long been a place to organize people already gathered together for a shared interest. Anyone wanting to speak in front of the church congregation would have a captive audience, and if an esteemed reverend gave a guest speaker or politician time in the service, he or she also effectively -- though not officially, since that would affect a church's tax-exempt status -- gave them an endorsement. In today's era of megachurches and of their pastors' dual positions as community leaders, such an endorsement could mean thousands of votes. In other words, members have a say in the political process. Members have power. The pastor and the institution of church have the power of influence.
But is it power they should yield for political gain, especially when potential benefit to their members and to the communities they live in, which are often in the urban core, is small? I've heard of politicians, once elected, returning a church's silent endorsement with funds for building and church-sponsored community development projects. These are good investments, but do they help to end poverty or structural racism? Do they promote fair lending practices or help to eliminate student debt? Do they provide textbooks or computers for public schools that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford them? Do they empower the most vulnerable members of the congregation? In a big church where people from many walks of life are represented, the head of human resources of a major health care company may be sitting next to a single parent with a GED certificate. The former has free markets and tax breaks on his side. What does the latter get out of her vote after a politician's visit?
If candidates are making churches a campaign stop, that means they see power there. How often do churches mobilize their members to change the power dynamics in an inequitable system these days? I'm certain it doesn't happen enough in my local congregations, and I think it might need to happen more in order for me to re-engage.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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