Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash
Shantice describes how the horrible behavior at her church, from Pastor on down, caused her to get to know God outside of the building and away from the people.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I was probably the most devout, little Christian child in the world. I went to church even when my mom didn’t. We used to have a church that had a bus that would pick up the youth if their parents weren’t available to take them. So I would get up every Sunday with a smile on my face, get my brother ready, praise God and then we would come back home, my mom would have lunch ready.
If my friends cussed or something, I would be like ‘You have to repent because that’s a sin.’ I definitely loved the Lord growing. And I still think that I do, it’s just different now. And then my mom and stepdad got married when I was in sixth grade.
NSNC: What would you say that you liked about church at that age?
I’m from a very small town in Georgia. Every single street has two churches on it. Through the influence of how I was raised, it was always thought of as, if you’re a good person and you want to go to heaven, you follow the Lord and things like that. It’s kind of hard to figure what I was searching for. I just thought I was doing what was right. I never questioned it because questioning it was essentially going to take you to hell. I just knew that this person named Jesus loved me and accepted me for every good part about me and every bad part about me. And that was a connection that I wanted to cultivate forever.
NSNC: How did that dynamic change when your mom got married and you started going to a new church?
I’m the oldest and my little brother is three years younger than me. We’re adults now and we look back and realize there really was no transitionary time. You watch shows these days and people take their time and they’re really slow and considerate about their child’s feelings. And that just wasn’t my experience. My mom was like a light switch, on and off.
My mom and stepdad knew each other for years before they got married. They were just friends. He was my brother’s preschool soccer coach. And we’re kind of like the Brady Bunch. His son and my brother are the same age and his daughter and me are the same age. So we became friends with his kids. And about five years later, they ended up dating. He had since been divorced.
I’m from a military base and my mom was overseas. During half of my fifth-grade year, she was doing a contract job in Afghanistan. And my stepdad, who we knew as just her friend at the time, was over there stationed around the same base when he was in the Army. And they got engaged while they were over there and they started planning a wedding.
My mom came back home three months before his tour was over and literally the day she picked him up from the airport, they took forever getting back home. And I was like, ‘Where is mom at? I don’t know where she’s at.’ And then I was like, ‘I think they’re getting married right now.’ And my brother was like, ‘No way, mom would never.’ And I’m like, ‘Let’s make a bet.’ I won the bet.
It was almost overnight. We started going to his church and assumed the role of being his family, which was part of the first family of the church.
NSNC: What were your first thoughts about that church?
Again, my hometown is really small, so I already knew a couple of the kids there. So my first impression was, ‘Ok, I know a couple of people here. I feel a little bit more comfortable with this.’ I wasn’t negative about it at first. I really was super open. I was like, ‘We’re family now and this is what we’re doing.’ I was excited. I wanted to contribute. I was a part of the dance team, I was a part of the youth choir. I was an usher for several years. I volunteered with Sunday school and Bible study, I was a teacher at the Vacation Bible School.
NSNC: When would you say you started to feel uncomfortable?
I think through my involvement. I have such a sparkle in my eye about contributing and coming up with ideas. But this was an old, southern church. So the same ideas were used over and over and over. The same plays and mime ministry, which I was also a part of. And I quickly started noticing that every time I had an idea, my hand was smacked. I was basically told, ‘That’s too ambitious.’ ‘You shouldn’t do that. You can’t do that.’ And there was really no explanation. It wasn’t like I was saying, ‘Let’s fly everybody to the moon.’ I thought that I was being considerate with what I was suggesting.
I started being treated differently on the dance team. That excitement and that zeal that I had slowly but surely began to fade because my outgoing nature started to dwindle. You know when you’re in a clique and everybody’s close but you’re the oddball out? That’s how I felt like I was treated. As a kid, I had the psychological effect of, ‘This is a grown up. Maybe it’s me.’ And it caused a lot of anxiety thinking that maybe--I was a very sensitive kid and that really wasn’t discussed as if it was a gift. It was discussed as if it was a nuisance. So I thought maybe I’m thinking too deeply because these people have been coming here since they were babies.
There was also a lot of comparison between me and my stepsister and it got really wack.
NSNC: How did the comparison between you and your stepsister manifest itself?
Keeping in mind that the pastor and the founder of the church is my stepdad’s mother, which is her grandmother, I just felt like she was made out to be this perfect angel. She was a very passive, very quiet child. And I always have a vivacious type of energy. I spoke up a lot more. And instead of that being thought of as a natural talent of leadership, it was thought of as like, I could come up with this wonderful, fantastic idea and people would look at me with crazy eyes and Nisha could sneeze and they would be like, ‘Oh my God! That’s so amazing!’ ’Which affected me because I love my stepsister and we were tight from childhood. But that same dynamic also played a factor in my household. Because we’re not just friends now, we’re stepsisters.
I think the dynamic was me and my brother versus my stepsister and my stepbrother. Me and my brother were chastised more. We were held to a higher standard of excellence but also easier to be disappointed in. At first, my stepdad was super cool, chill. Eventually, he started becoming mean. Out of nowhere, it was like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.
Looking back and having context as an adult, I think some of that comes from the fact that my stepdad might have felt guilty because he lived with us and didn’t live with my stepbrother and sister. So while they are there with us, maybe he didn’t want to discipline them as much. I still haven’t really ironed those feelings out.
But the comparison in the church definitely came from the pastor and there was this one particular Deaconess Sister Mayo.
NSNC: What were some of the things your stepfather’s mother did that made you feel uneasy?
Because we were talking about comparison, she was like that with my mom and his first wife, Regina too. My stepdad has two sisters and he married Regina before they were born. And one day, it was Mother’s Day, and the Pastor said, ‘I’m praising the Lord, I’m so grateful for all my daughters.’ And she named her daughters and her spiritual daughters. She named Regina. And she never mentions my mother who, at this time, not to make my mom seem like an angel because she certainly has her flaws, but my mom was a great stepmom. Christmases, if we all couldn’t get iPods, nobody got iPods. We all couldn’t get digital cameras? Nobody got digital cameras.
And my stepdad, when she didn’t say my mom’s name, he stood up, he was on the stage. He said, ‘Let’s go.’ And my dad is a big, tall, 6’3 built guy. And when he gets angry-- it’s that quiet angry. He looked at me, my brother, and my mom, wound up his finger and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And I was like, ‘Shit, I’m glad I get to leave church early.’ He got in the car and he went off. ‘I can’t believe she just fucking did that, not acknowledging you.’ And my mom was like, ‘Yeah I’ve been saying…’ I think my mom felt affirmed. We didn’t go to church for a couple of weeks. And the Pastor eventually apologized on the pulpit.
‘I want to apologize to Sheree for not acknowledging her on Mother’s Day. I swear that was a complete accident. I didn’t mean to do that. We’re grateful for you too.’
They’re very gossipy people. You know as a woman, you can see how certain women act around each other. It’s an obvious mistreatment.
If something bad happened, the Pastor would use the pulpit announcements as an opportunity to address drama.
I really wish I was kidding.
This was the part that really upset me the most. My stepdad and my mom, the reason why they’re divorced, is because he continuously cheated on her. Now, before that was an understood fact, there was an awkward moment because it’s a small town. I’m not just going to church with these kids, I’m going to school with these kids and we’re all friends. So one of my friends came up to me one day and was like, ‘My grandma, [her play grandma], I overheard her talking to my sister and she was saying that your dad has been cheating on your mom with Sister Gayle. I know this is really awkward and I don’t know how true it is but it didn’t feel right in my spirit being as close to you as I am and in your face, in your home, and not share this with you. What you do with this information is up to you, just keep my name out of it.’
I’m in ninth grade at this point, with this big ass chunk of information and I was terrified because I didn’t want to be the person that cracked open this glass house. So I sat with it for several days and it kept chewing away at me. I wasn’t sleeping.
Eventually, I pulled my mom aside and I said, ‘I gotta talk to you.’ And she was like, ‘Okay, what’s going on.’ And I just burst out crying. And I told her. I said, ‘I don’t want to ruin your life but that’s what I’ve been dealing with...I don’t know…’
And she just completely was like, ‘That’s not true.’
I don’t know what she did to handle that within her own private pillow talk in her marriage, but she held up a front with me like, ‘You can’t believe everything people say. People are petty. People are messy.’ And I was scared to tell her because I didn’t want my stepdad to think that I was spreading rumors about him.
A few weeks pass and I just kind of check out because ‘Stay out of grown folks’ business’ is what they’re telling me. And one day, during church announcements, the pastor says, ‘We need to have a talk. While we’re on announcements, I want to make it very clear that Rodney is not cheating on Sheree with Sister Gayle. Do we have that clear? Y’all need to keep my son’s name out of y’all’s mouths.’
She’s just going in! I’m sitting there mortified because I’m like, ‘How do you know? Do you think it was me? Are you talking to me? Are you talking to everyone else, including me?’ It was very embarrassing because, again, I have several friends that I go to school with, every single day.
Eventually, it came out that there was something there, so that was stupid.
She would call out people for not paying their tithes. Announcements were her time for calling people out. She’d say, ‘Well, Shantice paid her tithe and she’s a kid.’
Every time, I went to the altar for healing--because I was a sensitive kid and I went to God to deal with the abandonment I felt from my own biological father. And I never felt like she was genuinely trying to minister to me when I went to the altar.
I became very close with this one girl in the church, who I don’t think my pastor was a big fan of, and every time I would go up there and hold my hands up and have my eyes closed, she would pray or whisper, ‘God keeps telling me that you need to stop being a follower and consider your friendships and live your own path.’ And I just never understood what she was getting at. Then one day, it occurred to me that she felt some type of way that I’d found an ally.
I can’t speak on whether or not that was her intention or if she was coming from a genuine space but for whatever reason, it just really bothered her that I was friends with certain people. I don’t know if that was sincere ministry or manipulation. But it frustrated me to the point where I stopped going up there because I was like, ‘God can’t keep saying the same shit! I didn’t even come up here to talk about that. I came up here to talk about something else.’
And then it became very frustrating because the pastor was a single woman so it was a popularity contest, like ‘Who can do the most for Pastor?’ Everybody would mow her lawn and paint her house and she would bring them, very nicely, across the pulpit. And that was like gold for these people. It sounds cult-y, it really does.
It was almost like, she never said this, but the feeling of it when I think about it now was, ‘I’m good with Pastor that means I’m good with God. I’ve got admission into heaven.’ It was like, in order to have access to this higher power, this higher spirit, I have to remain on her good side.
Again, that was never said, but that was the vibe that I got.
She would address other beefs between congregation members. My mom’s very best friend, from that church, her name’s Buffy, and she’s a lesbian. You know Southern church in Georgia and lesbian don’t seem to mix.
They weren’t happy about her being gay. People interacted with her, the way they interacted with us. We were the second family that my stepdad acquired so I felt we were always treated like second best. And our family and Buffy ended up becoming kindred spirits with her because she was treated the same way because she wasn’t straight.
She presents herself in a very--I hate saying this but I don’t have another word-- masculine way so it was very obvious maybe she might like women. I also dress androgynously and I’m straight so I don’t think it’s fair to assume that but you have to think of the ignorance of the Southern church. So there’s that.
And I think through her feeling of dismissal and my mom’s feeling of dismissal, we all became really close. My mom is a very loving woman and really brings people in. So when my stepdad and my mom divorced, they became closer than ever.
At this point, I was in college, I stopped going to this church in college. Nobody contacted me, nobody gave a shit about me, knowing I was at school. They acted like it was no big thing.
Rumors began to spread that Buffy and my mom were having sex. ‘Buffy turned your mom out, that’s why she’s leaving your dad.’ They could not imagine that this perfect child, that is the Pastor’s son, fucked up. That became very upsetting.
Even my stepdad approached me about this. I called him one day on some random stuff and he hit me with, ‘Do you know your mom left me for a woman? How do you feel about that?’ And I was like, ‘Let me tell you something right now, I don’t give a fuck who my mom is having sex with. I know she and Buffy are not together and it’s real ignorant that y’all think that a woman who’s a lesbian and a woman who’s straight can’t be friends without there being some sexual exchange. That speaks more about you than anything. They’re not together but if they were, I wouldn’t give a fuck either.’
That was a rumor started by the church.
NSNC: Did you talk to your mom about the way you were feeling attending that church before you left for college? Was she also unhappy being in that environment?
Me and my mom have a very interesting relationship. We definitely didn’t openly talk about it when I was a kid. And I wish we did. We talk about it now though. And I don’t think that she really wanted to admit her feelings at that time because she was trying to make it work. They got married, they signed up for forever. Once the situation where I tried to tell her about the cheating, and it wasn’t as welcomed. I felt dismissed. Once that happened, I never talked to her about my feelings like that again. I just shut down emotionally. Not to mention, we were dealing with our own dynamic shift and issues. I was becoming a teenager and my mom was very strict. Me and my mom weren’t very close during these years. I had resentment toward her, quite honestly. She was a part of the problem for me.
But now that I’m an adult, she definitely had a lot of feelings...she was sad. This was her mother-in-law. She never felt accepted. She never felt loved and revered. She always felt like she wasn’t good enough. And I can understand, looking back, I’m human. I can understand how that wasn’t something she wanted to discuss with her eleven-year-old daughter at the time. And she was probably in denial like, ‘It’s going to get better, it’s going to get better.’ My mom isn’t very great with confrontation. But now, since it’s not such a fresh wound, we both can’t stand her and that whole collective group.
NSNC: When you went to college, were you still attending a different church? At what point did you feel like, ‘I don’t need church anymore.’?
It wasn’t like flipping an on and off switch. When I first started college, I stayed with family and I would attend their church. And then I would attend with girlfriends. But it wasn’t regular. And I still love God. I began to realize that I didn’t want my relationship with God to include a congregation. Because I didn’t want the resentment I felt toward the people of the church to roll over into my relationship with God. I always remained protective of my relationship with God. Which meant, it’s either God or the congregation, which one am I gon’ fuck with? Ima say God! He’s the one who’s going to where I go. That’s where I was at.
And I just had my “Different World” experience as a college student. And that was another thing my stepgrandmother did. She really-- and I don’t think she’s unique with this. They use scare tactics to make people have faith. I was scared that breathing too loud was going to send me to hell. It took me years to really feel comfortable not going to church because I felt that I was doing something wrong. Through me discovering myself--I took a class in college, it was comparing Buddhism and Christianity. And I started realizing how freaking similar religions are. The same message. And I started also having empathy towards people who didn’t follow Christianity, who we were taught were going to go to hell with fire drawers. Buddhism isn’t this scary, weird thing where you’re possessed by a demon. It’s a really admirable religion.
I went to Georgia State University, which is, fun fact, the most diverse school in Georgia, and I met all these people who practice different religions. Which also made me realize, you’re not a bad person because you’re not a Christian. Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean that you’re moral and you’re not a bad person. Just because you’re not a Christian doesn’t mean that you’re immoral and you’re not a good person. I just think that through that eventual realization, I said, ‘I still identify as a Christian but…’
And then what switched that to, ‘I don’t identify as a Christian but I think there are many paths to the light and Christianity can be one of those paths.’ came from the fact that I took an African American male and female relationships course and started learning more about the real history of our people and how Christianity was used. And the same scare tactics, the bullying our ancestors faced with the Bible as slaves is exactly how I felt as a child. And I think that comparison was that breaking point for me.
NSNC: Did you have to offer any explanations to people about your decision to stop identifying as a Christian and attending church?
No, we kind of just avoid it. My grandma, who is a separate grandma from this situation, she’ll call me out every now and again. ‘When was the last time you ever just talked to Jesus? You haven’t brought up Jesus in a long time and I just want to make sure you’re okay.’ My mom is still very much in her new church. Which, funny enough, my stepdad goes to that church too. I think they got divorced after they started going to the new church.
NSNC: Why did they leave the old church?
So fun fact. My stepdad was the minister of music at his mom’s church. And it was a money thing. Plus my stepdad’s ex-wife, Regina, started going to the church again. And it was drama. It was like “Love and Hip Hop” every week but instead of throwing drinks, it was glances and stares.
So my mom didn’t like the church. She kind of just held her man down, like a Cardi B. and Offset situation. It’s crazy how all of us women deal with the same shit. At some point, they left the church because my mom was probably very unhappy. My mom and stepdad argued a lot. And it wasn’t all the church because they had a whole marriage outside of the church but I think the dynamics of her mother-in-law--my husband has this co-dependent relationship to begin with, which is unhealthy as fuck. Not to mention, I’m looked at as a distraction and not a part of this unit.
I haven’t revealed or come out of my religious closet. Because I don’t think it will be welcomed what I have to say. And I don’t really care what their opinion is because I know what they believe and what their faith is. But I’m not going to try to convince my mother and my grandmother, the closest women to me that I’m not going to hell. It’s something I still feel a little insecure about because it was something that was so beaten into my head. That’s such a part of my experience as a Christian. It’s still something I struggle with, even though I’m stronger than ever in my spiritual practices. And then I don’t really want to explain how I feel because I’m still learning how I feel. I identify as a spiritualist. I want to connect with the spiritual side of what Africans were doing.
At the end of the day, our ancestors were Holy beings. And I’m now looking into the Orishas and Oshuns, the Brujas. I meditate, I use crystals. And what’s really kind of funny is my mom is horrible at picking gifts for me, so I generally send her what I want. And on my Amazon wishlist were African spiritualist books, words like conjure are in the title. And I was really, really nervous to send her the list. So I was just going to send her the titles that she could get down with but then I just had a moment and I was like, ‘No, this is who you are.’
So I told her, ‘Sorry about the book titles. It’s fine if you’re not comfortable buying certain things but it was too much to edit the list.’ And my mom didn’t say anything bad or anything. She said, ‘You are just truly my child. You are who you’ve always been.’
NSNC: You said you feel more spiritually connected than ever before, what contributes to that?
My relationship is independent--just because you’re not a Christian doesn’t mean there’s not a community of people. There are people I consult with. I naturally have gravitated toward having lots of friends, who are Christian, people who like what I like. Having people who understand my path because it’s their path too makes me feel closer to God because it makes me feel like I’m not crazy. The access to the light and to God is not one size fits all. You can have a varied experience.
And now the responsibility relies on me. I can’t be upset because Sister Mayo jaded me last week. It’s about my own relationship, my own accountability. It’s not about other people, trying to prove to other people that I’m down. I’m already down. I’ve already given myself permission to claim this. Now, it’s just between me and God. And I also think ungentrifying my religion was really helpful for me, breaking the chains of that.
To me, when I think of strength, I think of what our ancestors went through. I don’t have that experience in this lifetime but I pull strength from their struggle. And knowing that I’m connected to those people and that way of being, makes me closer to God.
The reason why I wanted to do this is because there’s another woman out there who experienced what I experienced. I don’t want them to feel like they are alone. It’s not them. Don’t allow these people to charge up your anxiety because that’s something I’m still working through. I think it’s okay to decide you want to move forward. It’s like when you’re in a bad relationship and you don’t want to give it up because you’ve invested so much time. It’s all a lesson. And it’s okay to say, I deserve a better experience, whether you decide to leave the church as a whole or just switch up congregations. Don’t be a fool to loyalty.
When your experience to God and connection to God is more about pleasing others over yourself, and we already do that too much as Black women, just in all aspects of life--that’s a sign.
If you leave church feeling more broken and beaten than you did when you walked through the door, that’s when you know it’s your time to go.