Category: Racialigious

June 5, 2014 / / Racialigious

In this entry from the Racialigious series, we examine the struggles of women of color in religious communities — and how they’re often ignored in discussions about faith.

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; excerpt from “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” (Feb. 2013); originally published at the Feminist Wire

The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus.  They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, and the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing.  My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band.  She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent, gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school.  Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.  In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe; only a small minority go on to four-year colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual-abuse scandals.  The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). (Italics added.)”[i]

Read the Post [The Throwback] Leaving Jesus: Women Of Color Beyond Faith

November 26, 2013 / / Racialigious
All rights reserved by Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery
All rights reserved by Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Religion Dispatches

Thirty-five years ago, on November 19, 1978, 73 year-old Hyacinth Thrash awoke to a nightmare in the jungles of Guyana.  Nine hundred and eighteen people from her Peoples Temple church lay dead before her eyes, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of cyanide and fruit punch.  The images from this gothic scene of carnage have become indelible. Bodies stretch into the distance in rows, face down on the ground.  They are overwhelmingly black bodies, clad in simple workaday clothing. Rendered “anonymous”, they represent complex extended families of children, elderly women, young women, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and nieces.  They came to Jonestown, Guyana from communities all across the U.S., drawn by the utopic promise of life in a communal settlement envisioned by a charismatic white messiah as a socialist refuge from American racial apartheid. One of the most haunting scenes from the massacre’s aftermath is that of an adult with their arm around a child, protective in the throes of death.  Thrash was the sole survivor on the premises.

Although the gruesome final snapshot of Jonestown is burned into the American popular imagination, the prelude to the massacre is not as well known.  Founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was a multiracial Pentecostal congregation with roots in Indiana. Over the course of two decades the church would establish operations in Ukiah, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s Jones relocated the bulk of the congregation to Guyana, ostensibly to avoid government persecution for its radical views. The Jonestown massacre has been dubbed one of the largest murder-suicides in world history.  About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American.  The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white.  As per the cultural cliché, black women like Thrash were “the backbone” of People’s Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.

It is troubling that of the scores of book length personal accounts, critical analyses and sociological appraisals on Peoples Temple and Jonestown only a few are by black women (the best of these have been compiled at the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” site). Thrash and Leslie Wagner–Wilson are currently the only two black women survivors to publish books on their experiences.  Wagner-Wilson managed to escape Jonestown before the massacre with several of her family members.  As early African American members of the church when it was based in Indiana, Thrash and her sister tithed 20% of their income to Peoples Temple.  Thousands of dollars in property sales, Social Security, disability, and welfare benefits from Temple members were funneled into the church’s empire.  Despite being elderly and infirm, Thrash and her sister followed Jones from Indiana to Ukiah, San Francisco and Guyana.  Eventually Thrash became disgruntled with the divide between Jones’ rhetoric of racial equality and the white-people-first reality of church leadership but stayed put nonetheless.

Unpacking why so many black women died in Jonestown requires taking a critical look back at the racial underbelly of the Jonestown age.  It demands confronting hard truths about the dangerously gendered seductions of organized religion; especially given the global appeal 24/7 prayer movements and charismatic Pentecostalism have for women of color.

According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation.  Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade. Yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched up has not diminished for most African American women, despite the patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.

Read the Post Why Did So Many Black Women Die? The Jonestown Massacre at 35

July 9, 2013 / / Racialigious
May 21, 2013 / / Entertainment
April 23, 2013 / / Racialicious Roundtables

kumare2-1024x658

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid with featured guest, Sikivu Hutchinson, author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars”

Tami: Kumaré follows a filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who transforms himself into a fake guru to explore the concepts of blind religious faith and devotion to spiritual figures. It is interesting that Vikram and his assistants–all American-born and -raised–adopted accents in the subterfuge, playing off the magical brown person/foreigner trope.

Andrea: Would he be believable if he didn’t take on the accent?

Sikivu: Channeling the authentic brown magical mystery tour exotic (and I’m thinking specifically here of the sixties cult of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi legitimized in the West by mega-celebs like the Beatles) wouldn’t be complete without the right “Orientalist” lilt.

Tami: There are plenty of American religious/spiritual figures who inspire a devotion similar to that demonstrated by Kumaré’s followers. But I also think his race and faux accent provided a short cut of sorts.

Andrea: And I think that shortcut allowed the subterfuge to be more successful. Deepak Chopra wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t have his accent.

Tami: …or if he were named Bob Henderson. It’s the otherness that adds credibility.

Andrea: Great minds, sis! That’s why I see some white people adopt “exotic” names when they become gurus or get deep into yoga.

Sikivu: Yes, and the drooling idolatry of Kumaré’s mostly-white female acolytes underscores this—I know a number of lib/progressive white women who have adopted trendy “yogic”  names to buttress their devoutness and confer them with the Eastern mystic equivalent of “street” cred.

Tami: This ties into the biased belief that brown people (and I say that meaning all brown peoples–black folks, Native Americans, etc.) are inherently plugged into something

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi
Jersey-born filmmaker Vikram Gandhi outside of his Kumare costume

beyond the physical world…some magic. And that “magic” can be positioned positively or negatively, but it is part of the mantle of “other.” By adopting guru “drag,” the filmmaker successfully plugs into that idea. A brown guy with short hair and a clean-shaven face in jeans and a button down, may be too Americanized (read: normal) to work his magical mojo.

We went to see this awful movie, The Last Exorcism II, and at some point (of course) the protag goes to visit a black roots woman in New Orleans. I commented to my husband about the character’s vaguely African headwrap and her exaggerated accent. But the viewer would likely not have accepted that part if she had a Queen Bey lace-front and sounded like a black Brooklynite or had my Midwestern twang. We like our magical brown people unassimilated.

Sikivu:  And the noble savage sexuality of Kumaré goes hand-in-hand with the way the film trots out and parodies the West’s eternal fascination with the Magical Negro/Indian/Asian (take your pick) other.  The blond woman gushing in her living room about how Kumaré has “touched her life” looks practically orgasmic.  So much of this guru shtick is tied up with the charade of liberating the repressed uptight “rationalist” white folk from their shackles a la Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” paradigm pimping “black soul” as antidote to all that ails the modern white man.  A brilliant send-up on this theme is “The Couple in a Cage,” by Guillermo Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco—they mounted a performance piece where they pretended to be indigenous primitives displayed in their “native habitat” for the delectation of mostly white museum-goers seeking authentic savage artifacts.  While there was no overtly religious element to it, the Western impulse to gain validation through the body/essence and “shamanic” wisdom of the other is similar.

Read the Post Table for Two: Kumaré, Or How A Guru Is Born Out Of Orientalism

November 28, 2012 / / Racialigious

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; excerpt from “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” (Feb. 2013); originally published at the Feminist Wire

The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus.  They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, and the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing.  My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band.  She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent, gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school.  Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.  In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe; only a small minority go on to four-year colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual-abuse scandals.  The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). (Italics added.)”[i]

Read the Post [Racialigious] Leaving Jesus: Women Of Color Beyond Faith

May 14, 2012 / / Racialigious

by Guest Contributor Paul Matsushima, originally published at Eesahmu

Courtesy: Christianity Daily

Recently, while attending one of the most ethnically diverse evangelical seminaries in the nation, I found myself in an environment where I had to defend the argument that race still matters. Don’t get me wrong; students and faculty alike openly discussed ethnic and societal culture; and, although all were unanimous that racial prejudice is wrong and diversity is good, when it came to America’s original (and continuing) sin of racism, there were choirs of crickets.

I, in partial reaction, left. After stepping back from my enmeshment in the evangelical world, I gained some clarity for why I felt so isolated. Personal reasons aside, my qualm with the (white) evangelical community was its hesitancy to analyze–much less struggle against–the historical and continuing racial bias in America. This “don’t go there” mentality is further compounded within evangelical churches that are predominantly Asian American. Here are my speculations why.

1. Unity in Christ, aka Colorblindness

Firstly, we who seek to discuss race in the Asian American church go head-to-head against the banner of colorblindness. Colorblindness, while it may value ethnic diversity, seeks to ignore one’s race in order to avoid giving differential treatment on account of it. In other words, it attempts to treat all people equally regardless of race.

This thinking is interwoven into the Christian doctrine of the primacy of one’s Christian identity. Common phrases such as “unity in Christ” or “children of God” shape American evangelicals to value their Christian identity over any other. Tim Tseng, in his article “The Young Adult Black Hole,” explores how Asian American young adults leave their immigrant-ethnic churches for white or multiethnic ones because the influence of colorblind thinking. The message of one’s Christian identity as most important, combined with assimilation into American culture as good and being too ethnic (i.e., too Asian) as bad, is thoroughly ground into these young people’s minds. The result: many Asian American evangelicals believe “the goal [of Christian identity formation] is to shed, not affirm their [racial] identities.”

In 2009, the Urbana Missions Conference hosted around 16,000 attendees, 30% of which were Asian American. I was shocked and disturbed when I, along with three other conferees were the only ones who attended the Asian American prayer workshop, a session devoted to exploring how racial identity shapes the way one prays. Asian Americans flocked to workshops on international and missionary issues in Asia, but when it came to the single workshop focused entirely on Asian American issues, their attendance was extremely minimal. Read the Post The Struggles of Discussing Race In The Asian American Evangelical Church [Racialigious]

September 7, 2011 / / Racialigious

by Guest Contributor Ian Cromwell, originally published at The Friendly Atheist

Atheism

I suppose I should say, by way of introduction, that this is something of an example of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. While Hemant was on a well-deserved vacation (this daily blogging stuff ain’t easy), he had a number of members of the SSA contribute guest blogs. I took offense to one of them, and got up on my horse to shout about it. In a fit of self- aggrandizement I tweeted a link to that post to him, and then promptly went on with my life, my rage spent. Upon returning, Hemant has invited me to write this response and expand somewhat on my argument.

To summarize as succinctly as possible, Derek Miller wrote a guest post in which the basic thesis was that in order to attract more members of minority communities (particularly, in that case, African Americans – it will be to this group I refer for the remainder of this post, but there are similar barriers faced by members of other ethnic groups as well) to the secular/freethought movement, the only thing that could be done was to make the movement more friendly and welcoming in general. A sort of Field of Dreams approach to attracting members of communities of colour – if you build it, they’ll start showing up. I was a bit apoplectic because Mr. Miller has clearly not consulted with, or bothered to listen to, anyone who has been talking about this issue from the minority perspective. This kind of laissez faire approach to recruitment is doomed to fail for reasons I will explain. I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions as to what steps can be taken to more actively include people of colour (PoCs) into the freethinking discussion.

Why don’t black people come to atheist meetings?

The freethinker community has been struggling with this question of late, as more and more speakers have become sufficiently emboldened to decry the lack of ethnic diversity at things like conferences, meetup groups, and other atheist-friendly activities. Increasingly, demands have been going up for a simple answer to this question, and have not been forthcoming. This was, I think, the general thrust of Mr. Miller’s post – there are no simple solutions to this problem. It does not follow, however, that there are no solutions to the problem at all, and we must simply wait for black and brown folks to get over their shyness and start showing up. There are a number of overlapping potential explanations, and until we can begin to see them as a larger context (instead of trying to tackle them one at a time), we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.

There are a few commonly-cited explanations for why black folks just don’t seem to show up:

Atheism as a ‘white people thing’

The face of atheism is, or at least has been, a white one. It’s intimidating for a member of any visible minority community to walk into a room and be the only dark face in the crowd. Whether or not people actually are staring at you (and yes, people do stare), it’s tough to get over the feeling that you don’t fit. Many black people, particularly those in the sciences, are used to being outnumbered, and have figured out a way to deal with it. At the same time, if you’re iffy about showing up to the campus freethinker club or the skeptics in the pub event or the atheist book club, knowing that you’re going to be an outlier is certainly not a point in favour of attendance.

Atheists being racist

If I can echo a statement made by Jen McCreight, it’s not necessarily the case that atheists are more racist than the general population (my suspicion is that we do a pretty good job, by and large), but that it’s more shocking to hear racist talking points from people who pride themselves on rationality and evidence-based decision making. When race comes up as a topic, I’m often mildly amused/horrified to hear the kind of 19th-century ‘scientific racist’ slogans that come out of the mouths of my confreres. I personally have a thick skin about it, knowing that people are well-meaning but just not well-educated. My experience is perhaps a bit atypical, and it only takes a couple of bad experiences to sour the whole idea for you permanently.

Read the Post No, *This* Is How We Get More Black People Involved in the Atheist Movement