By Guest Contributor Fiqah, originally published at Possum Stew
Some background: for most of my adult life, I have been a fugitive from religion, the monotheistic “Big Three”, anyway. (Sorry, any faith doctrine that includes an interventionist, anthropomorphic, masculine god/godhead is prolly gonna earn some side-eye from me.) Because my sociopolitical views and general life philosophy are widely regarded as “radical,” the decision to not participate in often conservative organized religion was a sensible and organic one. The Bébé Fiqah trauma that led to my adult decision to be an unrepentant heathen/sinner/whateverthehell is all a very loooooong story that nobody wants to hear, so I’ll sum up by saying that until recently outside of weddings, baptisms, mitzvahs, and funerals, Grown-Up Fiqah rarely darkened the doorstep of any house of worship.
However, when one of my elderly neighbors, a very dapper Georgia born-and-bred gentleman, invited me to come to his Southern Baptist church here in Harlem last fall, I accepted. I was going through a particularly difficult time emotionally, and while the choir was sorta weak (sorry, I’m Southern, and we have standards for this kinda thing), I found the service overall to be very spiritually uplifting and healing. I was delighted by the sermon, as well as the inclusive spirit of the congregation. (”All are welcome” is the credo of just about every Southern Baptist church, but in many places, certain”children of God” - non-Christians, LGBTIQ people - are most emphatically NOT welcomed.) I decided that maybe dropping in to Church every now and again wouldn’t be so terrible.
This morning, I attended services at another Southern Baptist church here in Harlem with my buddy J. who never misses a Sunday. In spite of the late summer swelter, I happily donned my Sunday best, pearls and good heels and headed on over to Church. In retrospect, I should have said some kinda prayer asking for patience and composure before I stepped out of the door. Because what awaited me at church would have tested even the most forgiving soul.
You see, J. and I were seated in one of the balcony pews, along with several Italian tourists. European and Asian tour groups and buses are a common sight on Sundays in Harlem. As annoying and ubiquitous as they are, for the most part, church tourists are ignorable. Well, this group must have been especially rude, because several members of the group spent much of the service talking. Talking. In spite of being shot admonishing looks by several parishioners and being approached by one of the ushers, the conversation, though lowered to murmuring, continued. The only time it seemed to stop was when the choir led the church in a song, when the tourists watched the choir and the other attendees with that peculiar mixture of fascination, fear and envy that White people in spaces of color often seem to have. As they watched us, my friend and I watched them, swaying all wrong, clapping off beat and basically turning what was a joyful but sacred experience into a spectacle for their entertainment.
I did my very best to remain silent and non-responsive. And I was good. I really was.
I had just bowed my head, closed my eyes, and was just about to connect one-on-One with the Lord…when the cell phone of the woman sitting behind me went off.
And she answered.
“Oh, I don’t even believe THIS shit!” I said. J.’s eyes flew open, and she covered her startled gasp with her hand.