Margaret pulled into the quaint suburb located fifteen miles from the inner city to visit her cousin Jae. Although Margaret and Jae were close in age, life experience placed them worlds apart. Jae, just moved from D.C. to St. Louis and found herself in need of a break from the kids. Margaret, on the other hand, attended WashU Medical School and lived a life of singlehood, marked by days jam-packed with exams, studying, clinical rotations, and basic survival.
“Hey girl, I gotta go grab my keys but sit anywhere you can find a place,” Jae immediately said upon opening the door.
With that, Jae ran upstairs to grab her youngest toddler from the bathroom.
“Need help?” Margaret screamed up, but Jae was already out of ear’s reach.
Jae and Margaret were cousins through and through. Growing up in the burbs of Virginia, they received whoopings together, unwarranted lectures from grandparents, and even the same catcalls from strangers when frequenting their local beach. Though years had passed since then, and although their recent communications were less frequent, they were blood at the end of the day.
Ignoring Jae’s hospitable greeting, Margaret marched upstairs and followed the faint sounds of intermittent movement.
Jae was oiling her youngest down with whipped shea butter and coconut oil. Her hands glided seamlessly from oil to skin to body parts somehow maneuvered through holes of clothing, as if a practiced dance. Jae's lack of cautionary pauses in between revealed that this wasn’t her first rodeo. In fact, this was her fifth child.
Margaret looked on, secretly hoping that Jae would be a tad more gentle. Jae continued without looking up.
“Marge, hand me that spray bottle on the dresser.”
Margaret grabbed the spray bottle filled with water and other unknown oils.
“Where are the boys?” Margaret asked, while Jae effortlessly brushed her daughter's hair into a bun.
“Midday nap. Fed them so many beans, rice, and plantains that they’re in comatose.”
Jae’s sculpted triceps flexed—displaying years of at-home yoga videos and car seat carrying—as she nimbly smoothed over the edges of her youngest daughter’s hair. Jae's skin glowed from slight perspiration and the natural beauty effects of dried rose water and years of rosehip oil applications.
“You really are settled in,” Margaret said, taking in Jae’s unspoken comfort. “Furniture moved in, you’re back cooking. Kids enrolled in activities. One thing you’re missing—” she awkwardly interjected, “—a church home.” Her statement seemed a bit abrupt.
Nonetheless, she went on to plead her case.
“Jae, seriously. Why haven’t you come back to church with me?”
Margaret knew Jae to be a woman of God. Jae often gave knowing looks growing up when certain love scenes flashed across the movie screen, or when Margaret thought it a good idea to get drunk at high school parties, or whenever they discussed the sanctity of life. Jae really didn’t say much, but her actions always said enough. She had a way of saying, “Just wait. Life will teach you,” without ever uttering a word. She always exuded wisdom beyond her youth or lived experience. And she didn’t tout her opinion lest asked. All knew that Jae walked closely with the Lord.
Therefore, when Margaret recently committed her life to Christ and began going to a new church—a Bible-believing church that she truly found herself flourishing in—she invited Jae and her husband, Sean, to visit upon their move. But after a few Sundays, Jae's family stopped attending. Due to busy clinical rotations, Margaret forgot to follow up. Right now, it was the best moment to ask “why” while it was at the top of her mind.
“You really want to know?” Jae asked.
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t,” Margaret responded.
“Well, first wake the boys up and meet me in the car. It’s parked in the garage. Oh, Sean doesn’t know you’re here. You know he works from home now so it’d be nice if you stuck your head in his office down the hall and said ‘hi’,” Jae said without waiting for Margaret to confirm her understanding of her rapid-fired instructions.
Before Margaret could say “okay,” Jae was already headed out the bedroom door.
Minutes later, they both buckled their seatbelts in the small minivan, with three kiddos in the back, and pulled out of the garage to head to the indoor gym twenty minutes away.
Without missing a beat, Jae continued on.
“Look Marge, I have about 15 minutes to halfway sound coherent. Ah, by the way, Brooklyn and Leroy get out of school at 3 so we gotta swing by and pick them up on our way back. Okay. We can have this conversation...I really don’t feel like it. But if I don’t, you’re going to keep asking so…” she trailed off while checking her phone for the next set of directions.
“There’s no pressure. I just wanna know why you don’t like it,” Margaret lightly said.
Being a new Christian herself, Margaret thought Jae would be elated to experience what she was experiencing—a multi-ethnic church filled with great theology, worship, bible study programs, and even a superb children’s ministry. She thought that maybe there was one thing bothering Jae about the church, and she needed to ask.
“Are you tired of being around white people, Jae?” she inquired bluntly.
Margaret knew that the question itself probably wasn’t new for Jae. Many black people casually spoke of this topic amongst themselves. In fact, Margaret and several of her other friends often said “yes” to the inquiry in passing. But now that Margaret was discovering this whole Christian thing, it would sound weird if the same answer came from Jae too.
“Uhhhh...Yes and no. I’m proud of my blackness. There’s no shame. I’m just tired of dealing with the way our blackness is perceived. Trust me. I did it for years. Ignoring the way being accepted and loved is equated to greeting me with a tonal ‘hey girl’ accent when I show up at new membership orientation.”
“Haha,” Margaret burst out laughing-choking out a “Girl, stop!” between breaths.
“No, I’m serious Marge. And it’s not just your church. I’ve tried so many other ‘multi-ethnic’ churches in the past and I’m pretty discouraged by what I’ve experienced. I’m tired of the caricatural ‘sorries’ for the slightest things. I’m tired of seeing people’s true feelings and beliefs come out when my kids are playing with their kids. You see church and home are two different stories, Marge. Either no one would accept the invite for their children to come to my house, or my children would be invited over in a way that seemed like a check off the ‘be nice to a black person today’ list. Or even worse, ‘your children seem like a cool project to tackle-so let me be adventurous today.’’”
“Okay. I get it, but not everyone is like that though Jae, and you can’t let those experiences color all of the other people at my church, or multi-ethnic churches in general.”
“Maybe not. But cuz, at the end of the day, I see white people all day in the burbs. I and my kids go to schools and everyone’s white. I go to stay-at-home mommy groups...white. And especially when I was working in the corporate setting. I just want one day out of the week where I can worship and be myself. Where I’m not reminded of the implicit messages to conform to mainstream culture to make the majority feel comfortable. I want to go to church and know that when I hear a drawn-out “I.......” that what will proceed is a sudden beat drop, followed by everyone singing “will...trust...in the Lord.” I’m just being completely transparent with you. But you know, even though I’m saying all this, lately, I’m beginning to think it’s actually not a black, white, race thing. Or even a cultural thing.”
Margaret listened carefully, hoping to find the silver lining.
Jae observed out loud, “I know I must sound scattered.”
Jae paused, took a deep breath, and then continued.
“I just want... I just want to be surrounded by people who are genuinely filled with the Spirit. I long for an atmosphere where the Spirit literally soaks our collective being. Sometimes the latest contemporary, agenda-driven, program-saturated multi-ethnic churches still feel dead. Even with the Word preached appropriately, so many feel as dry as deserts. And unfortunately, this barrenness trickles down to everything else. Don’t get me wrong, this deadness can be found in several predominantly black churches too. But when I walk into a church in which our predominant race or culture doesn’t preside, no matter how multi- anything, if I don’t sense the commonality of the Holy Spirit, I see only differences. And because of it, I’m well aware of my blackness, their whiteness, well before I’m aware of our Christianess. Unity ultimately lies in the felt presence of the Holy Spirit, who has the immeasurable ability to help those of us from different backgrounds truly feel connected. What is secondary is the preaching style, music selection, and diversifying ministries. The Spirit of God is always first and foremost—and that’s what I’ve seen to be missing. Without HIs presence, I’m just as guarded in the grocery store as in the church.”
“I’m trying to follow you but I’m having a hard time. I think you’ll always pick up on differences no matter where you go. I think you should just give my church a chance. There are a lot of really nice well-meaning people there.”
And with that, Jae conceded and gave Margaret one of her quintessential knowing looks while they pulled into the parking spot of the indoor gym. She smiled and slowly opened her car door.
PonderedThought: Thoughts about Jae? Thoughts about Margaret? Share your thoughts by commenting below.