Roughly 27 years ago, I was introduced to the "church." The Baptist church to be exact. *stares in nostalgia* The first Sunday communions, the two-step choir entries, and the forbidden middle aisle I was never allowed to walk down...How can I forget! I personally took to Sunday School, learning all the biblical stories and the children's choir ("Two Wings" was my solo). For some reason, I found my place in teaching (or being taught) and inspiring others, something that has remained constant throughout my life. I mean, I hated school but enjoyed learning about Jesus' trips to Galilee, and music was always a part of my life. At the tender age of 8 or 9, I never gave much thought to the ways that church impacted who I was or what I believed about myself. It was fun to attend. It was fun to learn. As time passed, it also became not as fun and I would eventually make a b-line to more, "you know you ain't got no business doing that" type of activities, exchanging my choir solos for the Quiet Storm and my Sunday mornings in stockings for Sunday mornings in pajamas (judge ya Mama!).
According to most church folk, I was being led astray. And to some degree, I wouldn't deny this, but I would also like to draw attention to the "elephant in the room." Church. Was. Boring. It had become redundant. I knew what would happen and when. I heard the stories before. I wanted those two wings I used to sing about to take me to a place where fun and exciting things were happening. I wanted a way out.
Fast forward to 2001. After a departure from the mundane rituals of the Baptist church 90s, I found my life sought of in shambles. I had just finished high school and relocated to Pittsburgh to obtain my degree in culinary arts. By this time, I had lived enough that I had deeper questions that needed to be answered about my future and state of being. I was searching for purpose. Something bigger than myself.
I was back in Johnstown during Christmas break when my sister invited me to attend a church service, much more charismatic than the Baptist church we both grew up in. I went without expecting much. There were songs and preaching, which was to be expected, but what I didn't foresee is how that moment would change everything I knew about myself after. When I returned to Pittsburgh in January, I was a bible believing, preaching, testifying, Christian. Things would remain this way up through 2012, when that same feeling of redundancy returned, pushing me to question so much about the lifestyle I had spent the past decade relying so heavily on.
You see, by 2012, I had been ordained, laid hands on the sick, preached sermons, taught bible study, exhorted crowds, prayed down the heavens, and stayed prayed up for any spiritual enemy that was feeling froggy. During some of these periods, I was in church 6 days a week BY CHOICE! I was well on my way to being respected and acknowledged as someone who was anointed and appointed by God to set the captives free. I had interpretations. I had revelations. I also had a vision and inklings that didn't exactly look like what others who had come before me had. My vision did not consist of a ministry that fit well inside the four walls of the church. In fact, I can remember sobbing during praise and worship sessions telling God there had to be more to life than this. More than preaching, teaching, and singing hymns (no matter how contemporary they sounded). More than folks screaming from the pulpit that this was "my" year. It was always my year of increase (with little return)! God was ALWAYS about to prosper His people and avenge His enemies. What I did not find, however, was much about what we were going to do for the world around us outside of preaching the gospel. No one seemed to have as much insight about that. Folks also didn't seem to have much insight on the inner-frictions within the church. Hypocrisy was running rampant. Judgment was alive and well. Assumptions were being presented as revelations and accountability was becoming optional. And for the "not all churches" crowd, this was across churches I had attended, not just one in particular.
I got tired of the "same ol, same ol." I wondered how could the church that says their mission was to reach others be so self-centered about getting theirs first? I questioned how we preached about the judgment of God so vigorously without holding ourselves accountable for our own mess. I wondered how we got to this place. I needed answers. I went back over scripture and combed through sermons. I found revelations. They were not pretty. And I thought those around me would be ecstatic about this. I thought. Afterall, they always seemed excited about what I taught in the past. Lol. Instead, I was met with resistance. I was told that the teacher in me would never be greater than their master. I was gaslighted at times and accused of actions that simply did not exist. So much for accountability.
The vision I saw for myself expanded beyond the four walls. It included making right the lives we (the Church) shattered with unrealistic expectations and mean-spirited rebukes. I saw myself making a difference in teaching and radicalizing preaching, transforming what I so often taught into a living testament seen by others through the life I lived. I wanted to show up in board and classrooms with all my Jesus pixie dust and leave a residue that would forever change people's lives whether they accepted salvation or not. I wanted people to experience love, inspiration and encouragement on a level that enabled them to believe in themselves, if only for a moment. I wanted people to have an encounter and receive what they needed with no strings attached.
One of the realest things Jesus ever did (besides overturning that money table) was when he walked in the synagogue and told those in attendance, "The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free (Luke 4:18, NLT)," and then closed the scroll and was like, "these words have just been fulfilled in your hearing." Mannnnnn! I always get excited about that! But I also noticed, that in classic fashion, very much like the resistance of old, there is still a resistance to progression in the modern day church. They wanted to kill him. He was not received by his own. They rejected him often without second thought.
In 2013, I relocated to Columbia, MO to attend graduate school and made a conscious decision not to seek a church to be a part of. In 2014, I made a conscious decision to no longer seek out a church affiliation at all. I thought about all those Sundays I had learned about Jesus and God. The countless hours I put into sermons and bible study lessons. I thought, if this was the plan for my life, how could I walk away? How would I ever be able to fulfill my destiny? When I received my master's degree in 2014, I left Missouri with two years of teaching under my belt. I received countless notes and emails from students who spoke about my encouragement and their ability to learn in my classes. When I received recognition for outstanding teacher evaluations, I knew that my gift had not gone to waste. In 2018, I received my Ph.D. from Rutgers University. I am now deemed an expert in a field of study, well-equipped to teach AND research. My gift has only gotten stronger.
Looking back, the very place that aided in my growth and inspiration, also stunted my ability to expand the vision I believed I was destined to live, and I am not alone. A reported 59% of millennials are seeking other avenues than traditional religion for answers. Because even if God is ready, sometimes folks are not. Church members are not God. They miss the mark. And leaving church should not be equated with leaving God when we are willing to accept these things. Church was no longer enough for me. It couldn't sustain my ambition. It couldn't contain the fire that began burning in my heart. I didn't leave because I no longer wanted God. I left because there wasn't enough room. I was forced to make a decision to look alive or to actually be it. I chose the latter.
To hear about other's journey to spiritual liberty, check out this month's podcast episode with Mailaka Salaam from Purple Hair and Converse!