We Cry With Charleston: How I’m Healing as a Black Queer Christian

“Lord, help.”

One of my good friends who is a recent divinity school graduate says this all the time. He says it when he fumbles over his words, he says it when he feels like his world is ending. Lord help, he cries out in his perfect Southern accent, and it brings him comfort.

After this week’s news cycle, specifically after the horrible act of domestic terrorism in Charleston, that phrase has been on my tongue all day.

Nine Black people were murdered Wednesday night by a white terrorist in their house of worship. These people gathered for Bible study and prayer, one of the most intimate and vulnerable gatherings in the Black church where we’re encouraged to ask questions, to lay down our burdens, to lean on each other as we grapple with life’s difficulties, and be affirmed by one another. This man showed up to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sat and prayed with its members, and then opened fire and killed nine of them.

Contextually, this attack on a Black church, and the choice this killer made to attack an AME church at that, doesn’t surprise me at all. The AME church was founded by freed slaves who were pulled off their knees while praying by white supremacists disguised as Christians. This particular church had a history of rebellion, specifically a slave rebellion in 1822. These weren’t good negroes. These were — and are — the Black people that said, “I am a person and demand to be treated that way.” Before there was a hashtag, the Black Church was one of the first institutions to say that Black lives matter.

So when this man made this decision, it was deliberate. When police come into Black communities and harass and kill us, it is deliberate. These people make the decision to come into places where we feel safe, where we feel protected, where we feel like our lives do matter, and remind us that in their eyes they don’t. I think there’s something particularly awful about attacking a place of worship. I’ve been thinking about the fact that he didn’t just walk in there and start shooting. These members, who have a history of being denied the opportunity to worship freely didn’t want to do the same to this man — and so they let him in. I can almost imagine the scene: a deacon might’ve walked up to him and offered to shake his hand, a little girl maybe stared at him over her mother’s shoulder, a teen who had been dragged to church that night might’ve been sitting across from him in the back. This man experienced these people in community, saw them healing and uplifting each other, and still decided to commit an act of terrorism.

I think it’s so important that we keep saying Black Lives Matter, especially after an event like this. After a trauma like this it’s easy to wonder if my life really does matter, particularly when this man was able to leave the scene of the crime alive, be captured alive, and transported in a bullet-proof jacket to make sure he stayed alive. But that’s exactly what white supremacy wants me to do: to question my worth. Now more than ever, I think it’s important to say alabanza to those who were slain, to lift their names up in prayer and to remind those of us still living that Black lives do matter — they’ve always mattered and will always matter.

As a Black queer Christian, I’m hurting today. I grew up worshiping in a Black church, and it was one of the few places where I felt truly safe. An intergenerational environment in the best sense of the word, I was constantly surrounded by black children, youth, adults, and elders all growing in faith together. There was always someone there to make me laugh, to chastise me, to hold me when I was hurting. I didn’t just go to church to learn about being a Christian, I went to learn about being Black. These were people who, for the most part, also had to navigate growing up Black in Connecticut. In a time when I was seeing an average of five other Black people in any given day at school, they helped me to form a Black identity. Going to church was like getting to with 100 members of my immediate family. Even once I publicly came out as queer and we disagreed with one another, I knew that my church family would always love and protect me.

So when I think about someone coming into these people’s home, murdering 9 of them, and saying (allegedly), “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” I am devastated. My first reaction to the shooting was that it’s all so familiar. All I could think of was the bombing of the 16th Street a Baptist Church where four little girls died. “Haven’t we been here before?” I thought; and particularly so after this week’s wild news cycle, “Why do they hate us so much?” One of the strongest emotions on my heart has been anger — a hateful, vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, Old Testament God anger.

But loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek are two of the most prevalent tenets of Christianity. The religion is literally founded on love and acceptance (despite what conservatives will have you think). Jesus hung out with prostitutes and prayed for his murderers as he hung to die. But I am so angry, that the idea of forgiveness feels impossible.

Then I remember the history of the Black Church. I remember how my great-great-great grandparents were forced to gather to worship in secret because they were slaves. I think about how racists would harass and terrorize patrons of Black churches in the ’60s. And then I think about how despite all of that we would still gather, still study, still pray, still worship.

I remember all of the praying aunties, mothers, and grandmothers in my home churches as a child who cried out to God when their children were shot unjustly. When instead of being vengeful they prayed that God would save the souls of those who stole their babies from them, just like Jesus did. And I think about my mother who in the same breath that she said she was praying for the victims’ families also said she was praying for the shooter. She will forever be a better Christian than me. I think about all of my fellow queer Black Christians who have often been excluded from worship and who still forgive. And I want to be like these people; I want to be a “good Christian” more than anything, but I am hurting so much that all I can process is my anger.

Because anger is so much easier than asking for help or trying to learn forgiveness. When I was a baby queer of 16, my anger consumed me, especially in the church. I had always thought it was okay to question things I’d read in the Bible and was encouraged to in Sunday school and youth group. But suddenly when my questions started to revolve around sexuality, people didn’t want to hear them. Or, when they did listen, the answers I got were unsatisfactory. If Jesus loved sinners, why wouldn’t He love me? I wasn’t doing anything except trying to live my truth. Wasn’t I supposed to tell the truth? I was confused and hurt, and it came out as anger. I remember praying and crying in my room wondering what kind of God would make me this way and then condemn me to hell. I remember wrestling with the comfort that the Church had always provided me — I was raised there; I’d taken more naps on church pews than on cots at school — against this seemingly new hostility. It was like everything I had been taught about unconditional love, kindness, and justice didn’t get to be true for me anymore, and I felt like I didn’t have a place where I belonged.

It wasn’t until I asked for help that I was able to find comfort in the church again. That comfort came from my family of ordained ministers who assured me that I was still loved in the eyes of God and it came from God too, in the understanding that the Church is made up of people, and that people disagree, and that sometimes, people are wrong. My relationship with my church and my faith changed after that, but it’s all been good change. Asking questions and asking for help has, I think, allowed me to become more Christlike. I mean, even Jesus trashed a temple in his anger. Even Jesus asked God, “why me?” Coming out as queer helped solidify my Christian beliefs because now I knew that the God I worshiped wanted me to be free to explore my faith, my sexuality, and more recently my gender identity and that help was just a call away.

Today, whenever I need to, I cry “Lord, help” — on the city bus, at work, in the library, crying in my bed while I’m writing this, when all I can think to say is, “Lord, help,” I know that’s enough.

I’m realizing that that’s the first step. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble,” David writes in Psalms. I’m not going to heal from my hurt on my own, and without healing, forgiveness is almost impossible. The Black Church isn’t going to heal from this tragedy on its own; I believe that it’s through the collective power of community and holding each other up in prayer that we’ll be able to continue on. I don’t believe in a theology that says God makes bad things happen to us in order for us to become better Christians, but I do believe that through the Church, and in my case the Black Church specifically, we have been given the tools to be able to heal ourselves and each other.

The United Church of Christ released a prayer for Emanuel AME Church yesterday on their Facebook. The prayer ends with, “You whose shepherd has been taken from you, whose building has become a tomb, whose children are terrified: We stand with you. We weep with you. We rage for you. We keep vigil with you for your beloved dead. May the God of Moses and Miriam, of Jesus and the Marys, anoint you with healing, furnish you with hope, and one day, some day, mend your broken hearts and wipe the tears from your swollen eyes. God help us.” This is a prayer of a people who are hurting, who are screaming, who are so confused and angry saying in one voice, “Lord, help.” Because what else can we do?

Lord help the family of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Lord help the family of Clementa Pinckney
Lord help the family of Cynthia Hurd
Lord help the family of Tywanza Sanders
Lord help the family of Myra Thompson
Lord help the family of Ethel Lee Lance
Lord help the family of Daniel L. Simmons
Lord help the family of Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Lord help the family of Susie Jackson

Lord, help us all.

Alaina is a 20-something working on a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. They are a mom to three cats, they listen to a lot of NPR and musicals, and they spend a lot of time on Pinterest lusting over studio apartments. They are actively trying to build A Brand on twitter @alainamonts. One day, they will be First Lady of the United States.

Al(aina) has written 203 articles for us.

53 Comments

      • Sorry, “your” faith and courage. Really I felt so moved by this it seemed like there should be something of gratitude to write even if it something that so many others had already said. It’s that inspiring.
        Also thank you Riese for making helping to bring Alaina to this site. If it wasn’t you than thank you whoever did.

  1. i am not a person of faith nor a person of colour but we walk the same ground and i thank you for sharing this heartachingly sad and beautiful piece of writing and experience. to the victims, may you rest in power. xx

  2. Thank you, Alaina.

    Thank you for writing this piece that is so vulnerable, that takes this out of the context of the political rhetoric politicians and white liberals are tossing around right now, and that creates one healing space in the face of seemingly insurmountable hate.

    <3 to you and everyone who is hurting right now.

  3. Alaina, you put so much thought and raw emotion into this piece. It’s heartbreaking and powerful. Thank you for sharing these pieces of yourself and showing us the way they’ve been splintered and what healing looks like for you.

    May the 9 slain rest in power. Black Lives Matter now and forever.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I’m an atheist but hearing your voice and your words while I’m struggling with the same issues (anger, questioning my worth, etc) has acted as a salve on my wounds. I feel a bit of relief through the pain. Thank you.

    • yes, same. while I’m not an atheist, I am no longer a believer in the traditional Christian sense (agnostic, I guess). but this post reminded me why sometimes it’s important to have some kind of spiritual belief to lean on. because when things like this happen, things get really confusing for me.

      don’t think I’m making sense, but. yea. this was medicinal, Alaina.

  5. It feels like all I have right now is anger and pain. I’m trying to find room for something else, but it’s hard. Alaina, this is so powerful. Thanks for sharing. This couldn’t have been easy to write.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Alaina, thank you for sharing this. It’s difficult to articulate the weariness & heartache of Charleston and the countless attacks on the black community; your words are powerful and necessary.

  7. Thank you for writing this piece. I find myself grounded after the events and seeing the testimony of faith through Black people who grew up in the church. I felt this anger, this “Why did God let this happen? Why do they believe in this God?” It’s something I can’t help but to utter when tragedies happen. At the same time I am just grounded to know one has to do whatever it takes to survive and for many is to have faith.

    For me this faith is not present and I felt alone, “less Black” and went through an obnoxious “angry *internet atheist* stage” to really mask that I was afraid because the world did not see me. Now more than ever in this country I don’t want to fall into a pit of despair that the nightmare of racism and anti-Blackness that is so present in this country. My sister and the people who continue on with so much faith are probably that way for me and for those who are still trying to make sense of this.

    I spoke with my mother last night about the terrorist attack in Charleston and she was so upset. She said that this “new” reality is not what she came to US for, that she came to this country for a better life. A lot of people in my family think of America as this great country and the more aware in my family look at the history and thank Black Americans for making is easier for African-born immigrants to make a life in America.

    So while I’m not in the church now I’m retreating to the comforts in my memory of the people that occupied those spaces singing, witnessing and loving. I’m humming the songs I grew up with particularly “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” I will think of the 9 lives taken and I will always tell myself that, “I love my Blackness and yours.”

  8. This was beautiful, heartbreaking, and made me feel a little bit of hope for this country and this world for the first time since i heard about this happening.

    your use of “alabanza” had this song from in the heights in my head immediately. I had the good fortune of working on this show and getting to hear this song every day for 6 months. and i hope someone else can also take solace in this
    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chfdFA_KQrI&w=420&h=315%5D

    • “Alabanza means to raise this thing to God’s face and to sing
      Quite literally praise to this” is probably my favorite lyric in the entire musical theatre canon.

      i’m glad this could give you some hope.

  9. in tears. my heart is breaking right alongside yours.

    thank you for writing this, for bearing your heart in this way. thank you for expressing pain & sadness & anger in a way that I cannot right now. thank you for your courage to say all of this, to show yourself, to take up space.

    “Lord, help” will be my new prayer during these hard, rage-filled times.

  10. *cries* thank you for this. i stopped going to church at around the age of 16 when i got sick, started questioning everything including my sexuality and didn’t think i would be accepted. this reminded me of why faith and church can be sites of strength and healing even when tragedies happen.

  11. I am literally in tears right now. Since I heard the news about the attack its like there has been this giant ball of anger and pain and fear swirling inside of me. Still it was like I couldn’t truly let myself feel all that or I would completely fall into despair. Reading this article and the comments has been so healing for me. Thank you.

  12. My experience of Christianity growing up was always in white evangelical/charismatic settings. And we were always told to pray for the service men and the unborn babies and who would be appointed to the Supreme Court. We were always told that God would judge the nation for accepting homosexuality and not suppotirting Isreal. But never once was the suffering of black people in this country interceded for.

    So it means everything to me to hear this cry from blackness and queerness. Lord help us.

  13. Alaina, this is so beautiful. In these moments of pain and grief and loss, perhaps the bravest and strongest thing we can do is ask for help — from God, from each other, from our communities, from the universe. It can be so difficult and is so necessary. Thank you for all you have shared here <3

  14. Alaina,
    The deep pain and sadness you expressed in your personal essay has moved me to tears that I’ve been unable to shed until now. Thank you for sharing your heart and for helping others to allow themselves to feel what you feel.
    Holding these 9 souls especially in the Light.
    B.

  15. i’m really glad this was able to help folks as much as writing it helped me to heal. i hope y’all are teying to take care of yourselves and eaxh other in these hard times. dont be afraid to ask for help when you’re hurting–whether it’s from a diety, the universe, or your community. they want to isolate us, but we’re so much stronger together. sending you all lots of love and strength.
    <3333

  16. Y’know, this is the first time I heard someone use the word “terrorism” to describe this tragedy. About time, too, because this is definitely a terrorist act. We all know that if this was an attack on a predominately white church, and the shooter was a POC, white people would be shouting terrorism way more than they are now.

    Thank you for writing this very raw, personal piece. My heart goes out to you and all those who need to heal.

  17. This is so beautiful and powerful. As a queer black Christian I’ve had the experience of loving God when others try and use that same faith against me. Realising I was bi definitely helped me look at m relationship with God in a new way <3

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.