Looking for my religion

The power of having a god who resembles us.

Cristo Negro, Portobelo, Panama. Image credit Adam Jones via Flickr.

When I was growing up in rural Kenya, my father, a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. My father got it from his mother. We had to carry it around to show that we were better than others—mostly, Catholics and non-believers. We were being taught denominational politics—that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, the latter had their shortcomings. Unlike them, our bodies were free from the impurities of tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol was prohibited. Coke and coffee were prohibited while soybean was touted as the best alternative. Soybean was alien to us at this point. It was always imported and sold in shops in Nairobi. Coffee and tea were abundantly available from local farmers.

My mother protested SDA and its restrictions. Having grown in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life, she was ambivalent about religion. My dad should have also protested, long ago. My uncle too. The church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. Both are polygamists. As a teenager, while I could partake in Holy Communion in the SDA, my grandfather, father and my uncle could not. They joined other males, mostly polygamous men in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. I was too young to understand this form of punishment from an all loving God. I have since come to understand that this was a form of rigidity with which foreign religions and cultures arm-twisted cultures they perceive as inferior into subjugation.

Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room at our local church. Most men seated in the pews were heads of polygamous families. By depicting polygamy as barbaric, the church imported foreign values to our community as well as created tension within families through emotional blackmail of polygamous males. Of course, many women like my grandmother found polygamy an oppressive institution and missions such as the SDA that prohibited polygamy, gave women an alternative to build nuclear families and a safe space for personal development. Nonetheless, I continue to wonder why dad continued with this church, later embarking on a project to build a big church closer to home. Also, what motivates communities in Africa to continue with churches that deeply conflicted with their ways of life?

In the early 80s and 90s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing. There was also a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men. While prayers are made in public for all these throngs of young and women dying of these incurable diseases, privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whatever spirits that had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches blind to the reality of HIV/AIDS continued preaching against contraceptives and abstinence while in the dead of the night, when the church had fallen asleep, traditional healers were brought to prescribe final rites for the dead. I remember attending public gatherings where community leaders accompanied by health practitioners would discourage people from my community from performing any rites involving sexual practices to the dead in an effort to curb the spread of HIV.

This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to pray for him. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations. I could also sense her personal struggles with it. The guilt in resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of Christianity to heal my uncle Ben. We were deep in rural Africa, yet she did not feel free to follow the practices of her people.

One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of the white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. He always ended his sermons by commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey.” Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me—especially in the United States where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s head like a dark cloud.

I recently made a trip to Southeast Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was overcome by the power of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the US for almost four years now, I was puzzled by the free uncensored color continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends, who were surprised by my observation, about it. They have never made similar observations. The differences, they said came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in an environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.

This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had. The reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and local doctor hit me with a very strong wave of reality. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit white features, inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and would always all fall short. We felt different.

I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would easily relate to. This would empower and inspire many people like myself, and the challenges I face introducing my son to religion in this race charged environment. How can I find a balance in the bible, a book full of inspiration to challenge and overcome oppression, when the same book has been used as a tool to brainwash and control my people for generations? This has been my biggest dilemma, and I believe it is shared by other young pan-Africanists seeking to find a god who looks like us. I have struggled with thoughts of taking my son to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I cannot discount the importance of this church to my family and community, but I also know that this church continues to pass judgment on older males in my community—changing practices in my community.

Again, I have to ask myself, “who is this all powerful, African deity I am seeking? Where is this deity?” Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? Moreover, can communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking? This is the space and personal conflict that Christianity has imposed on me and my community. Sometimes the presence of the Seventh-day Adventist church in my community feels like domination. Sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her a purpose to life. I wish there was a middle ground, a space of acceptance without any preconditions. I also recognize that my community and I, as well as many communities across Africa hold no vote in reshaping any practices brought to Africa by missionaries, even in instances where we feel they do not align to the traditional values of our communities. We need something else, a god who looks like us.

Further Reading

Hip Hop And Religion

Off the whim, I asked Kwanele Sosibo if he’d be interested in contributing to the series. He swung me this fascinating, unpublished piece about hip-hop and religion within a South African hip-hop context. Sosibo writes for the …

Lived Religions

Too bad The Three Faiths exhibition at the New York Public Library closes this Sunday, February 27. The exhibition covers the development of the three great Abrahamic religions–the variations within the beliefs, the great chasms, …