Growing up, my family could best be described as “casual Catholics.” My mother attended Catholic school as a child and completed all of the sacraments, so my siblings and I were naturally christened Catholic. We attended mass sporadically, recited ‘Catholic grace’ at meal times and lined up for forehead smears on Ash Wednesday. Besides abstaining from a pleasure, eating fish on Fridays during Lenten season, and always attending mass on Christmas and Easter, we weren’t cloaked in Catholicism.
Occasionally, my non-Catholic dad attended Christmas Eve midnight mass at the white parish in our neighborhood, but usually he did not. I’m not sure if my dad disliked being one of the few black families in church or if he just didn’t dig mass. I think it was a swirl of the two. There weren’t many blacks at our school, and the ones that were there weren’t Catholic. As black Catholics, we were definitely different, but welcomed into the Catholic fold nonetheless.
In college, I started attending mass at the on-campus Catholic center. In order to endure the academic rigors of Northwestern University, I knew that I needed to dialogue with God on a regular basis. Without my mother’s “mass protocol” prompting, I found the mass ritual a tad mysterious at first. A quick study and a disciplined student, I followed along and knelt when others did, memorized the Nicene and Apostolic creed, and worshiped on my merry, Catholic way.
On Sunday mornings, I watched as some of my black classmates left the dorm dressed in heels, dresses, ties and suits to attend worship service at a black church walking distance to campus. All of them carried Bibles. Catholics don’t take Bibles to mass. The first time I opened a Bible was for a comparative religion course in college. I was curious about this black church pilgrimage, but not curious enough to follow them. Besides, I could attend mass on Saturday evenings wearing jeans and check church off my to do list before joining my crew to partake in our college student Saturday night shenanigans.
A few years later, I met a “very Catholic” guy. In order to marry “very Catholic” guy in the Catholic Church I learned that I had to be confirmed Catholic. My dad's youngest sister had converted to Catholicism in order to marry her Catholic beau. Catholic Sister and her husband served as godparents to my siblings and me, probably because they were the only black, Catholic couple that my mother knew. Catholic Sister also served as my confirmation sponsor. Years later, Catholic Sister "sidelined" her Catholic husband and Catholic faith, and started attending a black mega church. Perhaps feeling a genetic pull, I joined a small Baptist church not long after marrying “very Catholic.”
For me, attending a black, Baptist church the first few times was like watching a toddler groove to Bruno Mars. It was joyful, spirit filled, electrifying, and it felt like home. If you have never attended a black Christian Church of any denomination, trust me when I tell you, black church takes “make a joyful noise” very seriously. Everyone is welcome, so pop into a black church one Sunday morning and see for yourself.
At my new black church home, I found many things to be different: the music, the length of service, and the baptism by submersion in water to name a few. However, one of the first things that I noticed right away was that the senior pastor removed his shoes at the pulpit before he preached. Perhaps I’d missed it, but I’d never seen a priest remove his shoes before delivering the homily. Or maybe I just couldn’t see it underneath the long black robes that they wore.
Armed with the study Bible used for my comparative religion class, and dressed in my “black Church appropriate” Sunday best, I was excited to learn the inner workings of the black church experience.
At my new church, there was a nine-month new member intake process. Many faiths (Catholic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, etc.) require an involved indoctrination/study period before one may join or convert, so this wasn’t an unusual requirement.
In order to receive the “Right Hand of Fellowship” which signaled that you were an official member of the church, new members were required to meet as a group each Sunday afternoon over the course of several months. You were only allowed to miss a few Sunday sessions, and each session was two hours long. The senior pastor wisely wanted to ensure that new members were given a proper foundation in basic Christian principles and the values of the church. In his words, he didn’t want people “playing church” or joining his church because the church was trending. We learned the books of the Bible, participated in small group discussions on both the Old and New Testament teachings, and reviewed required homework assignments.
For some, the new member intake experience probably felt like Christian boot camp. Not to me. As a lifelong learner and Bible study neophyte, I enjoyed the camaraderie, discipline and formality of the process. It was adult Sunday school, and I found it nurturing and informative.
During one of our homework assignments, we were assigned to read Exodus 3:5 (chapter 3, verse 5) where Moses sees the burning bush and hears from God. But before Moses can proceed closer, God instructs Moses to remove his sandals because ‘the place where he is standing is Holy Ground.’ “Aha!” I said to myself. “This must be why the Pastor removes his sandals. Mystery solved!” However, I noticed that when the associate pastors preached or guest preachers visited, they did not remove their shoes. Mystery not quite solved.
As part of the new member initiation process, the senior pastor would visit each new member class during our final class meeting/potluck dinner celebration. At this pastoral meet and greet, he shook everyone’s hand and lingered a bit for small talk. We were encouraged to ask the pastor any questions we had. Equipped with my newfound knowledge, I asked the pastor if he removed his shoes before preaching because of Exodus 3:5. He tilted his head to the side and replied, “I take my shoes off because my feet hurt.” I smiled, and tried to disappear into my seat. I remember silently reminding myself that there’s no such thing as a dumb question. I was curious about something. I asked a question and received an answer. Certainly a different answer than I expected, but an answer nonetheless.
Catholic mass is beautiful, and billions of people experience what I feel in black church in Catholic mass. The worship experiences are certainly different, but different is neither good nor bad, it’s just different.
In Dancing with God’s Grace and Sunshine on Sunday, books IV and V in my Black Diamond Series, the girls in the series are now college co-eds and young adults. They discover that one of their inner circle friends is not who they think she is and learn that another friend is managing a potpourri of differences. The girls circle up and wisely accept that different is not good or bad, it’s just different.
As our nation prepares to purge brave, selfless, transgendered persons from the military ranks, we must be reminded that sometimes different is just different. Lest we forget, people of color were different. Because of their differences, blacks were not allowed to serve in the military side by side with whites. In the segregated South, blacks were not allowed to attend school with whites, dine at lunch counters, work with or sit next to whites on public transportation that their black tax dollars helped provide. It was a different time, and it was called Jim Crow. The hard fought Civil Rights struggles helped the sleeping nation realize that “Jim Crow” different was not just different, it was unjust and wrong. Sometimes, it is too easy for those in power to view different thru a lens of right and wrong. And unless we speak truth to the power, different will be boxed and wrapped as right or wrong just like the Jim Crow laws were. Many southern whites saw nothing wrong with the “separate but equal” tenets of Jim Crow, but thankfully, there many whites saw it for the wrong that it was and worked to help end it.
Worship is worship even if the church is different. If a person is able to endure the rigors of basic training, that person should be given the opportunity to serve whether their feet hurt from wearing pumps or combat boots. The military is not holy ground. Footwear chosen as a result of gender reassignment surgery is still just a shoe. Transgendered service personnel should be allowed to remove their shoes simply because their feet hurt. In this case, different is just different. Let them serve.