learning to be me

I have never felt completely comfortable in my own body.  For as long as I can remember, I have always been too big, too tall, too broad-shouldered, too brown.  And of course, as an offshoot of that last one, I was always too loud.  As a child, I thought that I could someday change that.  When I grew up, I decided, I would be red-headed and fair-skinned like my literary idols at that time, Anne Shirley and Pippi Longstocking.  I would take up the appropriate amount of space. If I was overly loud, it would be endearing and quirky, not met with shushing or embarrassed looks.  A place where this mentality–that of being too much–was regularly enforced was in the evangelical churches and organizations I attended growing up and into college.  

Evangelical spaces–in my case, Assemblies of God churches, tiny Pentecostal churches, and Campus Crusade for Christ–value women less than men, generally as part of their belief in complementarian theology.  If you’re a woman of color (especially one who is not petite or traditionally feminine), you’re even lower on the rung. You are exotic, you are a fine friend, but never marriage material. You are a “valued member of the team” but never the team leader, even in the instances women are allowed to lead something. If white “sisters or brothers in Christ” make racist statements or ‘jokes,’ you are expected to not cause a fuss.  The reasoning, of course, is that “they have good hearts/good intentions” and you should have the grace to be forgiving.

After awhile,you start to believe the jokes, start to buy in to the ultra-conservative, negative commentary about your people, especially if, like many POC, you already feel otherized.  Mission trips to Mexico or the Caribbean or East Asia seem right.  You have never been taught about colonialism, nor do you know what “white savior complex” means.  But you believe in the Great Commission, therefore you think you know better than the actual, real people in those places.  (Okay, I’m getting off track, maybe a post about The Problems With Proselytizing will come at a later date.)

My point is, when you start to believe these things about yourself, about your people, at least for me, you start to shut that part of yourself off.  Highlight the side of your family that came from Spain. Act embarrassed when you pronounce things in Spanish.  Be less Mexican in any way you can. Society already asks it of you, and now church does, too. (Except when they want to raise money by selling tacos.  Then, you know, orale!)

No, not all of my issues with my identity come from being raised evangelical, but the evangelical church helped form, enforced,  and relied on these views of myself.  I would go so far as to say that the churches I went to regularly took advantage of both the desperation and willing hearts of the majority-Latinx community in the small towns I was raised in.  Latinx women make 55 cents to the dollar compared to white men. I’m sure it was even less back when I was growing up. But these often-single parent, usually lower-income households were expected to tithe equally, to view financial (and other) suffering as a badge of honor, and to still find time to tirelessly volunteer with church activities.  Even now, thirteen years out of the evangelical church, I still feel guilty about having to work on Sundays, despite fully understanding that the reasons have more to do with late capitalism than whether I’m “putting God first.”  

On top of that, Latinx contributions to the church seemed to go the most unsung.  Even when we were the majority in an evangelical congregation, our voices were rarely the ones that were highlighted or heard. While Latinx women were ignored under the umbrella of complementarianism, the white male-dominated leadership structures generally overlooked Latinx men as well.  

When we were highlighted, it was generally just to include us in an exotic or different sort of light.  (Ex: “Let’s ask Sister So-and-So, who we assume knows Spanish since she’s Mexican-American.  Also, here is an awkward joke about fiery Latinas.” or “Let’s learn Spanish songs to appeal to a wider audience during this tent revival…only we’re not going to ever actually ask these new Spanish-speaking congregants what their needs are…”)

Like other types of institutional racism, overlooking us and otherizing us was generally done subtly or “good-naturedly,” and it was never questioned.  In fact, I never realized it was a thing until after I left the church. It was only in looking back that I was able to put a name on the uncomfortable moments I felt, that I could see the ways that the very core of evangelicalism took advantage of and demoralized Latinx people under the guise of encouraging us to “just have faith.”  

If asked, I’m sure that these pastors, church boards, etc., would simply say things like “the most qualified person was doing the job” or “we’re all equal in God’s eyes,” the latter statement being a typical one that is wrought with erasure.  But in making us all “equal” when it’s convenient, they quash any real diversity of thought. After all, if they are forced to look at their congregational makeup and compare it to their leadership hierarchy, it might lead to other uncomfortable realizations or discussions.  How is it right that a white male tithes the same percentage of his always-larger paycheck than a Latinx woman doing the same work for less money? Why are we trying to evangelize to those in Latin America when our own Latinx members lack support?

As any ex-evangelical knows, the evangelical church leadership hates to be questioned.  They are so married to their legalistic man-made rules that when you start to ask questions, you are silenced–especially if you are already marginalized.  So you learn to be quieter, you learn to hold more and more of yourself in.  For an awkward, loud, brown girl, it’s difficult, but you do it. You start to lose parts of yourself, but you tell yourself this is how it’s supposed to be, that it’s God’s will.  

It wasn’t until years later that I would learn that Jesus was about speaking truth to power.    That he was about helping the marginalized. That performative proselytizing was something he despised.   That he wasn’t a white, fair-haired, people-pleasing guy, but a brown man who made the people in power uncomfortable as hell.  

But learning these things required me to both let go of the evangelical belief system and recognize that said belief system had actively caused me to hide away important parts of myself.  Almost a decade and a half later, I’m still processing these truths. I’m still not totally comfortable being me, all the time, and sometimes I still feel bad for taking up space, but I’m learning.

 

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