Belief

Christians of Color Are Rejecting 'Colonial Christianity' and Reclaiming Ancestral Spiritualities

After a solid majority of white Christians voted for Trump, the chorus of people of color has grown louder.

Photo Credit: janetleerhodes / Shutterstock

This is how quickly it happened. One moment we were passing sumptuous kebob platters around the table making polite introductions, and the next we were swapping trauma stories that we—all people of color, many LGBTQ—had experienced in what were essentially white Christian spaces.*

There was the black nonprofit worker who attended a Christian conference in the rural Southeast, where she had to walk past white men staring her down from pickup trucks draped in confederate flags; there was the Indo-Latinx therapist who saw white Christians co-opt practices from other cultures, such as drumming or yoga, while erasing and demonizing the people they came from; and then there was me, the Chinese-American journalist who spoke at a Virginia Christian college where a white man verbally attacked and followed me prompting the provost to hide me in a secured room.

Among my dinner companions there was no need to explain the specter of racial violence and erasure lurking in our lives. Understanding came immediately, as did suggestions for coping in such a hostile climate: essential oils for anxiety, Valerian root for insomnia, comedy for the rage—the list went on, stretching into the night. Here, in this brightly lit restaurant on Chicago’s South side, the dinner party turned group therapy.

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Fewer than a dozen of us were gathered to begin a weekend spiritual retreat hosted by the Mystic Soul Project, a new Chicago-based organization working to create spiritual spaces that center people of color, including their trauma, gifts, experiences, ancestral traditions, and activism.

Mystic Soul is part of a broader movement of people of color moving beyond dominant Christianity, which largely reflects white culture, to chart their own spiritual initiatives, ones that increasingly incorporate the faith traditions of their ancestors. For the departing, simply put, white Christianity is no longer enough. More precisely put, it was never enough.

This movement isn’t new, but after a solid majority of white Christians across traditions voted for a president who courted white nationalists, the chorus of people of color seeking refuge has only grown louder, its reach wider, and its work to decentralize white theology more deliberate.

For some, that means decolonizing their Christian faith from white patriarchy and capitalism. For others, that means connecting to ancestral faith practices, such as Yoruba, Buddhism, ancestor veneration or particular tribal traditions. For others, it’s an amalgam, a synthesis of severed history, personal heritage and truths from other traditions. For most, it means imagining a spiritual wholeness that has been denied for so long, and chasing it with abandon.

The point is the return

I received an invitation to the Mystic Soul retreat from one of its founders, Teresa Pasquale Mateus, a trauma therapist and author of Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. My book, Rescuing Jesuscame out a month after hers, and after running into her frequently on the Christian conference speaking circuit, I learned about the origins of Mystic Soul and how it echoes the larger chorus of Christians of color cultivating spiritual communities.

An adoptee from Bogotá, Colombia, named after the Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila and raised by a white Catholic family in New Jersey, Pasquale Mateus has always felt drawn to mystical spirituality. In her twenties, yoga and meditation became a lifeline as she healed from sexual trauma. But because these traditions didn’t speak her religious language, she turned to the Christian contemplative movement. There she experienced “this deep connection to God in the faith that I learned, in the dialect that I knew best.” But one problem remained. The movement’s white leadership, white theological framework and expensive retreats largely excluded people of color and their concerns, says Pasquale Mateus. “It still didn’t speak to the wholeness of me,” she says, particularly “my brownness.”

The modern American Christian contemplative movement sprung out of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when globalization exposed Americans to eastern traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In turn, Christian monastics and lay leaders, like Trappist monk Thomas Keating, began to offer Christian contemplative exercises like centering prayer—a silent, meditative practice. Pasquale Mateus explains that the movement filtered through predominantly white communities and erased a crucial detail from Christian mysticism’s history: that its forebears were men and women of color. She points to “the Desert Fathers and Mothers,” the third-century North African mystics who formed monastic communities, practiced meditative prayer, and lived their lives in service.

Not only did the contemplative movement whitewash these roots, but it offered practices notably stripped of activism. This, she says, ignores the model of Jesus, whom she calls, “the original mystic.” “You go into the desert for forty days and then you come back and do some shit with it,” she says. “You create radical justice and revolution in the world—that’s the point. The point is the return.”

Frustrated, she looked for others who could relate. She found Ra Mendoza, a third-generation Mexican American from both the mainline and evangelical Protestant traditions. In college, the contemplative movement brought Mendoza’s spirituality to life, but as a post-college social justice activist involved in movements like immigration reform, Black Lives Matter and racial justice, she realized that it ignored the struggles of communities of color. “So I threw it away,” she says. Still, she missed it.

These sentiments resonated with Jade Perry who, after growing up in the black evangelical church and experiencing white evangelicalism in college, had left these traditions for a “Christian-based hybrid spirituality” that connects to mystical traditions. Like Pasquale Mateus and Mendoza, Perry often found herself the lone person of color in white Christian spaces, searching for a place that allowed her spirituality and activism to work in tandem.

When the three finally met at a bustling Chicago pizzeria in 2016 it was clear they had found their people: other black and brown women whose activism was vital to their spirituality. A few pizza slices later, the Mystic Soul Project was born.

Trauma travels with you

When I showed up to the retreat, I didn’t know what to expect. I left formal Christianity in my twenties, and as a female journalist of color who covers the tradition, I find myself entering Christian spaces prepared for both inspired moments and, quite honestly, aggression.

My body had been on guard since the election. I’d been following the barrage of racial hate crimes with spiking anxiety, and memories of racially-motivated violence I’d experienced kept resurfacing. Then, weeks after the inauguration, I traveled to Virginia and narrowly evaded a belligerent white man at a speaking gig. I remember how my biology took over: adrenaline surged, my stomach twisted, my heart raced. Later that night I barely slept thinking about my response to the man; I had tried to quell his anger by reminding him of our shared humanity, and when that didn’t work, I firmly stopped him from hijacking the conversation. It had been justified but risky in retrospect. What if he had turned violent?

I thought about the self-proclaimed white progressive Christians in the audience, silent and deferential as the man hurled hostility my way.

But when I shared this story over kebob platters at the retreat, my dinner companions got it and I was struck by how the knot in my stomach unclenched just a little. The first activity the next morning was caring for the body, a theme throughout the retreat, which consisted of breathing, stretching, energy work, and other exercises.

Mid-morning, Pasquale Mateus sat in the lotus position as the rest of us sprawled out on green yoga mats and listened to her speak on a subject seldom discussed in white churches, but one she believes is crucial to healing communities of color: intergenerational trauma.

For Pasquale Mateus, understanding the genetic passage of trauma over generations can explain community afflictions and help in the path to recovery.

Some findings in the growing field of epigenetics, which studies changes in gene expression, suggest that the genetic transfer of trauma helps prepare descendants for similar scenarios. For example, experiments with mice report that when trauma is associated with a specific smell, the next two generations of their offspring inherit that olfactory trigger. For pregnant women during 9/11 who developed PTSD, their offspring mirrored their stress hormone profile. A 2015 study out of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found similar altered genetic profiles among descendants of Holocaust survivors, predisposing them to a litany of mental health risks, including obesity, hypertension and post traumatic stress disorder, among many other ailments.

Communities that have experienced colonization, slavery, genocide, war, and racial violence are especially primed for the consequences of intergenerational trauma, Pasquale Mateus noted. “You already have this encoding that says that trauma travels with you; it’s just waiting for something to ignite it.” She calls that ignition the “light switch” turning on. It can come in a variety of forms: “early childhood trauma like racism, emotional violence, the impact of mass incarceration on family systems, on communities—light switch, light switch, light switch.”

Pasquale Mateus explains that the pattern affects whole communities, generation after generation, compounding social blight until the narrative sticks: “Violence, domestic violence, suicidality, depression, obesity—these things are seen as some kind of disposition of people of color.” Society blames these miseries on communities of color, when in fact, she argues, the impact comes not only from ongoing forms of abuse, but from those who inflicted the original injuries.

But Pasquale Mateus remains hopeful. As a trauma therapist and scholar who has worked with a wide range of trauma victims—including combat veterans, refugees and survivors of sexual assault—she believes the afflicted can rewrite the narrative and stop the cycle.

Though she draws from a diverse toolbox, the retreat I attended focused on harnessing the spiritual traditions of our ancestors.

Erasure, displacement, drumming 

I hear this refrain everywhere: so many Christians of color across the country long to reconnect with the spirituality of their ancestors. I’ve been reporting on Christianity for a decade, but in the past year, far beyond Mystic Soul, I’ve routinely heard Christians of color from mainstream evangelical institutions, white Christian communities, and multiethnic churches voice this desire for many reasons. For some, there is power in seeing people who look like them represented as the originators of a tradition. There’s freedom in connecting to traditions available to everybody, in honoring ancestors erased from history, in letting that wisdom fortify their existing faith.

Also, the activism articulated in teachings of ancestral traditions offer strength and purpose. And while this return to roots is not entirely unique to Christians of color (strains of white Christians have been harnessing the mysticism of Celtic traditions), for many minorities ancestral traditions offer them a way to reconnect with a history that’s been severed and erased. In interviews, I’ve heard how expanding their spiritual lens helps them see how Christianity actually does offer so many of these things—a tradition founded by people of color, scriptural guidance for activism, and a retethering to history—despite their experiences with the colonized version often stripped of these crucial elements.

Since meeting at a conference in 2016, I’ve been following the work of Bianca Louie, an Oakland-based researcher who writes about how queer Asian American Christian identity interacts with conservative white evangelicalism. When I called her for this article, Louie, who is Cantonese American, revealed that she herself is on a personal journey toward connecting with her mother’s spiritual tradition. Growing up, she heard evangelical Christians call Buddhism “demonic,” so she internalized this condemnation and distanced herself from her mother’s faith.

As she seeks to unlearn and relearn messages about her mother’s Buddhism, she’s trying to let go of the fear that once held her back. “I just don’t want to be so afraid,” she says.

The more people I spoke to, the more I realized the depth of the rift people of color felt with their own ancestral traditions. And it’s not for lack of trying. AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez, whose job is to address and educate others on issues of race, ethnicity and identity, has sought details of her ancestors, indigenous people in Venezuela, but has struggled against the erasure that has resulted from colonization, the passage of time, and her own displacement as a child adopted and raised in the United States.

I’ve spoken beside Velasco-Sanchez on a panel about intersectional justice and I follow her work as a director at The Reformation Project, where she advocates for racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion in the church. It’s clear that she has devoted her life to unpacking the complexities of identity in church, society and in her personal life; but even so, at times some ruptures seem too gaping to mend.

“I don’t have access [to] or even secondhand knowledge of what the traditions of my ancestors are,” says Velasco-Sanchez. “I have this really sad diluted recognition that I am a woman of indigenous heritage. I don’t know what tribe I belong to. I don’t know what language they speak or spoke before they were colonized.”

Across the wide sweep of colonial history, the systematic demonization and erasure of local religion served as a key strategy to empire building. The consequences can still be seen today across the globe.

“The erasure of belief systems and practices was intentional and almost complete,” Barbara Holmes, President of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and professor of ethics and African American religious studies, wrote in an email. “All over Africa you find people dressed as Quakers of a past era, wearing formal Presbyterian robes in the middle of the desert, singing ‘Amazing Grace’ instead of their own drummed invocations. It’s weird and sad.”

Across these desecrated geographies, colonizers forbade traditional practices, drumming in particular, because it was a form of communication and they feared it would incite rebellion.

At the Mystic Soul retreat, Pasquale Mateus explained how eradicating and demonizing drumming, a tradition in tribal lineages globally, stripped people of a practice vital to their health and community. Today, some researchers report that group drumming reduces anxiety and depression, increases social resilience and boosts the immune system, along with other physical and mental health benefits. “So this thing that was inherently happening in all tribal lineages was healing the very things that were hurting people,” says Pasquale Mateus, adding that they didn’t need science to motivate them. “They just did it.”

But with today’s scientific backing of drumming’s health benefits, clinical practices like neurotherapy or neurobiofeedback can achieve similar results. “So you erase out of history the very thing that not only heals indigenous people but heals everyone, and then you sell it back,” said Pasquale Mateus, as groans of disappointment rippled across the room.

Sure, some in the room felt vindicated by these studies, but they didn’t need them to affirm what they already knew, they said. Attendee Chantelle Todman Moore, an Afro-Caribbean life coach, was trained in classical music from an early age. But as an adult, she claimed the djembe as her “spirit instrument” and has sensed how its “rhythm and movement feel like homecoming and healing.” When Jade Perry was growing up, her family came together regularly to play the congas, which her mother called “the heartbeat of God.”

“When we would end,” she said, “people would just be weeping.”

From dogma to dream time

The movement of people of color reclaiming traditional practices is anything but formulaic. The approaches are as diverse as the multiplicity of ethnicities, experiences and perspectives that fall under that umbrella. But some recent scholarship suggests a common thread: where Western Christianity has relied historically on doctrine and dogma aimed at the individual, many non-European spiritualities can lean toward prioritizing experience, context, and values that connect with the entire community.

Barbara Holmes explained African American spirituality as springing from a shared cultural understanding, even though “that cultural history does not reach back to the continent of Africa.” She writes:

We do not know tribe or location, and Africa is a very diverse continent. So, if we are trying to reclaim practices, we are grounding that reclamation in what I call ‘geo-spiritual’ spaces: historical memory, spiritual amalgamations of dream time. We are putting together the pieces of what is left and what we imagine. That which was lost is recreated artistically and spiritually.

Syncretism, or the layering and combining of distinct belief systems, has always been embraced by many African Americans, she adds. “More are exploring Buddhism, Sufism, and African Traditional Religions in adaptive waves.”

Russel Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, describes the hybridized practices adopted by some Asian Americans. He sees how Vietnamese Americans create home shrines that blend the traditional—a single photo of an ancestor beside assorted fruits—with a touch of “Americanization,” such as adding significant ornaments or a photo montage that personalizes the shrine.

Meanwhile, second generation Korean American churches practice a distinct form of simultaneous spoken prayer, which “stems from a shamanistic practice that has been adopted by Christians.”

Chinese Americans tend to eschew binary definitions of what it means to be religious. They’re considered the least religious ethnic group in America, but they don’t fit neatly into the labels of “atheist,” “agnostic” or “spiritual but not religious,” says Jeung. They subscribe to a “familism that can be seen through the concept of li yi,” a Confucian term that emphasizes values and rituals that lead to good relationships with others, he says.

This emphasis on relationships over doctrine is echoed often in the Native American religious reality as well, says Randy Woodley, Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary. In his book, Shalom and the Community of Creation, he describes how, in many Native American tribal traditions, truth is revealed in lived experiences. And it’s correct actions and practices—not correct words—that reveal true beliefs. Woodley argues that belief is over-emphasized in the Euro-American religious reality, where doctrine supersedes correct action or practice.

It’s through this framework that dominant Christianity, especially conservative strands of it, has often condemned syncretism: anything outside the bounds of certain doctrine can be called out as heresy. For Christians of color embarking on reclaiming ancestral traditions, letting go of the dogmatic elements of any particular tradition—whether Catholic or evangelical—is often a difficult first step. From there, their journeys take varying paths.

Bianca Louie says she’s just at the start of her journey. White evangelicalism instilled in her so many “toxic messages,” she says, and this is just one of many that she’s detoxing from. On top of unlearning anti-LGBTQ and binary theologies, Louie has shifted away from the perspective that her Cantonese-American Buddhist family needs to be “saved.” With each step, Louie is beginning to see how her mom’s Buddhism is something lived out in her life—in the way she cares for people and in the way “she sees the interconnectedness of people in a way that feels counter-cultural to the individualist capitalist” American way.

Even though AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez feels cut off from her ancestral faith heritage and at times “not native enough,” she hasn’t stopped seeking that connection. In 2016, she joined the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation. She spent her time in the kitchen in the Hoopa camp where a small band of volunteers stood over gas stoves and served thousands. The native women she cooked alongside of saw her as their own, even if their geographic origins differed. At one point, a pair of donated boots with a native aesthetic arrived on the camp. They wanted to give the boots to a native woman, so the kitchen staff had a Cinderella moment, all taking turns trying them on. When Velasco-Sanchez tried them on, they fit perfectly. The moment meant everything to Velasco-Sanchez. “It was being invited into that very feminine, sisterly circle. You belong here. Of course you should try these on.”

To Velasco-Sanchez her time in Standing Rock strengthened both her Christian faith and her tie to sacred Native traditions. When people question her ability to reconcile the two seemingly opposing world views, she reminds them that “Christianity is not a religion of white European men; stories in scripture are of people of color challenging systems and winning.”

She also highlights the power of Native spirituality, and how it strengthens her own faith. For example, at Standing Rock, prayer cloaked every moment of the day. “It transformed the way we approached everything,” she says. It quelled anger, softened tough moments and surrounded interactions with grace. The cooks even prepared meals with the cloak of prayer. “Make sure you’re in the right mindset,” the others told Velasco-Sanchez. “You want good medicine going into the food because the food you’re making is meant to nourish people who are trying to stand in resistance.”

Though the Mystic Soul weekend was spent grappling with trauma, appropriation, uncertainty and infighting, we were also encouraged to remember that people of color are more than their trauma, and that our stories are rich and full of joy. During one group activity, Jade Perry invited us into a moment of silent contemplation as we thought about all the things from our culture that bring us joy.

Pasquale Mateus, Perry and Mendoza say they deliberately planned these moments of full expression. For Perry, this exercise sprouts from what she calls “one of my favorite contemplative activism scenes” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “Baby Suggs is talking to the slaves that are in the clearing and just telling them to laugh and to weep and to dance and to give full expression to all of your emotions, because you’re a human being and you need that and you’re worthy.”

__________

Anita Little contributed reporting.

* Though I attended this event as a journalist, I had agreed to the condition that I step outside my role of observer and participate in the conversations. As background, I’ve covered the intersection of Christianity and race for a decade, and used to personally be a part of white, multiethnic and monoethnic evangelical circles.  –DJL

Deborah Jian Lee is a journalist, radio producer and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon, 2015).