CHURCH SCARS: Bronze Jesus and the Racist Old White Lady

by Obehi Janice

Do you have “church scars”?

COOLIKANS believe that church scars are soul-deep incisions caused by man that separate us from the love of Christ and the grace of His gospel.

What is the church?

Who is the church?

Has the church ever hurt you?

Jacinta needed to be baptized by Father John but everyone was late.  As usual, our costumed party of Nigerian immigrants, kids, and community stumbled into the 9:15am mass with fanfare ten minutes too late. I knew that Father John was upset because of how slowly he delivered the rites.  He had started on time.  He spoke slowly the first half of service to accommodate the latecomers but his Gregorian pipes were tired. He was ready to dip a little Black girl’s head in Holy water.

I fidgeted in the seventh row, wearing a shin length flowery dress [with puffy shoulders the shape of mushroom clouds and a lining of taffeta that made my ass itch.] My long, relaxed hair laid down my back and I tried to hide under it. I, the eldest daughter at a mere eleven years old understood SHAME. Shame ate at my Nigerian insides, knowing that African time was not an excuse for being late to the baptismal of your youngest child. But I could feel Father John’s exasperated sighs grow.

Sigh. These people are always late.

Sigh. These people are really late.

St. Jeanne D’arc Church had a beautiful Bronze Jesus on the Cross that towered over Father John’s white and red robes. I don’t know if it was made out of bronze. I don’t know what the Catholic church can afford. But it shone like bronze. Bronze Jesus cried for our lateness and I could see His frustration and hear His sighs from the cross.

Where was my Father?

[That was me asking, not Jesus.]

My earthly Father that is.

He was the latest of us all.

It was embarrassing. I knew it was him the minute he walked in. He was rushing, but bumbling, and angry. Angry at whom? Himself? You wouldn’t have known it was a self-loathing from the way he was searching the congregation out for a face to challenge him.

SHAME.

My Father didn’t like going to this church. I don’t think he was ever baptized or anything. Then again, I never asked. We never talked about his faith.

My Father sat down in the sixth pew in front of me. He didn’t have time to acknowledge me or my mother. SHAME plumped him down feet away from his youngest daughter and her religious saving.

“This BLACK man is sitting too close to me,” an old white woman tried to whisper to her friend but her pipes were clearly strong. The entire congregation witnessed the failure of a loving God embodied in this racist old white lady.

My Father immediately knew that he was the Black man she was referring to.

In an instant, he was transformed from a Nigerian immigrant into a BLACK MAN. A FEARED THING. And we, his three older children, and his wife became his reflection. Our native costumes with its colors and shapes faded into the wash of Catholic mosaic. We were singled out for being foreign, even though we belong here just like anyone else belonged here, you know? We lived in a townhouse that my Father bought a couple of feet from the church. We were community folk technically with our red townhouse and five minute walk to church but in this moment this waning old white woman with her trembling hands didn’t want us here.

“This BLACK man is sitting too close to me.”

Bronze Jesus just wanted to observe Baby Jacinta’s baptism but the devil simply wasn’t having it. My Father didn’t take the remark lightly. He matched her fear with his fear and retaliated with his verbal strength: “I am here for my daughter. You can’t tell me where to sit or not sit. Do you know why I’m here? I will sit wherever I want!”

Silence was a friend for a good five seconds. Until Father John broke the space with the reality of why we were all here:

“Victor, can you join Rosemary and the Godparents for the baptism ceremony?”

My Father left his pew, neither defeated or victorious. Just bare. Bare naked walking to the altar. And Bronze Jesus wept for our shame.

And so began my utter dislike of the Catholic Church.

Weight Weight…Don’t tell me

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At the summit of a hike in the great PNW.

by Acasia Olson

“If you see 20 pounds on the floor, you should pick it up,” he says in jest.

We all laugh a little, though I cringe inside.

“That’s all you’re eating?  You should eat more?” she tells me, after looking at my food.

“You sound like my mom,” I reply.

“You need some more junk in your trunk as they say,” he comments.

“You need to back away from that fine line of violation since you have no right or reason to comment on my body, my weight, or as some folks attempt to argue, lack thereof,” I want to say.

I have been tall and slim all my life.

I didn’t have an issue with my body image until adolescence, when I noticed a lot of my friends and peers filling out and all I could show for it were two plums for breasts and a rump no fuller than a stack of 3 pancakes.  I would wonder when my time would come and why my clothes always seemed to fit me the way a plastic bag fits an ear of corn.  The insecurity fluctuated.  I wanted to be a fashion model at a young age, and thanked the Creator for a body that the fashion industry appreciated.  Yet, while my body type was praised on the catwalk and in the magazines, I couldn’t help but wonder if my figure made me unattractive to the guys I liked growing up.

Weight weight…don’t tell me.

“If I had larger breast, thicker thighs, hips and a derriere maybe he would look at me,” I thought.  But then I would think about the stress and frustration of having boys touch my butt or boobs and think, “I don’t want all of that,  I just want to fill a bra cup at some point in my young life.”

I received reassurance from family members who told me that my body was natural and that I wasn’t the only one in my family that served as president of the ‘itty bitty titty committee’.  My maternal grandmother remained slim and trim after delivering three children and two of my aunts on both sides of my family were thin. But (weight weight…don’t tell me) then I would look at my shorter younger sister, who has an ‘envious’ figure and would wonder how I ended up being a “stick house” and not a “brick house” like her or my mom.  My body type was celebrated by the majority of society, where women went on diets and sadly starved themselves to get to my size. I observed this to be true among white women and girls who were typically featured in ads, 20/20 reports and Lifetime movies about anorexia.  I later learned that women of color also struggled with anorexia, bulimia, diet pill addictions and ODing at the gym.  At 5’9 most women admitted to me that they would “kill” for my tall athletic build and ability to eat anything I want while maintaining my weight (which I choose not to disclose), but (weight weight…don’t tell me) in some settings I wasn’t thick enough to make the ‘cut.’ Among my black and brown peers, I was a phenotypic misfit and lacked the assets that the community seemed to praise.  Even though I loved India.Arie’s song “Video” and I connected with most of the lyrics…the line about not being “Plain built like a supermodel” made me cringe once again, for I was built like that supermodel she talked about and not like a coke bottle.  I eventually went to college, where I met other black women who came in a variety of shapes and sizes, some of whom could feel my pain.  And once again, I regained another ounce of self-confidence and reaffirmed that my black (body) is beautiful.

If I were overweight or obese, I believe that most of my colleagues and family would refrain from making weight jokes or comments on my weight directly to me ( I said most, not all).  They wouldn’t look at me and say, “Oh Acasia! Girl you look like you gained weight.  Are you obese?!”  That’s not acceptable.  So why do people think it’s fine to tell a thin person that they need to “eat” or that we don’t have enough “junk in the trunk” or that we’re “skin and bones”? I often question the motives behind said silly comments.  I’m pretty sure most people are well aware of their weight, body type and size, whether large or small.  People forget that the thin and heavier populations wake up and go to sleep in the same body and we see ourselves every day before the rest of the world does.  The reminders and announcements are unnecessary.  People also assume that we’re looking for social commentary and opinions on our bodies.  While everyone is entitled to their opinions and shouldn’t have their observations censored, I would like to think that those of us who fall outside the ‘average’ BMI range don’t need to be reminded that we are ‘outliers’ in the weight department.  I’ve tried to gain weight, in a healthy fashion, and though I can eat a lot of food without gaining so much as a pound I will not allow myself to become guilty about my weight. This is the way I am.   In no way am I trying to overshadow or belittle the reality of heavier men and women who struggle with the discomfort and widespread social stigmas associated with weight discrimination.

I just need people to think before they speak.

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Recovering from my first 1/2 marathon. Enjoying life in the wonderful PNW!