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.

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