What is it like to be an African American who doesn’t praise Jesus Christ or Allah? Or one who doesn’t ascribe to a denomination of Christianity, such as Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal, that’s part of a historically black church?
A 2009 Pew Research analysis found that 59 percent of African Americans were members of black Protestant churches, but there were others — many others — who fell into the category of “Other.” Five out of the 59 percent were grouped as an Other Historically Black Protestant. Two out of 15 percent of black Episcopalian Protestants fell into the category of Other. Then there are Buddhists, Scientologists and yes, atheists, who fall into their own realm of Other. They ascribe to a way of life or belief system that is outside the mainstream of religions often followed by African Americans.
What are the others like? How do they fit into a society that skews to mainstream Christians, and a culture in which so many black gatherings start or end with a gospel brunch, prayer breakfast or Christian church service?
In The Other Believers, we spoke with five African Americans about their lives outside of mainstream historically black religions. Here are their stories.
Ben Fiore-Walker, 43, has identified as a Quaker since he was 14. He was born into the Methodist church, but began attending Quaker schools at the age of 5. His story is below:
The flavor of Quakerism that I grew up in... is more of an understanding...because the ultimate goal is that there’s God in everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you identify with this formalized religion or that formalized religion or that formalized religion — or no religion, no organized religion or not believing in God. There’s still God or goodness in everybody, and it’s from the person whose done the worse things in society to the person that is the model citizen. They’re still all creatures of God. I agree with that because I never liked the “We’re right, and you’re wrong, and it’s my job to save you from yourself.” I never liked that. When we learned about all the different religions and the different teachings, I saw the commonalities. It’s a fine line of allowing someone to have religious freedom. I liked the social activism.
I talked to my parents [and said] “I identify more as a Quaker. I’m having — not problems — but I’m questioning the structure of the Methodist church. [In] Quakerism they teach you to just be a good consumer of information, and really think and follow your heart, listening to people and being reflective, and that’s what I reflected on. I was old enough that my parents said “Okay”...
When [my kids] get older, I want them to go to [First Day, the Quaker day of service] and be exposed to different religions. I want them to have an understanding of what religion is and then they have the choice to follow a religion or not.
For me, race and Quakerism are two separate things. One doesn’t exclude or predispose you to the other. It’s not seen as a black or white thing. Personally for me I looked at other things to feel comfortable, not necessarily race. My sister and I went to schools where there weren’t a whole lot of black folks, so if I needed that, I wasn’t going to get that. I just kind of looked for commonality, even things as simple as football team that you like, fan-based things or experiences you’ve had or geographical location that you’ve lived in.
The fact that I’m Quaker for me is never far from me. I just so agree with that take on religion that I’ve never looked elsewhere. I have when I was younger... and it was always [that] everything was going well until it got to a point where it’s like ‘Well now you have to condemn them for this...’
[When I tell people I’m a Quaker, they respond] “A What?” And then it usually gets back to Quaker Oats, and then people talk about Amish, the Menonites, and it’s like mmm...not quite.
“Is that when you ride around in buggies?” No, those are the Amish. There’s that and talking to people about the various other religions that are similar and saying, “That’s not necessarily Quakerism as I practice.” And again, not that I am the spokesperson for the religion. I’m sure you talk to 10 to 15 Quakers, you get 10 to 15 different ways. There are a series of ways of how things are done, how the Meeting is organized, how Quakerism runs trustee boards and that philosophy of Quaker schools.
There are guidelines...but for individuals, there’s not that ‘Oh you have to do this,’ except for some very select things like pacifism. If you are in a situation where there’s aggression, there is an option for a non-combative role. A lot of Quakers traditionally are conscientious objectors, but also realizing that for some that’s not an option. I’ve always been impressed by the folks that follow their convictions and the teachings or the examples of other Quakers... ’cause sometimes I feel I have my convictions, but they’re tempered by the surroundings [I’m in]...
Come to a meeting. Come with me — but there’s no pressure. People ...want you to come regularly because they want to see you, not ‘cause they want to check you off, and now you’re part of us. It’s the Society of Friends. It’s friends together.
It’s a more personal thing, and here’s the opportunity to come, you’re always welcome, and feel what it feels like. If it’s great for you, great. If it’s not great for you, great. I hope you find what you’re looking for.
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