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.” Of the 59 percent, 5 percent were grouped as an Other Historically Black Protestant. Out of 15 percent identifying themselves as black Episcopalian Protestants, 2 percent 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 is the story of one of them.
The Rev. John Crestwell, 43, is the minister of outreach leadership and evangelism at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. He has been a minister within the church for eight years. This is his story:
A Unitarian Universalist is how I describe myself, but if I described my theology, I would describe my theology as a deist, humanist, existentialist with a shot of Christianity and a twist of taoism. ... If someone said, ‘Well what does John believe?’ they would find my belief systems within all those different faiths, and Unitarian Universalism gives me that space to be that. Instead of telling people I’m “all of what I just said,” I just tell people I’m a Unitarian Universalist.
I always went to church, starting at age 10. I grew up in the United Methodist church. The church was always good to me. It helped instill values and a support system, so I’m thankful to that church. But somewhere around the time I turned 16, a very pivotal year, I really began to think I was called to ministry through a series of dreams that I had. And also in that same year, I was put in a Martin Luther King speaking contest. That was pivotal because from that point on, I began to ask questions about religion and about King’s theology, actually what shaped him. I was always curious to how did he get to this point, and how did his thinking evolve. Most people think Dr. King was a fundamentalist Christian. He actually wasn’t — he was more of a person who believed in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus as a model to live our lives, not so much to be worshipped.
I actually had a scholarship to go to seminary, but those questions lingered. I was trying to put them behind me, and so I would slip from my biblical fundamental to my skepticism back and forth. I didn’t do well my first year. In fact, I think I had a low C average. I contemplated leaving, but I stayed. I eventually became the person in seminary, when I raise my hand, my professor would say, “Oh, boy ...” because I started asking questions.
I began to see religion in a different light, but I didn’t know if there was a place for me. I was reading a religious almanac called “Religions in America” by Leo Rosten. Eventually I got to Unitarian Universalism, and when I read it, I just literally cried, just like, “Oh my God, this is exactly what I believe.” There had never been any religion that I could read everything on the page and agree with their beliefs, everything — just in terms of my belief system. I knew then and there I was going to be a Unitarian Universalist. What I didn’t know was that I was going to be walking into a very non-diverse religion. Virtually 95 percent of Unitarian Universalists are white, and it may be higher than that, I don’t know. What I cared about was the fact that these people represented my belief system.
I’ve been involved in a process to help racially reconcile Unitarian Universalism. I had been placed in a cause that I didn’t necessarily expect, but they believe in Dr. King’s vision of beloved community, and their first principle is the inherent worth and dignity of all people. ... Upper middle class, well-educated whites ... want to talk about the issues and think about the issues, but really they don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable, because this is their church. This is where they find comfort and solace. This has been the next phase of my life.
Religion now, I’m not angry at any religion anymore. I see religion in a very different light, because now I look at religion through symbols, mythological and what it represents for people, this sort of yearning for the answers to life and death and the space in between, basically.
Everything we say says “responsibly” behind it, and that you are accountable to a larger community. So we say that you have a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, free and responsible. Yes, you are free to find out what you wish to believe, whether you choose to roll with atheism or Buddhism or whatever, or just call yourself a Unitarian Universalist.
I walked into the first Unitarian church I had ever been a part of in 2001, and it was mostly a white church. I was immediately embraced by the minister there because he knew we were coming. He was the first person to tell me how unwelcoming the church had been to people of color. I said, “Whatever, this is who I am.” So I walked in and we were embraced — my family, we were embraced by the whole congregation.
I eventually became the minister of that church. We became a diverse church, probably one of the most diverse Unitarian churches in the country. We became a breakthrough congregation and got an award for it. [I] went through a divorce in that church — that kind of changed my thought process, a lot — and was called to the church in Annapolis, and now we’re on the same journey to become more welcoming to people of color. Because we know that we can’t truly be Unitarian Universalism if we’re not looking like what we feel the world should look like. Since I’ve been there, the church has gotten more diverse. We’ve added a Sounds of Spirit choir and band, and we’re doing a lot better. We’re only 10 percent diverse, but we’re working on it.
I want to create a Unitarian Universalism that reflects who I am, where I’m from, and what I believe.
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