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.
Shirley Woodard, 61, has practiced Buddhism since 1974. The Baltimore resident is a Koto (chapter leader) with the Nichiren Shoshu Temple - Myosyneji Temple in Silver Spring. This is her story:
I was already a graduate from Morgan [State University] and a school teacher, so I felt like I had arrived. I said “[Buddhism] is something I can use to get more materialistic things.” So of course, the first thing I chanted for was $1 million dollars. Every other person in my family is a Baptist, so basically I still had that concept of praying, and it’s going to drop from the sky, or something like that. But when I started chanting, I really developed a better inner self. I never got my million dollars, but I got something much, much greater.
One thing about the chanting: It’s like a tarnished mirror, and you polish it everyday, and it shines. It’s a practice. It’s not something somebody can say, “Here. In order for you to believe in this, you have to do this, that, and the other.” We read five prayers in the morning, and three prayers in the evening, so it’s a daily practice.
What attracted me to being a Buddhist was that I tried it and I saw it working in my life. It’s something that I just said, “Let me try.” And once I tried it and I saw how it was something that I could use for my daily life, that I didn’t have to die and go to heaven — ‘cause your heaven and your hell exist right here — it made me very conscious of causes. Whether it be verbal, mental or whatever type of causes you may do, you get an effect from it.
I always was the different person in the family. I had the first big afro, you know. They were like, ‘Well you know that’s just Shirley.’ But I’ll tell you what: They have a great respect for me. I don’t feel like I have to debate about my religion, because I believe in my practice. Even my cousin, who’s a Baptist minister...she says she’s just seen a calmness about me. They have great respect for me as a Buddhist, and what gets me is quite a few people in my immediate family have chanted before, but every time a crisis comes up, they call me. “Can you chant for me?” I say, “You need to chant for yourself.”
I don’t believe in a God outside myself, like the Baptists. In Buddhism, there’s no beginning and no end, it’s a continuous cycle. And when you chant and you fuse with the gohonzon [wooden planks covered with Chinese and Sanskrit that detail the life of the true Buddha, ‘Nichiren Daishonin,’ and function as the object of worship], you develop the Buddha nature within you, and therefore it leads you to enlightenment. And this is for your daily life. You don’t have to worry about somebody outside of yourself as a god making decisions for you. You’re responsible for your own self. You don’t pray outside of yourself for the knowledge and stuff that you need.
I believe life is like a continual cycle. Here is a file, with all the causes I’ve made in my life. Here I am in this present form...and then, next time, in another life, I’ll come back. That’s why it’s so important to be conscious of the causes you make, ‘cause you never know.
As a Nichiren Shoshu buddhist, I have fulfilled a lot of my dreams. I have achieved a lot of things. My thing in life is to see people grow and be happy and recreate a happy world for all of us — all nationalities, all walks of life. And I feel, as a Buddhist, one by one, each person’s life that I can touch and share this practice with, one by one, will achieve that. ‘Cause that’s the ultimate goal for me.
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