Georgetown law student Melanie Habwe Dickson stood nervously outside a District courtroom, waiting for the chance to argue for her client, a domestic-abuse survivor.
It was Dickson’s first time in front of a judge, and she needed something to help her relax. She pulled out her smartphone to find an inspirational verse and then remembered that she still carried an excerpt from a text she had read during her weekly Bible study group.
As soon as she looked at the page, her eyes fell on a quotation from “Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students,” a 1913 book written by Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“For what purpose are you seeking an education? Is it not that you may relieve the suffering of humanity?”
Finding that verse at that moment was no coincidence, thought Dickson, 25. God had spoken. Instantly, a sense of calm and confidence enveloped her. In times like these, when she feels anxious, afraid or unsure, Dickson relies on her faith.
So, too, do nearly nine in 10 African American women, according to a nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser F amily Foundation. The poll, the most extensive look at black women’s lives in decades, reveals that as a group, black women are among the most religious people in the nation. Although black men are almost as religious as their female counterparts, there is a more stark divide along racial lines.
The survey found that 74 percent of black women and 70 percent of black men said that “living a religious life” is very important. On that same question, the number falls to 57 percent of white women and 43 percent of white men.
But in times of turmoil, about 87 percent of black women — much more than any other group — say they turn to their faith to get through. Black women, across education and income levels, say living a religious life is a greater priority than being married or having children, and this call to faith either surpasses or pulls even with having a career as a life goal, the survey shows.
“I can’t separate my faith from who I am. It’s like being black or being a woman,” said Dickson, who grew up Catholic, drifted away from religion as a teenager but found her way back through a Bible study at a Baptist church while she was an undergraduate at Columbia University.
Clearly, according to the poll, the majority of white women are also believers. But cultural influences probably account for the racial gap, said Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Colby College in Maine.
Gilkes, an African American ordained minister and assistant pastor at a Baptist church in Massachusetts, said she has even heard as much from her white academic colleagues. “They say, ‘If my parents had taken me to a church that had music like yours, I might still be religious,’ ” Gilkes said.
African Americans are more likely to have grown up with gospel music in the background of their lives, as well as with a mother or grandmother who insisted on all-day church on Sundays and Bible school in the summers.
Inextricably woven into black culture has been the sense that devotion and faith in God more strongly connect black men and women to their slave ancestors, who leaned on religious faith to help maintain their dignity in the face of discrimination and harsh and unjust treatment.
Some theologians argue that women in general and black women in particular are more religious than men because of their experience with oppression.
“Black women have been the most mistreated and scandalized in U.S. society and culture as they wrestle both individually and collectively with the triple jeopardy of racism, sexism and classism,” said Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. “If that is the case — and I believe it is — it is no wonder that black women, due to their experience of sexism, would seek out their faith as a way of finding relief, reprieve, resolution and redemption.”
But even in the church, black women often find themselves in male-dominated institutions that are not always open to sharing power, said Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University.
“Black women provide most of the labor and a significant amount of the financial resources but don’t hold an equivalent degree of authority in these organizations,” he said.
For roughly a quarter of black women who responded to the survey, religion plays a less-than-primary role in their lives; a scant 2 percent of them said it is “not at all” important. They are women such as Sikivu Hutchinson, the author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars,” who describes herself as an atheist.
“What has religiosity and belief in supernatural beings really achieved for African Americans in the 21st century — and in particular African American women, given our low socioeconomic position?” she asked.
Hutchinson said she grew up in a household where history books and great works of literature dominated the shelves. “The Bible was something I was only cursorily familiar with,” she said. But when a schoolmate, a preacher’s daughter, once urged her to check in with God and read the Bible, Hutchinson gave it a try. Still, she said, her questions about religion remained.
Looking back on her childhood, Hutchinson wonders: “Why would children be compelled to profess belief, especially when they look around them and see that the world is overpopulated with adult believers flaunting their immorality?”
Hutchinson contends that perhaps there aren’t more black women grappling with that answer because there is little in their communities that supports a different perspective.
For most African American women, absolute trust in a higher power has been a truism for centuries. In follow-up interviews with some of the black women surveyed, there seemed to be little or no angst about their religious beliefs or their role in the church. The women said their focus is on one thing: their personal relationship with God.
He may belong to everyone, the women said, but He knows them individually, and guides them, cares for them — even chastises them. He is a God they can talk to about anything, and He talks back, not in the booming Charlton Heston-like voice of the movies, but through the seeming coincidences that occur at just the right time. It’s when that good idea or answer to something they have been struggling with just appears to come out of nowhere, the women said. And it is that deeply felt, inexplicable sense about what is right or wrong.
When life is harsh and doesn’t turn out as they expect, they say, they rely even more strongly on God.
For Loleata Griffin, her faith is literally a lifeline.
One Saturday night in May 2009, her oldest child, Michael, 18, asked whether he could go out with some friends in Adams Morgan to celebrate a new job. Griffin said yes. It was the last time she saw him alive.
Hours later, her son was on the news. According to D.C. police, Michael Griffin was killed in an exchange of gunfire with two officers, who were wounded after Griffin fired at them and refused to drop his weapon.
When her son was buried, something in Griffin died, too. “I wanted to jump in the dirt with him,” she said.
She spent months in her bedroom with the curtains drawn. Despair replaced her normally zealous motherly concern for her two school-age daughters, Priana and Paige. Griffin’s mother moved into her Columbia Heights apartment to take care of the girls.
“Just the sound of their voices calling for me, it literally made me feel sick to my stomach,” Griffin recalled.
She told her mother that she wanted to die. She saw a psychiatrist. She tried medication. She broke things. She cursed at God. Nothing worked. The anger seethed.
“I had started going to church again right before Michael passed,” Griffin said. “I asked God, ‘Why? Why did you do this?’ ”
The depression started to lift after a phone call from the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative. It was putting together a support group, Crossing the Lines, for mothers who had lost their children and asked her to join.
Many of the African American mothers were already religious, so as they came together, they found themselves opening and closing their gatherings in prayer. They invited a pastor to one of their meetings. It wasn’t intentional, but faith became the bedrock of the group.
Griffin is now its president. “Prayer is the only medication for our pain, and our therapy is faith in Jesus Christ,” she said.
Griffin also found a prayer book amid the condolence gifts from friends and family. Titled simply “Prayers,” the book taught her how to find the words to speak to God when she needed support and guidance, she sid. Eventually, she let go of the empty quest to find out how and why her son died. Her plaintive prayers of “Why, God?” were transformed into expressions of gratitude for her life and her daughters.
“I love being a mommy again. I absolutely love it, and my girls are a blessing from God,” Griffin said.
“I tried everything,” Griffin said of her quest for healing. “This is the only thing that is making me feel better — having a personal relationship with God. I talk to Him every day.”
And God has shaped the lives of her children, too. Paige, the older one, loves to listen to gospel music.
“I never knew what it was like to lose someone you see every day until my brother died,” Paige said. “Gospel music helps you to get closer to your loved ones.”
Some black women, including Tricia Elam, a 58-year-old Buddhist, have found peace in non-Christian faiths.
Elam grew up attending a Protestant church and was drawn to Buddhism in her adult years. She has been practicing the faith for 25 years, starting when she was an administrative law judge and was envious of a co-worker’s resolute calm. When she asked him his secret and he revealed that he was a practicing Buddhist, Elam went to check out a Buddhist center.
She was captivated by the sound of the repetitive, songlike chant, performed collectively by members in a group. At the time, her newfound faith was the main thing that helped her survive an acrimonious divorce, she said. “It just seemed to be something I was hungry for.”
Regardless of their brand of faith, many black women are taking their religion out of the institutional halls of worship and into living rooms and basements, where they gather to socialize, pray and share their issues with like-minded sisters. They are also using technology to host weekly prayer conference calls, in which they discuss their problems concerning money, relationships and family.
Kametra Matthews, 33, of Largo hosts a weekly 6 a.m. prayer call — billed as “Divine Divas” — with about 40 women from across the Washington region and beyond.
On Monday nights, she works to prepare the lesson, or devotion, for that week’s call, and by Tuesday afternoon she sends an e-mail that includes the Scripture passages. Matthews leads the call, which features discussion on the Biblical selection. Group members also share praise reports — everyday moments in their lives that they believe are God-inspired — and offer prayer requests, such as healing for the sick or relief from financial difficulties. And they pray together.
“I can cast all my cares on Him,” Matthews said. “Having that personal relationship with Him allows me to do what He created me to do and fulfill His purpose for my life.”
Dawn Carter, 33, of Southeast Washington also said her faith is about having an intimate relationship with God. “It’s not about getting up and going to church or a house of worship once a week,” she said. “It’s about a personal devotion and making those beliefs and practices that the Scriptures teach us a part of your everyday life.”
Carter, a third-year seminary student who also works full time in the admissions office at Coppin State University in Baltimore, said she often prays in private over the problems students confide to her. When she hears back from them that the issue has been resolved, she is not surprised. “I’ll just smile,” she said.
She is sure of the source.
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.