Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Honorable mention — Persons of color essay contest: Jas Perry

Vol. 36 No. 08 October 2019
Jas Perry                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

This fine morning

By Jas Perry

Sitting stiffly in the last pew, I watched as my father’s family nodded and hummed to patience.

They clapped to resting, sang to searching and raised hands for the good to come.

My knees hit the wood in front of me as I tried to straighten my legs, staying aligned with the man whose head I’d been hiding behind. Then, I heard it — the lull in the organ music that presaged the dreaded sentence: “Do we have any visitors on this fine morning?”

I cast my eyes around, mimicking the rest of the room.

“Don’t be shy, now, brothers and sisters,” the pastor said, looking dead at me. I scooted down the bench until I was nearly hidden from sight.

+ + +

My grandmother had warned me earlier, as we pulled into the church parking lot, to leave my collection of Poe’s short stories in the car, devil worship and bad things exorcised with her exaggerated exhale. I kept my face passive, trying and failing to shimmy with some amount of dignity out of the passenger’s seat, while adjusting my dress.

The Poe collection disappeared that summer — maybe that day. The dress lived to see its next appearance at United Methodist the following year.

It had been earlier in the car that I was told I needed to read the bible, that there were “important things in there,” and as my grandmother spoke, I forced my gaze to stare straight ahead at the highway, afraid that engaging would shift the capacity for belief onto me.

I wanted to ask my grandparents why their faith crescendoed only after retirement — why the “important things” were important, but not enough so to be prioritized. I wanted to ask about forgiveness and devotion and what happens next.

I didn’t understand, but I wanted to.

I surprised myself then by nodding and even more by listening, though my eyes were glued to the windshield for the remainder of the ride.

+ + +

Light leaked through the stained-glass windows, underscoring the laminate page of lyrics projected on the wall with streaks of color. As music echoed through the church and I tried to focus on the words, I wondered if I could rightly call myself a humble servant (O, Lord, then back to chorus) without belief, but with respect.

Amid uncertainty, however, I recognized a certain peace that the church offered. Beyond the routine of the choir and ushers, and uncles in oversized Easter suits, it offered the promise of reunion — one day or just on Sunday. I heard the organ and the voices; I felt the spirit of a community that could make even the oldest building feel brand new, built and cared for by the people it protected.

When I met the pastor at the end of my visit, he asked about my faith before I told him my name, and my hesitation prompted my grandmother to answer for me. She leaned in close to say, “Her mother is a Buddhist.”

After a long pause, the pastor told me that God forgives.

I believed the polite thing to do was to thank him, so I did.

“Of course,” he replied. “You’re welcome back home anytime.”

+ + +

I’ll only speak explicitly on what I know, and what I know is this:

For myself, being free from religion isn’t intolerance or condemnation — it’s the opposite.

Freedom from a singular practice allows me to learn about all beliefs; it fosters receptivity. I become more open-minded and supportive by learning where religion is culturally rooted in history, community and solidarity. I engage to a fuller extent by considering the breadth of values and priorities of the people of the world — not solely my own. People of color are the secular community, as much as anyone else is; we don’t need to wait for permission.

Jas, 21, is from New York City and attends CUNY Hunter College, where she plans to earn and English degree in 2020. She works in children’s publishing and hopes to continue upon graduation