“Church for Sinner’s” by Paulna Valbrun
In the summer of 2017, I found myself doing something I never thought I would do, which was to move back to my hometown Detroit. I hadn’t lived in Detroit since 2006, but I decided to quit my job in St. Louis since my aunt Beebee, who I was very close to, had had a massive heart attack and was in an induced coma. I was also set to start graduate school in September so I had time to spend with my aunt before she passed and save up money for school.
It had been over ten years since I lived in Detroit so I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I had heard all the false narratives and stereotypes about Detroit, but I’ve always felt fortunate to be from there.
The Southwest side was the last neighborhood I lived in before leaving Detroit, which was mostly a working-class, Mexican-American and Latino neighborhood. I have fond memories of dancing–or trying to dance–merengue, cumbia, or salsa at many of the clubs and restaurants in that area. I was 17 years old and clueless, but no one cared as I was often grabbed, playfully, or pushed onto the dance floor, finding myself being spun around or guided across a forgiving dancefloor. All I often wanted were cheap enchiladas with mole sauce, but sitting was not allowed in any parts of Detroit once the DJ dropped the first vinyl record.
Living in this part of Detroit meant that I never had to rely on false narratives and live in fear of my neighbors because they were right there and not some “deviant other” across the train tracks. My neighborhood also bordered Dearborn which had the largest Muslim population in the United States. A quick drive down East Vernor could get me warm and affordable conchas, jarritos tamarind, halal meat, and freshly made hummus. One of my mom’s favorite restaurants was located near a basketball court where I jogged. Muhamed the owner would often bring us pita cut up into triangles with a side of hummus as we sat waiting for our food. He was originally from Yemen and often talked to us about his wife and family back home.
Of course, Detroit had its issues just like most American cities. It was really during the ’90s that Detroit peaked, in my experience, with violence and chaos. I remember sensing the anxiety of the adults as they discussed Devil’s Night, a tradition that took place the night before Halloween. It mostly consisted of masked or disguised individuals burning down abandoned houses, businesses, or cars. On the more extreme spectrum, it consisted of murder, beatings, robbings, and rape. And in general, there was often a lot of anxiety around leaving your car parked, well, anywhere to be honest. Car windows would be broken out with bricks, sticks, or bats so that the interior could be stripped for anything–if you were lucky– and if you were unfortunate you would return to an empty space, where your car had once been as if I had never existed. Oh, and of course laying on the floor of your basement during New Year’s eve because people preferred to bring in the new year shooting their guns off in no particular direction. As my mom liked to say “bullets don’t have names on them, lay your ass down.”
Being back in Detroit for an extended period of time after ten years was like seeing an old friend finally get their shit together. There were all kinds of fusion, hipster/neo-soul projects going on, and what was once the Big three’s territory was quickly turning into Shinola, Quicken Loans, Breweries, and wineries playground. The rebirth of the city meant an experimental playground for the rich. It was truly bizarre to walk in an area where I remember experiencing my first drive-by now have a bunch of cute boutiques and concept cafes for white women and their small dogs. I honestly don’t know what’s worse.
I often spent time at Town Apartments, where my childhood friend Ross lived in downtown Detroit. He invited me to accompany him to a Saturday night “Thots and Prayers” party at Temple bar. It was during their Queer night. He knew that I was having a hard time coping with my aunt’s passing. She died the second week that I returned to Detroit so he was trying to keep my spirits up. The thought of drinking and dancing around sounded wonderful, but I had promised my mom to attend church with her that Sunday for Mother’s Day.
Temple bar was an army green color and resembled a lopsided pueblo. It was a dive bar in Detroit, Michigan owned by George Boukas. Boukas bought the bar in the ’80s when Cass Corridor was a neighborhood completely blighted, full of drug addicts, and prostitutes. As if he was a community organizer, Boukas set out to befriend every resident in the neighborhood even the people deemed deviant. His friendly nature could arguably explain the bar’s ability to withstand some of the most violent periods in Detroit.
From what I could remember, we left Temple bar at 2:30 AM and spent the rest of Saturday night drinking grapefruit la Croix and whiskey, and dancing to synth-pop–embarrassing ourselves in front of Alex the boyfriend of Ross at the time. I woke up on a deflated air mattress in the walk-in closet of Ross’s studio apartment to my phone ringing incessantly, with my mom asking “are we still going or not?”
Suddenly, I remembered that I had promised to attend church with her for Mother’s Day. Her older cousin Robert was a preacher and had invited her to his father’s church. They had recently reconnected after the death of her younger sister. But I still expected her to change her mind.
* * *
My mom was revisiting Christianity after an extended, mostly permanent, break from the religion. My mom’s uncle, her father’s brother, had fled the south around 1930 during the Great Migration like many African-American’s at the time. He got a job at a factory, saved up as much money as he could, and bought a storefront to open up a small church on Detroit’s eastside. It wasn’t long before his congregation size swelled and outgrew the small space, forcing some of his members to stand outside in order to hear his sermons. Once the church members collected enough money, he started building the church with some of the other men from the congregation.
My mom likes to emphasize that when she says he built the church himself that she means he literally built the church with his hands. As a millennial, it’s hard to imagine my great-uncle going to Home Depot or whatever store they had in the ‘40s to buy bricks and mortar to actually build something himself, but decades later my great-uncle’s church still remains in outstanding condition and remains in the family.
Growing up, my mom and her siblings were forced to attend church almost every day. Bible study, choir (none of them can sing though), and whatever special program they could think of–my mom had to attend. As an adult, my mom will shudder at anything that even remotely sounds blasphemous, but she promised to never force Christianity off on her children.
The church had betrayed me too many times, but it was mainly dealing with the rigid gender roles that I loathed. I had to wear a dress, which as a “tomboy” was a death sentence for me. Selecting a dress could be tricky too. You couldn’t reveal too much of your leg or ankle otherwise people might start noticing what a scandalous whore you were. Getting dressed, posture, manners, memorizing prayers and songs felt like balancing a complicated chemistry equation for me as a girl while my boy cousins and uncles took ten minutes to get ready. What I disliked most was being made to feel dirty or less than for having a vagina. I couldn’t get on board with that sentiment. Bleeding once a month is already miserable enough. I’m not going to contribute to anything that argues that I’m inferior even though I can bleed for seven days straight without dying.
But no matter how disconnected I feel from Christianity it will always have a cultural significance to me as an African-American. Negro spirituals were intricate instructions to escape north for African slaves disguised as Christian songs, many churches served as stops during the underground railroad, and during the Civil Rights movement, plenty of churches and preachers were instrumental in spearheading the movement. One familiar example, I hope, is Martin Luther King Jr. I saw my great uncle among this trajectory and I grew up having a tremendous amount of respect for him despite never having met him. His church often served as a safe space and community center for people in Detroit and he died a bishop. With all of that being said, I would prefer to undergo a colonoscopy than attend any church service.
“Oh, there go, Robert,” my mom whispered to me as we entered the nave, and then walked briskly towards the pulpit.
I saw my cousin Robert adjusting chairs and clothes around the pulpit area. I was actually happy to see him after so many years. As a child, I remember thinking that he had a laugh like Santa Clause.
I watched my mom converse and laugh with cousin Robert for several minutes.
“Well, what did he say,” I asked my mom as she sat back next to me.
“That wasn’t Robert,” she responded, “that was his son,” she added with a poker face.
“I thought that was him too” I laughed.
“He looks just like his daddy,” she said, visibly embarrassed.
“So when will Robert get here?”
“He didn’t say.”
The sermon was given by a series of visiting preachers that stood in for my cousin while he was sick.
“I saw a Facebook post the other day,” one visiting preacher began while hugging a King James version Bible close to her chest.
“It said that Black people should stop practicing Christianity because it was a white religion. A religion practiced by the slave master that raped and brutalized our ancestors,” she continued.
“Oooh lord,” one congregation member shouted.
“You see, the devil uses his messengers to try to lead us astray.” She pointed towards the congregation.
“But nobody can taint the glory of my God,” she shouted with conviction. She never got around to addressing the history of Christianity and the slavery of Africans.
The next visiting preacher was a middle-aged man. I correctly assumed that things were going to get worse. He began with the fornication of youth in his community.
“You got women out here sleeping around, talkin’ about femilism, and feelin’ empowered,” his voice echoed throughout the nave.
“Now, I ask you, what is empowerin’ about a sinful woman?” He finished.
I shifted on the bench and thought of several bell hooks and Audre Lorde books that I would have loved to recommend to him.
“And the men ain’t no betta,” he yelled. “It’s a shame, men cheating on their wives, havin’ side chicks and even side men. Help us, Lord!” He cried out to the heavens.
“Amen,” the congregation echoed.
“It’s a shame how the media try to make us believe that sinning is okay. Can’t no man be a woman! God made you and can’t no surgeon change that.”
“Amen,” the congregation shouted again.
All of the issues in the black community in Detroit and this is the focus of today’s sermon?
“And homosexuality will always be a sin!”
The congregation clapped.
The fear of my mom quickly dissolved. I turned to my mom and asked her affirmatively “when are we leaving? I don’t want to stay here all day.”
She tilted her head back and burst into laughter. I wasn’t expecting that.
“Don’t worry, we can leave in 30 minutes,” she said trying to contain her laughter.
“30 minutes?” I asked disappointed.
Time was a non-existent concept within the institution of the black church, which often ended at 4 pm. Thirty minutes could mean 30 minutes or two hours.
“We can’t just walk out in the middle of service,” she laughed.
God, gave us free will. Yes, the hell we can.
“Okay, well good. I’m hungry and sick of being here.”
She laughed again.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked irately.
“You are one funny girl,” she replied still laughing.
I looked at my phone to distract myself from the poison being spewed from the pulpit. Oh, well at least the collection pot has not gone around, I mused. As if sensing my joy, the visiting preacher directed the ushers to pass the collection bucket around. When the usher passed me the collection bucket, I quickly passed it to my mom so that no one could notice that I hadn’t put anything in it. She quickly passed it back to me.
“Put money in,” she barked. I rolled my eyes and opened my wallet discovering, to my relief, that I only had three dollars in cash.
“I don’t really have any cash,” I said while putting my dollars in the bucket.
“You are one cheap-ass person,” she laughed grabbing the bucket from me.
“I don’t carry cash, just in case I get robbed,” I smiled cunningly.
As the buckets were going around one of the visiting preachers called up for people to receive the spirit of the lord. My mom decided to get up and receive the “spirit of the lord.” I couldn’t believe it. My mom hadn’t raised me to be religious so I was surprised to see her get up.
One rare occasion, my mom had taken me and a younger cousin to church for Easter. Towards the end of the sermon, the pastor asked for those who felt the “spirit of the lord” to rise and walk to him to become an official member of the church. I looked at my cousin, we both nodded and then quickly rose to our feet only to quickly be snatched back down by my mom.
“Uh-uh, I have shit to do after this,” she scolded us, “I don’t have all day to be here with these phonies.”
That was the skeptical woman who rose to her feet to receive the spirit of the lord, but it made sense. After two weeks of being back in Detroit, my aunt died and it devastated my family. A small part of me understood my mom’s transformation. I had fond-ish memories of my family elders forcing me and my sister to attend the family church. My aunt had been one of those people. I didn’t want to be there but in a weird way, it was nice to be reminded of her forcing me to put on those frilly socks for girls and the dreaded dress to attend church with my beloved aunt. Perhaps my mom was feeling the same thing and maybe it was nice to just believe in something–some form of life after death after losing someone unexpectedly.
Members of the congregation began displaying signs of experiencing the holy ghost, by dancing around, jogging in place, and fainting.
“Ooooooooooh lord,” one lady shouted and then began speaking in tongues.
“For those of you who haven’t come down to receive the spirit, now is your last chance,” the preacher echoed ominously.
My ass is staying planted.
One by one, people walked up to him so that he could place his hands on their heads to receive the spirit.
Once everyone sat back down, he said: “ hopefully next time the devil won’t keep you in your seat and away from receiving the word.”
I thought that I saw him look at me when he said that but I didn’t care. Maybe he had his suspicions about me, but now I was okay with church people judging me. I knew that I couldn’t win with them. Either way, I would be deemed a jezebel or harlot. Yes, I’m in church hungover–possibly still drunk– after a night out at a gay bar. And the excuse that homosexuality is a sin is a tired excuse and exemplifies that lack of understanding of the Bible, which has 31,102 verses and mentions homosexuality in six or seven of them, depending on who you consult (Genesis 1-2, Genesis 19:1-9, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10)
If we really want to talk about what’s hurting the black community in Detroit lets talk about the fact that around 30,000 Detroiters don’t have access to a grocery store, 48 percent of households are food insecure, 40 percent are enrolled in SNAP benefits or food stamps, and 48 percent of the stores in compliance with WIC programs are liquor stores (not the best place to get your kids cranberry juice.)
When we finally left the church for brunch at the Republic, it was such a relief. For once, I could afford to buy brunch for myself and my mom for Mother’s Day.I didn’t even bother to bring up how I felt about that church service. I had already spent years telling my mom how I felt about organized religion. I believed in God and my mom was content with that. And sometimes it’s nice to suspend your beliefs if it comforts someone in their times of suffering–in her case losing her younger sister who was the backbone of my maternal family.
I would enjoy brunch with my mom and then head back to Ross’ to prepare for another night of poor choices. I definitely felt more comfortable being with other queer people, dancing at Temple Bar, and feeling free to be myself, as opposed to sitting in church, being told that I was dirty and inherently bad. Even if I spent my evening sitting at the bar alone, watching my friends dance with strangers, I would be content.
Featured image courtesy of author.
Paulna Valbrun is a writer, traveler, and teacher for First-Year English Composition and Nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire. She is a fellow of the Winter Tangerine Workshop (2019) and has also been a recipient of a STAF grant from the University of New Hampshire. Paulna’s work has appeared in In Parenthesis Magazine, Midnight and Indigo, Rigorous Magazine, the Roundtable of Karen House Catholic Worker, and All the Art St. Louis. She has presented her creative works at the University of Albany EBSCO conference (2019)
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