I Thought I Was Done With Religion — Until I Considered Having Kids
Being the child of immigrants who love Jesus is why I am who I am.
If hell exists, there’s a special place in it for kids who don’t go to church with their parents. At least, that’s what I believed growing up. So, every week, I’d pile into the car with my mom, dad, and older brothers, Sam and Kwame, and head to church 10 minutes down the road from our house in Oakville, ON.
The Evangelical Pentecostal church I grew up in was not Jamaican or Ghanaian, like my parents, or even predominantly Black. But the rituals we observed every Sunday made it feel like our own, and our little family routine reminded my parents of their respective homes. Even in the whitest of places, church has always been my parents’ safe space. So, to appease them and Jesus (and to secure a spot in the Good Place), my brothers and I would play our part. Sam and I would sing (channelling our best Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife), whisper jokes about the pastor, and fight to stay awake during his sermons. Afterwards, we’d politely mingle and answer endless questions about school and sports from elders in the congregation, mostly from Vince and Evadne, a Jamaican couple who are the closest people we have to grandparents. Then we would go home and have a big family breakfast (ackee and saltfish if mom made it, French toast if we did), a practice my mom adopted from when she was a kid in Jamaica. I joke about the afterlife, but for me, going to church was never about listening to someone preach about fire and brimstone — it was about family, community, and blaring Kirk Franklin over breakfast.
When I was in my late teens, I stopped going to church. Aside from attending on a few special occasions since, I assumed I was done with religion. But in June, weeks into isolation and days after the murder of George Floyd by police, in search of connection, divine intervention, and hope, I guess, I bowed my head and talked to God. Aside from sporadic panicked pleas to ease heartbreak or find my house keys, God and I haven’t been tight like that since my bedroom walls were plastered in Boyz II Men and Backstreet Boys posters.
Growing up, praying provided me with a similar adrenaline rush to crushing on boy bands — even though it was a thing I knew millions of people did too, it felt intimate, singular, and like I had a secret BFF in the sky. Church was a less solitary experience, but at times, it was just as thrilling. For one, my family was together and looking back now that my parents are divorced, it’s even more meaningful. Two, for a few hours every week, I didn’t have to question where I belonged. Church provided my family with community and me with an uncomplicated sense of identity that wasn’t rooted in what my white classmates thought of me. Like all the Black families on sitcoms I watched growing up in the ’90s, we were church-going folk. It just felt right. And even though I left the church because of its more exclusionary beliefs, I’m thinking of starting my own family and feel a twinge of loss at the thought of my future, hypothetical kids growing up without the good things church gave me: gospel music, quality family time, and a strong moral compass.
Let me make it clear that I haven’t caught the quarantine-induced baby fever my partner has, but our talks about having a child recently have made me think more about where the religion I abandoned years ago fits into that choice. While it never bothered me that the only time my partner talks to a higher power is when he’s high on mushrooms, I have thought a lot about what raising a kid with a man from such a vastly different background than me will mean. He’s a white dude from Newfoundland. Even though I went to white schools and lived in a white suburb, my Jamaican-Ghanaian household was undoubtedly Black. And it was a sanctuary in which the value of being Black was never in question. Since our child will be biracial, they will inevitably be questioning where they fit in the world, mostly because the world will force them to do so. Church is integral to my parents’ identity, and to me, it’s synonymous with Black culture. Passing down religion feels like a small way I can ensure my future child understands and embraces their Blackness and feels connected to their grandparents' backgrounds.
I can imagine my mom walking into a church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she first immigrated from England via Jamaica in the early ’70s: stuntin’ in her Sunday best, afro out, nails done, purse matching her shoes, finding her place in a pew amidst rows of people who didn’t look like her. I can picture it because I watched her do it every Sunday of my childhood. This image of my mom has been in my head a lot lately. She was born and raised in a small town just outside of Kingston; my dad in Accra, Ghana. For my immigrant parents, Erone Newman and Joseph Bremang, who sought pieces of home in scripture and a semblance of normalcy in the familiarity of ceremony in an unfamiliar country, church is their refuge. When their marriage fell apart, each of my parents found consolation in their respective churches. My mom says religion is “the foundation of my survival.” The closer I am to my spirituality, the closer I feel to them. I want my kid to feel the same. The more I think about becoming a parent, the more I think of the way they raised me and how I can continue their legacy.
I can’t pass on my mom’s curry chicken recipe or my dad’s oxtail stew I scarfed down at the dinner table growing up since I don’t cook. Spirituality feels like the tangible thing from my parents’ backgrounds I can give to my kid if I have the privilege of becoming a parent. But it won’t be as simple as just going to church every Sunday.
To use the metric of I Can’t Date Jesus author Michael Arceneaux, I haven’t been to church in four Beyoncé albums. Right around the time the pastor’s wife told me to stop dressing so provocatively for church (the catalyst for this comment was my favourite pair of black skinny jeans), when Sam got in trouble on various occasions for doing nothing but learning while Black at the predominantly white Christian school we went to, and when I was told by a teacher that Kwame was going to hell for converting to Islam, I decided I was done with institutionalized Christianity. The anti-abortion, homophobic, Trump-supporting Evangelicals that have become more visible in recent years only made that decision easier. But it’s hard to entirely give up something that’s in your blood. That’s what church (without the bigotry) feels like to me. And I’m not alone.
Statistically, Black people self-identify as Christian (in the U.S.) more than other ethnic groups. While my generation’s interest in organized religion wanes, Black millennials are still more religious than other millennials. The research doesn’t give a reason, but I would guess that it’s because our culture is so intertwined with our faith. The British brought Christianity to Ghana (then the Gold Coast) in the 19th century and my father’s family has been Christian for generations. Black Christianity dates back to colonization and slavery, but like with most institutions designed to oppress us, Black people reclaimed the religion of their colonizers. As my mom put it: “Whites thought they could use Christianity as a tool to keep Blacks in servitude, but they did not realize it would be their path to believing in their ability to overcome any obstacle.” The soundtrack of that endurance is gospel music. The Ghanaian Presbyterian church my dad now goes to in Toronto sings songs in Ashanti Twi, his native language, and he tells me that “every aspect of it reminds me of home.” His favourite part is when it’s time to go to the altar to give offerings or donations to the church, watching fellow Ghanaian people in their best kente cloth and traditional garb dance their way up the aisles as music plays. The music has always been my favourite part, too.
Even during the years I disassociated from the church, CeCe Winans and Yolanda Adams were in heavy rotation. Whitney Houston’s “Joy (with Georgia Mass Choir)” and Beyoncé’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka the Black American national anthem) are my church. Hearing the first few bars of Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” still feels like the sonic embodiment of a Sunday morning. Gospel music raised me. When I asked my partner if he could name a gospel song, he said “Hallelujah?” like he was guessing an answer on Jeopardy (and no, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” does not count). He’s going to have to catch up. I know I want our home to be filled with the sounds of worship that make me feel like a kid again.
While my partner isn’t religious, he doesn’t consider himself an atheist. When I asked him how he would categorize his religious affiliation he said, “I’m Christian.” Record scratch. His explanation: “We celebrate Christmas.” To my man, taking part in a national capitalist holiday by opening presents and watching basketball on December 25 makes you a Christian. It’s deeper than that for me. Being the child of immigrants who love Jesus is why I am who I am.
“I know I am not an atheist,” Arceneaux writes in I Can’t Date Jesus. “For me, to let go of the idea of God altogether would mean completely sinking to a level of cynicism and jadedness that could ultimately devour me whole.” And like Arcenaux, I don’t think everyone who isn’t religious is a cynic. But for me, my faith is what keeps me hopeful in times that feel hopeless. Talking to God helps me cope with the cocktail of exhaustion, anxiety, and depression the past few months have been drenched in.
I’m not sure I’ll ever start going to a physical church again (unless it’s the Blackest and most accepting one I can find), but I do know that I want my child to inherit the spirituality that flows through my family. It just took a pandemic and impending motherhood for me to figure it out.
Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.