In a moment of unscripted ecstasy, during a recording for jazz and gospel artist Damien Sneed, Bishop Iona Locke illuminated that “under a dark canopy” many self-identifying Christians show up to places hiding what she calls the “introspect.” The introspect for Locke could easily be interpreted as what’s quintessentially known as church hurt. For the sake of this reflection, I would like to use the metaphor of the dark canopy to explore the recent social media phenomenon around #ChurchHurt.
Following the Fourth of July holiday, the hashtag #ChurchHurt appeared on Facebook and Twitter. The statuses and tweets ranged from light-hearted mishaps that happen between singers and musicians to stories of sexual and mental abuse by persons in leadership. Some of the responses illuminated systemic administrative issues the beleaguer churches nationwide, while instances were denominationally or even specific to one church. It certainly wasn’t hard to find individuals who listed multiple grievances concluding that’s why the left the Church altogether; no turning back. From a casual observance, however, overwhelmingly, the user accounts that participated in this pseudo-conversation were black.
Without much pause for reflection, responses to the participants weighed in swiftly. These responses admonished participants by defending the Church citing the social services that they provide in local communities. Later, others joined in by admonishing the admonishers for their perceived lack of care and sympathy for those that chose to bare it all. Quickly, #ChurchHurt became a thing worthy of comment as unadulterated emotions and unhealed wounds bled onto comment threads; affirmation of pain and suffering became reduced to likes and retweets.
I was struck by the reality that many of those that voiced authentic testimonies of church hurt, if not a very close percentage of unanimity, don’t have the opportunity to voice these grievances in person in their local church. Think about it: Is there ever an opportunity for pew members to voice their battles with church hurt on any level of equanimity? At best, quarterly or annual church meetings are the time and place for discussion, but more often than not, these spaces are controlled and patrolled by church leaders.
In a 2017 interview with The Grio, Rev. Michael Walrond of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem gives the example that if one restaurant is providing you bad service or food, you simply don’t go to that one restaurant again, you don’t quit restaurants altogether. While this is good rule-of-thumb advice, it falls bankrupt when a commonly used food item such as lettuce or ground beef is tainted with salmonella or e. coli and is distributed widely across food markets; fast food chains, fast casual and casual dining. It appears that many churches receive their administrative as well as spiritual and community organizing approaches from a nebulous distribution source that is poisoned by dithering and despotic forms of diplomacy and an intentional renouncing of pastoral care practices. In other words, the basic undergirding assumptions by which many of have church and do church are so broken, they aren’t equipped to handle the vast amounts of people who have been victims of church hurt. Far too many have experienced symptoms of discomfort, hostile work environments and instances that become unsafe and outright dangerous in our churches to be ignored. Given that a recall on the product will never happen, the safest option for many isn’t to go to another restaurant, but rather find a way to cook and eat at home and save some money.
One of the primal takeaways for me was that most churches don’t have mechanisms in place to provide basic and needed constructive feedback to church leadership and ultimately no accountability. From addressing musicians who need to leave for bathroom breaks once the sermon starts to the Brobdingnagian problems of sexual harassment and abuse, many churches fail to provide an overriding superstructure to hold space for grievances. There is no chain of command for church employees to discuss hostile work environments. There is no recourse for the young man or young woman who’s the victim of unwanted advances by either an older member or an actual church leader. There is no in-road for the young adults of the church to actualize their own self-empowerment. When laments are rendered silent because of inadequate systems meant to quell dissent, the sentiments fester and rot, transmogrifying resentment into church hurt.
Despite it being a source of pain for many, rarely is the hurt and pain caused by the Church ever discussed inside churches. Aside from the trauma that families and intimate partner relationships can cause, institutionally, the Church, as we know it, is perhaps at the top of the list of places that are the source of individual hurt and pain. While many may have high investments in other institutions such as education or politics, the obvious spiritual and theological components of the Church further complicate an already labyrinthine ordeal: attempting to find recompense for what may be a lifetime of pain.
What the hashtag #ChurchHurt showed me was that lay leaders and hired church workers need to do a better job of being self-reflexive on the ways that we contribute to church hurt. Pious language and scripture quotes used in defense of an institution that is the source of pain and suffering is no different than Republican leaders quoting the Constitution and offering First Amendment defenses of a pusillanimous president who is unfit for office claiming “make America great again.” As long as church leaders abdicate their responsibility to create and hold a safe space to hear complaints, accept the grievances and implement ways of change, this injurious dynamic resulting in church hurt will continue unabated.
Locke, in her unscripted prophetic flow, reminds us that people show up to church “under a dark canopy” hiding their tears and broken-heartedness hoping that no one can see them, while desperately pleading that God performs the miracle and fixes it. Far too often, the victims of church hurt find their liberation outside of walls of the church building. Instead, churches ought to invest in administrative structures that allow for legitimate complaints to be filed and followed-up by persons qualified in human resource management. Time should be set aside at deacons’ meetings and other church leadership meetings in which regular pew members have the opportunity to voice their concerns. Individuals, lay or otherwise, should be designated “safe persons” by which individuals can report sexual assault and abuse, and that person should be empowered to tell the truth even if it means a toppling of church leadership.
No longer should individuals attend, participate and work at churches under a dark canopy. As God’s hands and feet on earth, church leaders should be interested in healing the priesthood of believers, not shaming and guilting them into silence via Facebook statuses and tweets. Mustering the courage to testify in public is already hard enough; there’s no need for pastors and preachers feigning knowledge of pastoral care and psychology to self-insulate themselves from scrutiny and criticism.
However, as Locke prophetically utters, God always meets us where we are and is always invested in holistic healing. “God hears the cries, sees the tears and notices the brokenness of your heart.” The writer of Revelation reminds us that we have victory by the word of our testimony, even if under a dark canopy.