Crisis of Faith: How ‘Christian Trump-mania’ Led To My Exploration of an African Indigenous Religion
I was gifted to the earth 52 years ago, the product of a union between my devout Christian mother and good-without-God dad (who was also good without the noose of children and corresponding money burdens that come with).
For the first half of my life I followed all the standards — written and unwritten:
- Regular attendance to church and midweek Bible study
- Life’s compass set to being a Proverbs 31 wife and mother (incidentally, that’s why I ended up penning a storytelling series called #Proverbs32)
- Men above women
- Submission to authority
- Be afraid of curiosity, for it breeds contempt for tradition
- Fear the preacher, for he is God’s representative on earth (sort of like a ‘Jesus Jr’)
- The flesh is bad, emotions are tricky, and spirituality is spooky
- Trust tradition and the scriptures, even if neither makes sense in the present
These faith standards were burdensome. Also, sometimes they didn’t work. Still, I chose to align my life to these practices.
Then election night 2016 hits. Local and national media outlets report that 80% of white Christians voted for a man who was in open violation of all standards of decency, especially the Christian ones. When given a choice, my white brothers and sisters cast their lots with an alleged billionaire wife-and-tax-cheat who probably would not have imaged like a 70-year old toddler if he had simply put an extra zero on the porn star’s check after she whooped his ass with that magazine. I am convinced he would have been more statesman-like.
But he wasn’t a statesman. Or a gentleman. Or a kind man. He was vulgar and vile — unapologetically so. I wondered what they saw. We clearly weren’t seeing the same thing.
It was in this space that I began to question what I had been taught to believe — soup to nuts.
Along the same time, I met a master storyteller/priestess who practiced Yoruba, a West African indigenous religion. Back then, I served as the curator of worship for a United Methodist Church in downtown Phoenix. We were known for being an affirming Christian congregation that also embraced mystery. Every January we hosted an interfaith sermon series where the preaching time would be turned over to a leader of a different faith tradition. If God chose to use leaders from another region and belief system to herald the birth of Christ, what else was God announcing through other faith traditions? We invited these leaders to come in a way that suited them and to give us whatever they wanted to share about who they were and how they were called to be in the world. In January 2017, I invited this Yoruba priestess/master storyteller to participate in the series.
When I extended to her the invitation, she asked for my date of birth. I told her and thought nothing more of it. The morning that she was to speak, I met her in the church parking lot. She told me that she had been kept awake all night by her Orishas who had a message for me. She couldn’t give me the message then, and, instead, invited me to her sanctuary for a private reading. I was nervous. Even though I was questioning my tradition, including my ways of understanding things like “readings”, I also knew that something had gone horribly wrong in the American Christian tradition — my proof sat in the White House. I was unwilling to continue believing what may not be the whole story.
A couple of weeks later, I arrive at her ‘sanctuary’, fearing that I would see blood and chicken feathers. Instead, there were cloths from her world travels, books, candles, and pictures. There were also two stools, a small table with cowrie shells, and a black binder.
We began the reading. She permitted me to audio record our session. She asked the first set of questions, and I answered. Afterward, she swung the cowrie shells back and forth, dropped them to the table, and sifted through them. The cast didn’t close. She repeated this exercise — ask questions, I answer, swing shells, sift through — and, again, nothing.
Finally, she asked, “Why don’t you have your own church?” I responded, “Because I don’t want one.” She wondered aloud why I would invest time and money in being formally trained at a seminary only to graduate and not want to lead a church. I didn’t discuss the unwritten standard (and burden) of masking your flaws to appeal to a local flock. Nor did I have the energy to give her a history lesson on the patriarchy that, while it is currently being dismantled, still has an undeniable stronghold on local churches. While all of that was true, the real deal was I never wanted to stand up in a single pulpit, in one space, preaching to one group. I wanted to go out into the world and move freely, utilizing the gifts of my insight — authentically, transparently, unmasked. I told her that having my own church was never my plan, and that also I had a great situation at that time. I let the senior pastor do the heavy lifting.
Then she raised her hands and said the following. “Here is the word for you. You are a queen being dragged to her throne. You play small because it’s easier. But you are meant to lead from the front. If you continue to shrink, you could be inviting sickness into your life.”
I began to weep. It never occurred to me that I was doing a disservice to my call by debasing myself, acting as if it is holy to declare “I am nothing and I am nobody.” Truth is, that was the message that had been passed down through the American Christian tradition my whole life.
But it was the African deities that said to me, “Queen, take your place on your throne. Lead from the front.”
That word was extremely liberating (and exhilarating). I shared it with everyone. Even when I met with the senior pastor, he wholeheartedly concurred and said that he had been waiting for me to “fully” show up. So I made some adjustments to how I physically showed up in the church, no longer shrinking, and feeling really good.
I thought that was the end of the story.
A couple of weeks later, I ran into the Yoruba priestess at a local coffee shop. I told her about how her message had continued to resonate with me. She tilts her head. “I wonder if you are being called to officially be crowned.” “What does it mean to be ‘officially crowned’?” I inquired. She described the process — the $10k-20k financial commitment, the studying of the Yoruba tradition, the shaving of my head, and other ritual practices to which I would need to submit. And in the end, I would be crowned.
A bald head and $20,000 buy-in should have been a hard stop for me. But I was on a journey.
I shared this conversation with my tribe (i.e., the people who knew me intimately, who understood my seeker/searcher nature). They also all happened to be Christian, and deeply rooted and influenced by the American Christian tradition. I never questioned the credibility of their insights, though, admittedly, I only half-listened to them. Their concerns were riddled with fear. Jesus got us scared of everything, including free thought and exploration. One of my sister-friends remembered my close friend from Seminary who happened to be Yoruba culturally, and a devout Christian spiritually. She told me to call him and tell him everything.
He and I hadn’t spoken in a couple of years. I reached out via Facebook. We talked for two hours. He listened to everything that led me to that moment — the 2016 election; white Christians heralding what Christian singer Vicki Yohe said of Trump’s win — “Jesus is returning to the White House”; the interfaith series at my church; the private Yoruba reading and the word that she gave me. I told him that all of that equaled me not trusting that I had the “full story”, and that I wanted to, if not go through the crowning process, at least travel to West Africa. I wanted to step my feet on ancestral land, to make a connection, to see if there are any spiritual insights that are simply waiting for me to come home.
With the precision of a master surgeon, he took out his scalpel and began to verbally cut away at my experience.
1. “You are not alone in your assessment of American Christianity’s problematic connection to the Trump win.” He assured me that lots of people were reeling in the same way as me. Including him. An affluent businessman and devout financial supporter of good biblical teachings, he withdrew all financial support from any ministry that promoted Trumpism.
2. “A two-hour reading where the central word was that you are a queen being dragged to her throne is not as deep as you think.” He insisted that in the first three minutes of a conversation with me it is evident that I am regal, wise, and very next-level.
3. “It is a good idea for all African Americans to travel to West Africa. It is also important to note that countries are not cultures; they are economies.” He said that everyone that I meet will be aware that I’m traveling from a larger economy, coming into a smaller one. “The words they give you will either be the truth or a sly attempt to tap into your economy.”
But here’s the wisdom that he gave that lifted me from my faith crisis, boldly delving into my curiosity about African indigenous religions, generously looting his firsthand experience as a son-of-the-soil.
He planted his first church in Lagos, Nigeria, in the same area as an existing indigenous faith community. “I never preached against them or their teachings. I maintained an open-door policy for anything they needed,” he said. When any of them got sick, they would use their traditional charms and healing rituals. If their sickness lingered, many of them would then come to his church where he would pray a healing prayer in the name of Jesus, and they would be healed. Then they would inquire about who was this Jesus. So would begin the discipling process. He said he never forced anyone to do anything. He simply gave them the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then allowed them to decide whose report they would believe. “It was powerful to watch them choose to serve Jesus. They would bring in all of their charms and amulets, place them on the altar, smash them, then declare themselves followers of Jesus.” At the end of that very beautiful story, he gave me his final admonishment: “Lex, double down on the name of Jesus.”
I found my footing. I was both reassured of what I believe, and also grateful for the faith crisis.
The irony is not lost on me that God used a Yoruba priestess to rid me of a belief that shrinking equals elevation. Neither is the fact that my call-and-response prayer ‘Lord, I believe in You,’ to which God answers, ‘Lex, I believe in you, too,’ comes from a white male American Christian author. Sadly, he was too chicken-shit to use his platform to tell our other brothers and sisters, “Have y’all lost your rabid-ass minds following this clown?” He had books to sell.
In the end, I always knew one of two things would happen — I would either leave Christianity or I would stay. And if I stayed, it would be because I had done a deeper dive and could with credibility say I know in whom I believe. I pray that by my life and speaking that I effectively image the mystery and sovereignty of a loving God, particularized in the person of Jesus Christ. And also that that same God would not silence me when I look at my white Christian brothers and sisters and ask them earnestly, “what the hell, y’all?”
[Alexus Rhone is the writer and director of “Ancient Of Ways: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Ifa When Jesus Came Up Short”. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 PM, Thurs-Sun, July 14–31, 2022, at the Historic St. Agnes Hospital (St. Augustine’s University), Raleigh, NC. For tickets, visit https://ancient-of-ways.eventbrite.com.]