Attending a mostly white evangelical College as an African American male with roots in the historic Black church resulted in a paradoxical shift in my Christian faith. It was a time that I matured spiritually while simultaneously growing increasingly disillusioned with evangelicalism.
My parents were not in a position to attend college. Their segregated, underprivileged, African-American high school lacked the social capital to connect students to higher education. So it was meaningful to see their children receive that opportunity.
Nevertheless, as I walked the halls of my university, I grew disillusioned and disappointed. Challenges to the status quo were not accepted. The culture failed to recognize, let alone converse with, the Black church, where I base a part of my spiritual foundation.
Entering college, I had hoped for an intellectually honest and theologically robust discourse on the social gospel, liberation theology (both Black/Exodus and Catholic), and biblical justice, but found none. I felt alienated because I identified with the Democratic Party (and felt I had to defend that it wasn’t because I was black). I hesitated to share my appreciation of some Marxist and democratic socialist ideals.
Coming from a family that made less money than the annual cost of tuition, I wanted to see a humanizing conversation about people who are poor, but found the poor often referenced as an “other”, a project, or a ministry.
Even though my parents were theologically conservative, the evangelical culture was foreign to me. My primary experience with the faith was brokered through fundamentalists like E.V. Hill, Charles Stanley, and other conservative Christian voices filling the radio in my home.
The Christianity I grew up in was primarily about conservative theology, with a smattering of the Black Church, rather than mainstream evangelical culture. I communed with other Black folks who were not so conservative and even dated an Episcopalian without my family expressing concern. Cultural identity-politics just didn’t play a big role in my native community.
It wasn’t until college that I even interacted with evangelicalism. Prior to this I was simply a Christian.
Stepping into this new evangelical culture was a complete system shock. People lived and spoke a brand of Christianity that I didn’t recognize (and that didn’t recognize my heritage) but, nevertheless, attempted to define my social existence, my faith, and my spiritual DNA. It felt colonial. It hurt me. It scarred me. I didn’t feel known.
I’ll never forget listening to John Newton’s classic hymn, Amazing Grace, in our mandatory chapel services. Its various layers of meaning, and even its history, serve as parables for the dissonance I experienced in college.
From my childhood, I remembered this hymn, as many do, a personal proclamation of God’s abundant grace, freely given to individual sinners. But it was also a corporate expression of the social liberation that emerges when people renounce social and corporate transgressions.
On one hand, it was a song written by a slave trader to express his need for God’s grace to redeem his soul and grotesque actions. On the other hand, it was also song that my church sang from the bowels of their soul, both thanking God for the social salvation from America’s original sin of slavery and hoping for God’s grace to reach spiritual and physical salvation.
Many of my evangelical peers in college missed these deeper shades of meaning.
Together we sang Amazing Grace in the context of our individualistic relationships with a personal God, rather than also singing it as a corporate expression of God calling us out of, and saving us from, collective sin. It was no longer the great song I grew up with, so I did not sing it from my soul. I had known it as an expression of God’s Kingdom come. At school, it was a proclamation that the King of grace was my personal patriarch.
Despite some of my grievances, college was not a horrible experience. I treasure the opportunities that were given to me, and I am ever thankful to God. I was introduced to some wonderful Christian writers and thinkers during these years and I met some of my most important friends.
Moreover, I don’t want to give the impression that evangelicalism does not have some wonderful and valuable elements.
While I am not comfortable being called Evangelical, it has, along with my fundamentalist childhood, become a valuable part of my spiritual journey. To deny this strand of the Christian tradition would be to deny parts of who I am. So I am both an insider and an outsider and as such hope to bring evangelicalism into a fuller, more robust Christian expression — not only so those within it can benefit from its strengths, but so that those unfamiliar to or disillusioned by this tradition may find comfort in the truth and spirit of what it means to speak the good news of Jesus Christ.