Black churches are a kick. For most of my life, I’ve bar hopped many of them. Pentecostal. Church of God. Seven Day Adventists. Apostolic. Baptists. You name it, I’ve been there. The relationship I had with church was toxic but it made me feel the word beautiful. It wrapped around my ears and stuck its hands in my gut. Church was the stepping stones of life. Music and love. I thought I knew what love felt like. There were times where I was so stupidly at peace, I would welcome death with a smile.
Church can be so alive. There are preachers that gasp for air between preaching the “words of the lawd”. Black women bellowing the sounds of heaven from their stomachs. Yellow and purple silk choir robes that rope around their bodies like garments. You can be “swept up by the spirit” and talking in tongues. Foot-work that would challenge trained tap dancers. Fingers that never learned a note, would be striking keys like Tatum.
There’s so much culture there. There’s rhythm and beats. The stomping and rocking of wooden church pews. There’s music that makes you shout. Music that makes you cry. Music that makes you feel like–maybe, god just maybe–there is something holy. It was home. It was home. If that didn’t get me, there was this intellectual side too. I spend hours on ideologies, specific doctrines, and teachings that would explain the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost trio—Jesus Christ, the messiah, all that jazz. But this tradition lives in my blood and many brown women before me, I don’t think they ever thought about the sanctity of Christianity’s complexity. No one talks about its freedom and hindrance.
I was twelve and it started with AGT. Abundance of God Tabernacle. It was originally named TOG. Tabernacle of God. Those words and those places seem dead now. Something that’s been in a grave for years. Once we left, I told my mother once about how our lives were never the same. If I was still religious, I would say that the spirit of that place had followed us. It would take an “anointed” powerful person of God to “rebuke” the spirit that cursed our lives. Now, I just think life is shitty and it only gets shittier. Welcome to the real world.
I remember the first day my family went. We pulled up into the back parking lot filled with rocks and gravel. You walk in through that back door and behold you are facing the congregation, rows of burgundy pews. The air, always cold.
When I was thirteen, I got “filled”. That’s a term for being filled with the Holy Spirit that was promised by Christ as the Comforter and is fulfilled in Acts 2. Evidence of being filled of the Holy Ghost is what they call “speaking in tongues”. It means to be fluent in a foreign language but only as the spirit gave utterance. I’m not sure what to make of speaking in tongues. To put it simply, it’s an expression of praise. A recognition that God is here. It’s biblically referred as “fire shut up in my bones”. When I was filled in a Christian camp in Florida, it’s almost like there’s a presence that just hovers over your head; dark and looming like clouds of a rainstorm. Your stomach boils with heat and then this force rises up from your stomach and then thrusts out of your mouth, bursts through your lips, and there you are, speaking something that isn’t English. It consumes your entire body and the act is happening so quickly, you’re not even thinking. You just know it is happening.
I was seven and I would dress in these frilly, plump dresses and lace socks. It was an immaculate way to dress, I still like dressing up because of it. I remember watching the elder women of the church rock back and forth with their big flamboyant hats. Then, like a snap of fingers, they would jump, shout, scream, holler, roll around, or run around the church shouting words you didn’t know. I’d just laugh. Not because it was funny but because I was scared. When you’re a child, you’re more sensitive, so you can sense when the atmosphere changed, especially with something so drastic. You knew something so incredibly immediate was happening and it was so strong that I didn’t know how to process it, except to laugh. When I got filled at the age of thirteen though, it started to make more sense. The amount of power inside you is so uncontainable you have to shout, you have to move because the power of God and pieces of heaven are entering in and out of your body, swift like wind.
I don’t know what to make of being filled now. When I look back at myself hollering words I didn’t know, feeling possessed but by something holy, it’s estrangement now. I feel as though I am talking about someone who has my face and my body but isn’t me. Although it is me, it’s just that she’s no longer here. She’s dead. And I still grieve.
Being in a church where most of the people are filled was the closest to heaven I’ve ever got. It was magic. We’d make a little pamphlet that we’d call “the program. This ordered the service. We’d have the Morning Prayer, the welcome, the scripture reading, and the sermon. All of this was set for the order for every Sunday service, but the goal, the real goal was to have it disrupted by God’s presence.
There was a certain logic in Pentecostal churches in order for the “Spirit of God” to come down at all. The atmosphere first had to be set. You won’t see anything until that atmosphere is set. And by seeing anything, we mean a miracle. That would mean someone would be filled speaking in tongues, a prophet pointing at someone and telling them everything about their lives since they were small, or prayer to God being publicly answered. This was our hope in church every Sunday. The “atmosphere” was what allows the “works of God” to happen. However, it is first and always set through the music. I used to think that’s why gospel music was so powerful. I used to think that’s why gospel music had so much strength. I still think it’s strong but for different reasons now. The music has to welcome God’s presence but the full power of this atmosphere can only be brought through people who are also filled. So walking through those doors, you’re signing off on seeing some crazy shit. In order to see that, get a choir filled of Holy-Ghost-filled-speaking-in-tongues-human-beings and tell them, “Now praise until God comes down!” You do that, you’re in for something.
They’d always tell you in Sunday school and youth services, “Bring your friends! Once they see how we worship, they’ll know there is a God. There’ll be no denying it.” I held that in my heart. But to be honest now, I don’t want anyone to ever see that shit. I wouldn’t want them to be haunted like I am now. Being where I’m at now, I know what “nonbelievers” think. An atmosphere like that comes off like a really bad horror movie. Scary, the most hilarious joke, and you’re there constantly thinking “what the fuck is happening?” You really don’t see it when you’re in it. You’ve got a whole other kind of lens on. .
From twelve to fifteen. I spent every other day in church. It’s hard to explain now, as most church services are typically boring for most, but for me there was a large amount of stimulation in those services. Sunday was regular service, Wednesday was Bible Study, and Friday was Youth Service. On Saturdays, I’d go to the other services. We shared the church with a Spanish-speaking ministry. So I was learning Spanish too. But above all the live music, the dancing, the crying, the Christian-filtered humor, there was love. I had a large family that was linked to me in a way that the world couldn’t understand and I thought that was sacred. I thought, why wouldn’t the whole world want this? This family I have, this love that was cultivated here. Those people I had to leave behind because of what became of AGT. Brother Arian, Sister Joy, Brother Luke, and Sister Laura were all wonderful people that I miss so much. That church took me away from these people from me. This love I had so much for them. What happened between these years in church was everything that shouldn’t have been done in a place that’s called holy.
I was taught to believe so much of the metaphors in Christianity were real and it shaped a bit of who I was. I was taught that, once you’re filled, you have an “in” with the spiritual realm. You can see visions of things. Actual visions. It varies from person to person and the way you were filled. You can literally witness things coming to be or spirits that are holding you back in your life. I never saw or experienced anything in that realm but I was young yet. Young and filled, so there was room to grow. In the many years of church and church visits, I’ve sat with ministers and deacons talking about this experience and they’d tell me, “The closer you draw to God the more you’ll understand. The more you can go in and out of the spirit realm.” You can see things that have not yet happened or will come to pass. You can sense demonic presences and God’s as well. The physical and spiritual realm were two worlds that I should see as intertwined and as visceral as my bones and my body.
There was never the notion of it being a superpower though. It couldn’t channeled at will. You will become emotionally, physically, and psychologically drained being in that place all the time. The way it was understood was that, since you can see what the “enemy’s plans” were, the more likely you are able to destroy them. Then “Satan” (or whatever) would retaliate. This opens your life to curses, witchcraft, and demonic activity. This would look something like, all the men in your family are alcoholics, or all your cousins on your mother’s side are dying from a certain diseases. You’d start physically meeting people that’d disappear, you’d have things happen to you that no one would believe, except a fellow Christian who’s also on the same spiritual level. Or you know some kind of level. My mom was one of these people. I have watched my mom talk to complete strangers, other brothers and sisters of the Lord, from churches all over Jersey, New York, Indiana, Ohio, and Connecticut. These believers, likewise, blessed with the same gifts confirming the same exact visions.
My mom and I went to this one church somewhere between NJ & NY. It was leaning towards the end of service and there was this woman at the altar. She had her hands raised and my mom was behind this woman praying over her. Then she fell over sideways, like a plank of wood into the ocean. Plop. They moved the children back and she was flopping up and down like she had a seizure. She was so mesmerizing in a haunting kind of way. My mom was shouting in tongues and maneuvering around her like a dance. It was understood that she may be possessed. That she might need spiritual deliverance. In seeing this, I had to get closer. It looked like something was trying to pop out of her stomach and when I got closer to see her stomach it seemed like it was bubbling like water boiling in a pot. Another woman came in and stood behind my mom like a guard. And there was no one around just my mom, this guardian woman, and the seizure lady on the floor. After church my mom and that guardian woman talked like they were old, old friends. Or like wearing they wore the same band shirt. As if they got excited the same way, at the same riffs and chords changes. That sort of connection was another form of magic. It was such a wonder because it felt real, the love we felt was real, and that in these private moments in church, we made each other feel real.
My family and I were members for this church for years and we were in the crux of trying to figure out why the church wouldn’t grow. I was filled and I think two years later my brother was also. So now all of us being spiritually attuned to God and Heaven and Hell.55 we were trying really hard to decipher the “spiritual stronghold” that wouldn’t allow the church to grow. We all felt it. We kept coming home from church and saying, “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong”.
Every church’s mission is to grow. Growth is the proof of “God’s work” coming into fruition. More would know of the gospel and all would be saved from Hell but most importantly, we could have “God come down” and the “magic” happen all the time. We wanted more people to fall in love with the thought of unconditional love. Unconditional love with yourself and unconditional love with an all-powerful being. We wanted more soul-wrenching tears, more beautiful life breakthroughs, we wanted more healing. We wanted more prayers answered. We wanted more wonder. However, in AGS this church would not grow. We had all the potential to grow. We had Holy-Ghost filled people. We had talented musicians. We had every singer. The Alto, the Soprano, the Tenor, and the bass and they could really sing. But none would stay and in my child mind it mean that they didn’t want unconditional love to fill their lives. The more people left, the more it meant that we were doing something wrong.
The more the church was trying to grow, the weirder things got.
Mabel Johnson was the Pastor’s wife in AGS. Hubert Johnson was her husband and they had four children. They were also an upper middle class black family. When Mabel Simpson would come over to our house and my mom would share her life with this woman. This is what you do with your church family. You’d think, “look at the Pastor’s wife, welcoming the new people”. That’s how it was from day one. She was just getting to know us. That’s that mask with Christian folk, they’ll seduce you into thinking they are just doing God’s work and then turn around and destroy you. The more the Sunday School started to progress, Mabel would decide that she wanted to take over and people would leave. When the more people my age started showing up the Youth Services, there she was again trying to lead the ceremonies and be “all up in it.”
Power dynamics started to show.
Hubert Johnson, the pastor of AGS, started preaching indirectly about others on the pulpit. He would start cursing and damning people while biblically coding it. It didn’t matter whether the parallel was true or not because the point wasn’t to say your sin but simply condemn you. It was clever and no one knew, except the person he was damning. He’d get the whole church in an uproar with these parallels, ready to damn anyone who “sounded” like these people. so God forbid you start getting close to anyone because they’ll start to figure out it was “you”. This was off and on for months on months. And the only way I can confirm this was because my mom would get angry. It’s bizarre saying that now because outside of the pulpit, when he wasn’t preaching, he was kind. He was normal. He was human.
In this world, there’s only room for God, not your ego. That commandment of “No gods before me” was crucial in letting “God’s presence” to function. There’s no place for you and your self-indulgence. Lucifer got kicked out of heaven for trying to make it about him. In this biblical way this sounded logical for something wonderful to fall apart but with all that removed it was a no brainer, things turned out the way they did.
In all of AGS’s wonderfulness, it was time to come to figure out why wasn’t the church growing. In this church and a while after Mabel and Hubert’s bizarreness, a belief grew that Mabel was possessed by the spirit of Jezebel. I guess to explain why the church was “stunted” in growth. Biblically, Jezebel was eaten by dogs in the Old Testament, so she must’ve done something to piss off God and is mostly referred to as the most wicked woman in the bible. However, the way in which Mabel Simpson was possessed by this demon was unveiled in little pieces to me. A way you know a person is demon possessed is feeling how their presence interrupts the atmosphere. It’s like a chalkboard being scratched or the sky going black; filled with ash, smog, and smoke. A presence that resembles Mordor. You feel it right in your gut. A wild surge of anxiety and an aggressively dominating air of fear. You’ll get angry like someone tortured your mother with a knife and took pleasure in her screams or peeled someone’s skin off and said, “They deserved it.” They’re intruders and disrupter of the God’s work because they are a demon in God’s house. So when you are about to engage in spiritual activity, especially demonic activity within a church, You need a discerner. That’s a potential gift added once you’re filled.
My mom told me she was a discerner and she, still to this day, will tell me that it was “God’s assignment” and she was “sent” to go to AGS to expose the demon of Jezebel. There’s other signs of when someone’s demon-possessed. There’s a vicious aggression when Jesus’s name is used. (And I don’t mean getting pissed when someone brings up Jesus) It’s more like either they want to kill you or they’re getting ready to.
Once there’s a consensus that a demon is present, the ministers and the reverends first, and always, move the children out of the way. It’s serious. It’s like a fire drill. Their logic would go something like: Once the demon is cast out, you don’t want it to move and possess another vessel, primarily children because children are innocent vessels. I’ve seen a few demon “exorcisms” (if you will) in my church days. I’ve seen people slide on the floor who aren’t touched, their eye color change, and voices going deep like Vader. That’s what I believed at the time but now I have no idea what to make of those memories. I often don’t talk about it and since I’m not religious, don’t take any significance to it. Only the people who were at that church would be able to comment on it and many other church goers who went to churches like mine. And sometimes I wonder would they still say it was real.
When Maxwell Stewart came to the ministry this changed the game. He was a friend of Brother Reynolds and he was just inviting him to the church. Soon, he became a member and a part of the family like us. Maxwell Stewart and my mom worked on the Sunday School Department together. More people started to come to Sunday School. Everyone was there at 10:00AM and it was nice to feel united before service started. It was growing and anything that grew here wouldn’t be soon after.
One day, my mom was downstairs in the living room by the computer and she called my brother and I down to watch this video she found. It was sent to her by Maxwell to watch. This video on Youtube called “Discerning the Spirit of Jezebel” and it was a four-part series.
When we watched it. When we completed it, I felt that the mystery was solved. There was finally a “Christian” diagnosis on this woman and everything made sense. I never heard someone being described so specifically, so perfectly, that it finally made this whole thing feel real. It wasn’t until this point that “demons” was no longer a word in the Bible or something that Christ casually casted out back in the days. It felt real and I was terrified.
Once we knew, Maxwell, my mom, my brother, and I were horrified that such a strong spirit was active in the church and worse, right next the power-in-command, the pastor. My life during this time was pretty secretive because I couldn’t just casually mention to my friends what I did on Sunday or what was my weekend like. I was a teenager under what they call “Spiritual Warfare”. Other teenagers were probably just getting drunk. This slowly started to unfold all on one particular Sunday. There was one day were Maxwell was asked to preach and the service turned into a “denouncement”. Mabel wasn’t there that day. John openly exposed that Maxwell Simpson was possessed by the spirit of Jezebel and by the power of God was removing it’s hold on the church. Right here. With those words, just imagine a huge weight lifted. It was like the clouds broke after it rained. It was like chains fell off you. Everyone in that church either cried, rejoiced, or became happy. It was like we were delivered and ready for more of God’s work to work through the ministry. Looking back at this moment in my memory, I’m amazed at we all behaved like we knew what was to be done. Pastor Johnson, the other ministers and reverends, they all took turns on the mic discussing how Mabel Johnson spiritually disrupted things at home and other parts of their lives. It was confirmed publicly. That day felt so tribal, as we sang praise songs, and hymns, we were rejoicing like nobody’s business. Finally we’d go back to bliss, finally church would stop being weird. But then another shift happened.
A few Sundays later it was drawing close to New Year’s Eve. The Simpsons eldest daughter, Raven , was singing during service. She had a beautiful alto voice. It sounded so earthy. Something obviously happened during service that I didn’t see. I sat in the front. It wasn’t until service was over that things started to shake up. My mom and I were leaving, walking peacefully to the car and then out of nowhere, Raven, marches up to my mom. She points her finger to her face and says, “You better never ever threaten my life again or I’ll send both you and your accomplice to jail”. She whipped and walked away. Stunned and confused, we walked back into the church and it erupted into an argument. Pastor Johnson shouting that my mother was a demon possessed by the Spirit of Jezebel. That she has been nothing but a liar and trying to seduce him. My mom told him “not to be too hasty with throwing words around” because, “You and I both know more about what’s going on than anyone else in this room”. That was a threat to all the things they’ve spoke about in private, seeming like spiritual mentorship, when in reality, there was a day Sylvia attempted to molest my mom and the three of them had a meeting about it and buried it. My mom revealed this later at home where we the conversation continued, trying to make sense of what happened. When she told me that what happened between her and Mable, my mind went to the day of when we picked her up from the house and how silent she was.
The weeks after that service, they wouldn’t let my mom do anything. They wouldn’t let her sing. They wouldn’t let her pray over anyone. They wouldn’t let her usher or read the scripture. They spiritually stunted her and man, my mom had never been the same since that day. She was like a ghost hurt by “God’s people” and abandoned by God as well.
No one stood up of my mom. Not even John. Not even all the other brother and sisters and members of the church that were my family. They just let her burn. And then soon, we left. I heard one Sunday that they all prayed that we’d come back, crying and mourning for the wrong that was done.
We left that place and my life was now a smaller circle than it ever had been. Max wanted to start a new ministry under his wing. My mom opened her house to have services and we’d switch back and forth from his house to ours. Most churches start that way and would eventually move to a building. He wanted to do things the “right way”. My mom sat and told my brother and I that this would be the last church that we’d attend. For life. And I believed. But there were still rumors from the last church following us to this one. Since my mom and John were so successful during the Sunday School Department, they assumed they were sleeping with each other. There was gossip about it at the old church. His wife picked up to that and would act so cold to my mom, my brother, and even me. We were all going to have a church meeting which was my family and Maxwell’s. John’s wife called my mom a mistress and accused my mom of having an affair with her husband. Her son walked out of our house and her daughter just sat there sad. It was happening again. The world crumbling. Another space so close to my home. There was no magic here. No God. No love, whatsoever.
My innocence was completely lost after that. I spent many days angry and questioning this world I’ve been a part of for so long. I spent my nights not falling asleep because I was afraid to die and wake up in Hell because I didn’t believe anymore. I’d cry and cry and cry until my sheets were wet and my lips cracked. I was gasping for air because my life was drenched in fear, pain, and anger. I felt robbed and I had no one to talk to about it.
I had a series of dreams right when we left AGS. I was chased by demons in my kitchen. They were bright red with their eyes almond-sharp like cats. They’d fall out of the kitchen cabinets and come up from the floors. They were ugly, foaming at the mouth and sharp teeth covered in blood. They were hissing and laughing. They knew I was afraid. They were moving so quickly to get me. I kept crying Jesus’s name but nothing happened. I kept running and slamming doors , trying to blocked them from me. I was running out of breath and I couldn’t keep running. I closed my eyes one more time and shouted Jesus’ name at the top of my lungs. The dream ended. And I was so physically exhausted.
There was another dream about the spirit of Jezebel. I saw Mabel’s face smiling and her finger whirling in my face. Getting closer and closer. “You thought you could escape from me, didn’t you? You thought you could escape Jezebel?” Her voice would get bigger and darker. And then she’d laugh. I had dreams back to back like this for three days, until I told my mom.
She prayed over me and I never had those dreams again.
As the years went on I have been happily unchurched. I started just slowly moving away from Christianity and the more educated I became about the Bible the easier it was to disregard the beliefs I held so dear. I couldn’t hold onto “no sex before marriage”, the homosexuality stuff, the views on women. I was like fuck that. Learning how the bible is a stolen stories of other religions and oral traditions, I ate it up because I wanted all that shit to unravel. I wanted to fuck the Bible and fuck God and anything holy ever because it all betrayed me. They made normal people seem wicked and themselves holy and I just felt like my whole life was filled with lies.
was nothing holy about it.
I found myself thinking to church people sucked, so fuck ‘em. They’re evil, so fuck ‘em. I’m gonna have sex. I’m gonna drink. I’m gonna smoke because there’s a whole life of freedom that you fuckers stripped me of. There’s a whole world of normal that I could’ve been blessed by but you robbed it from me. Threw your bodies in front of me and trampled over me like you were stopping me from suicide. I fuckin’ hate you. Fuck it, I fucking wish I could go to hell just to spite you. I wish there was a circle of hell specifically for you. I hope your demons crack open your body and eat you or some shit. Fuck you for doing this to me. Fuck you for all of it. Go to hell. I guess that’s where you actually came from anyway.
In my second year of college, I ran into a woman who was a part of a tutoring department within the first ten minutes, I found out she had also encountered the Spirit of Jezebel. She knew exactly what I was talking about. She understood everything. That conversation was so instant like I how I’ve seen my mother have all those years ago . It freaked me out a little because by this point, I didn’t want God back in my life at all. I know some Christians would view that as a sign that he was trying to re-enter my life. But I knew what had happened before me and I didn’t want that to be real, not anymore.
It’s been seven years and I find myself missing a feeling I have yet to name. Anytime I meet a fellow Christian, I feel as if I know them. And I do in some ways. It is a past me. A past mindset standing there in front of me, like a ghost. I know where their mind sits and I can sketch the transition from theirs to mine.
And in that moment I’m horrified how they simply cannot see themselves. How they cannot see how that the very love they’ve come to know and hold onto so dearly can birth a horrible evil in the same powerfulness of their love. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that their reality doesn’t exist but refusing to accept that another one exists so fully to theirs.
Within that same thought, I collapse and empathize all in the same breath. Because I consistently yearn for their innocence. I yearn for a space, a realm, a reality with the same intensity of emotion, sense of family, and closeness. A sureness that you are right. A unified language that makes sense to us and it’s “the others” that don’t understand. I guess that’s true whether you’re in church or not.
I’ve put it behind me and make all kinds of jokes about Christianity now, as a sort of therapy but I still listen to gospel music. Not for the same reasons I did when I was a kid. But I do miss how the notes could take you to heaven. I miss the wind going through my body. It’s a feeling of empowerment, a mission, a calling and it’s so powerful, it makes you imagine your own immortality. I miss the “God coming down” feeling. It’s the high that people die chasing.
And I realize how churches like mine are a part of a story that existed long before I did. It’s branded on me like my skin and connects me to the history of those with my skin. It haunts and encourages. It tears who I am apart and puts a new me together. This conflict with these realities that I’ve experienced, I see in everyone I meet. All of us, sort of preaching our own gospels and failing to see even the possibility of its evil because we’ve convinced ourselves it is so pure. I know that feeling. I understand that feeling and I have no idea how to get beyond it. I just know in one part of my life I did.
This complex transcends into so much more than I have the time to explain and I could keep writing about it forever. But I worry about other kids who were like me. Who have to leave the church and form their own gospels because the first one our families gave us, gave us pain. There are many versions of my story I feel, just floating. Those who are still tortured by church, others who don’t know they are tortured, and others who never had church and torture in the same sentence.
Sometimes I think this experience holds me back in a way, like I’m in rehab. When a conversation of Christianity and black folk comes up, I always hear an undertone of something unfinished. An aversion to explore what I’d experience. An acceptance of another reality that lives underneath theirs. A painful truth they don’t want to unfold. A hangnail they don’t want to pick. Something they can’t enter. Or won’t. I’ve always thought they can’t enter because they don’t know where the door is. But some never want to know where the door is. That’s okay because I’ve opened mine and in that I found a heaven right there.