When I was 10 years old, our next-door neighbor’s 21-year-old daughter held a traditional white wedding. The celebrations went on for a full week.. The wedding cards were handed out like candy. At the bottom of those white square cards, in black font, was text reading NO CHILDREN ALLOWED. I remember being distraught. I sulked for the entire week. To comfort me, my father said, “After all, they are pagans. I wouldn’t want you to attend a pagan wedding.” Those words wormed themselves inside me for a while. I thought being born into my Reformed Baptist family was an automatic ticket to heaven and wisdom.
Today, I am learning that kindness in faith and religious institutions is as important as the faith. I’ve undergone a transformation prompted by my experience growing up in a Zambian Church. I am now able to say that some of the people who made up the church I grew up in were not kind, others stood by and watched the unkindness which I think is just as bad. This may be why I never felt at home in the Reformed Baptist Church.
My family has not always been Reformed Baptist. The first person to be converted to Christianity that we know of was my maternal grandmother’s father. He was converted by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries. He had a leadership role in his community already and because of this, he was trained to be the first Black Presbyterian Reverend of his village. In the mid-1960s, my grandmother joined the newly formed United Church of Zambia. My mother was brought up by her devout United Church of Zambia mother and a non-churchgoing father. My father was raised by an uncle who was non-churchgoing like my mother’s father. The Lusaka Reformed Baptist Church had frequent college evangelizing missions when my parents were in college in the late 1960s. Their conversions took place almost at the same time for this reason. My parents are both in their late 60s now; they share more than 80 years of membership to one church between themselves.
For a person to be fully recognized as a Reformed Baptist Member, they have to take a pre-membership class, much like a counseling class before marriage, and then they have to be baptized in front of the church congregation. When a person “backslides” — commits a sin, or at least a sin that the congregation finds out about — in their faith, they have to confess their sin in front of the church. After it is established that a member has sinned, there are disciplinary hearings that have to take place in front of the people who witnessed their baptism. This no-secrets-among-the-flock mentality has hurt some people in the church. It has hurt me.
In January 2011, a few months after my high school exams, a teenage boy had crashed his mother’s car into the Chinese embassy wall in Lusaka after a night spent at multiple nightclubs. He died on impact. The Sunday after he was buried, I sat in the young people’s Bible study with other kids who had been much closer to him and watched our youth leader utter the most insensitive words I have ever heard. He said, “Jacob is in hell. You should repent, lest you end up like him.” I could hear gasps around me. Jacob’s brother stood up and left the room. A few people silently cried, but no one said anything to the youth leader. When I look back at that moment as an adult, I can say that this was the moment I started questioning my belief in the God of this church. Moments like this continued to occur over the years. These moments, disguised as God’s tough love, were inhumane.
I was born at a time when my father was unemployed and my mother was the breadwinner of the family, which was hard because she was a nurse, and nurses have never had good wages in Zambia. There is a condescending way that people talk to you when you are poor, as though this social condition is a character flaw rather than a structural issue. Church taught me this lesson very well. I hated interacting with both the kids and adults in church because they always made me feel like I was wrong for existing because I was poor. This was not an issue outside our congregation.
When my mother emigrated for a nursing job abroad, and our lives marginally changed from impoverished to middle class, the way we were treated in church changed. People were nicer to us–not kinder but nicer. I once wondered why the other kids would not invite us for lunches, playdates or sleepovers during Sunday school. That changed when our mother changed our clothes and put us in private school. The niceness did not last for too long though; there were always moments when someone had to remind us that we were once poor. I have learned that some compliments we received during that time were backhanded compliments: ‘Oh your dress is so cute. Did you get that from salaula or a shop?, for example.’ The adult who gave the compliment was asking if I had got the dress from a street thrift stand or from a boutique.
Throughout my experience in the Reformed Baptist Church, there was always a contrast in what was taught and what most of the congregation did. As such, it felt like we were a part of the church as a family in name, but not in reality. Other Christian denominations were okay, said the Reformed Baptists, but they were pagans or unbelievers whenever we did not approve of their way of life.
I never felt connected to the Reformed Baptist Church pedestal.. I felt special sometimes, but I wanted to feel connected to God. My faith in God was always about fear: I feared going to hell; I feared disappointing my parents. On the other side, I wasn’t looking forward to going to heaven with the people in my church. I found them to be mean, judgmental, hypocritical, and unpleasant to be around. I thought that I was the problem, but I am learning that I was not.
I stopped attending church services regularly in my mid-20s. I did not make this decision lightly. I started by not attending services at Reformed Baptist churches and went in search of a church community in other Christian denominations, mostly Pentecostal churches. At one church, the preacher told me that I couldn’t be a true believer of Jesus because I did not speak in tongues; at another, I was told that I was ignorant because I did not kneel for their pastor. Between these two experiences, I started to look at African spirituality as a way to stay connected to a “church” community. I found belief systems in African spirituality that resembled the values I hold dear to my heart: kindness, and ubuntu (humanity). One other thing that bothered me about my traditional Reformed Baptist upbringing was their subscription to Paul’s instruction, that no woman shall teach in front of men. I did not understand it. I did not understand this god. I loved his son, but could not understand the sexism that existed in his book and his church. In African spirituality, women are not relegated to the role of a spectator. In ancestral veneration, you get to choose who you want to remember. There is power in this — there is a connection in this faith.
I am learning to embrace the religion of my ancestors while still holding on to the religion of my birth. I love Jesus, the radical lover. I also feel connected to a God whose greatest commandment is love. I feel connected to African spirituality. For now, I am still learning how to practice my new faith.