Black and Presbyterian in America


I sit in many spaces.
I have sat in many spaces.
This space is the hardest.
This space I can never escape.
This space hurts the most because it numbs,
It tears the heart and mind a part.
This space is where life and death happens.
Created by God, molded and called forth from the heavens,
I sit in the space of the feminine, I sit in the space of blackness
I sit in the space of the divine that became Christianity and spirituality.
“From the Heart” by Melva Lowry written 9/25/2020

A lot has transpired between the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Week of Action and my partaking in the Young Adult Round Table. It is 2020 and to say that so much happens in a day, in a week, is now normal. Lately it seems extra heavy and unbearable. Where I feel numb, I also feel sadness. Where I feel confused, I also feel anger and rage. A lot has transpired, and I sit in a space of not knowing which current event to talk about. I have been watching Lovecraft Country, Jordan Peele’s newest sci-fi social commentary on blackness in America; and I was moved to write about the female dynamic between white women and black women. Then, 200,000+ lives were lost to Coronavirus and the politics surrounding that seemed important to lift up. Day to day I see many people ignoring the precautions by coughing and sneezing without covering their faces. Yet, as a black woman I must speak from the space of lifting up the ongoing conversation around Breonna Taylor’s murder. Yes, murder. I must speak about the harmful and hurtful responses of Christians and white allyship. So, this might be a two-part series since to address either one of these conversations is lengthy and draining. So, let us begin with how Breonna Taylor’s death impacts black womanhood.

Black Womanhood & Breonna Taylor

I have been doing my best to balance staying informed with the news and keeping my mental health well by watching my favorite cartoon movies or a binge of HGTV. As I began to finally sit down and write this, I can look up and see the press conference of Attorney Benjamin Crump on the screen, muted. As I continue to write this, a flip of the channel to a movie is balancing the rage and anguish I want to discuss.

During the Young Adult Round Table of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Week of Action, I mentioned that I was born three years before the PC(USA) became the PC(USA). I was born into a segregated church and have realized that I was born sitting between two realities. As an 80s baby I have lived the world as it was and have lived in the world as we hoped and thought it should be. A diverse and loving world is what I saw growing up. I was born the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. I was born a few years after the first Black woman was ordained into the still segregated church: the Rev. Dr. Katie G. Cannon. I was named after Dr. Melva Costen, the wife of the late Rev. Dr. James Costen who would serve as the first moderator of the unified Presbyterian Church as we know it today. By the time I was old enough to understand life and faith, the PC(USA) had been unified for years and I thought this was how the church had always been. I often reflect on the uniqueness of timing in which I was born. I usually describe myself as a bridge between life as it was and life as it is now in America. 

Even now, I continue to sit between two realities because I have often been asked to choose whether I am a black woman or a Christian, specifically a Presbyterian. I have advocated for my non-Presbyterian classmates when topics become Presbyterian heavy only to then be asked if I am Presbyterian. When the conversation turns to race, I must decide whether to speak and risk being seen as the spokesperson for all black women or stay silent. It seems that I cannot speak about race from my personal experiences or advocate for non-Presbyterian voices to be included because there is no way I can hold two identities. I cannot recount the many times I have had to choose which identity I was going to align with. Often it was my Presbyterian identity that was in question since I clearly cannot deny my blackness. During this questioning, my mind races to the 90+ years my grandmother spent as a Presbyterian and the countless history of other black Presbyterians I experienced and learned about. I wanted to scream the litany of black history as proof of just how Presbyterian I am.

What does any of this have to do with the recent news coverage about Breonna Taylor? Everything. Black women have to fight and prove themselves to the world. Often described as a double negative that can never be concealed: my blackness and my femininity. I never know which one is betraying me and causing the battle. Am I being attacked because of racial microaggressions? Or am I being undermined because I am a woman? I am constantly in a mental and emotional battle. I question whether I am over reacting, but at times mad that I am not advocating enough for myself and my value. Constantly checking the compliments against the stereotypes. Am I being complacent to appease others? Am I tamping down my emotions so I will be acceptable? All too often black women settle for the crumbs given, patiently waiting for a time where their full identity and value will be embraced. 

The fight for justice for Breonna Taylor is not just about the criminal justice system, it is about the worth and value placed on the life of black womanhood. The fight to justify her being is one that is not unfamiliar to many non-white persons and to white persons who try to buck the “social norms” of white heterosexual normativity, but the fight rarely finds a win if even a small one for black women. I think my efforts to find balance, outlets from listening to the daily news, was really a fight to stay out of the fight. I did not want to be tapped into the ongoing debate about if a young black woman was better off dead, free from a world infected with not only a virus, but one filled with systemic hatred that has hardened the hearts of many who call themselves Christian; or should she still be alive to fight this battle of right and wrong in a legal system designed to keep her contained. I did not want to think about how to explain my sadness, anger, pain and numbness. I did not want to fact check the ignorant. I did not want to fight. I did not have the energy to fight.

Breonna Taylor was killed while asleep in her home. She is just one of many black women who have been killed in places where they should have been safe. Even Sandra Bland died in a place surrounded by people sworn to keep to her safe. The news is rarely extensive when a black woman is killed compared to the killing of a black man. Even in the case of Breonna, the news about her death did not get as much recognition as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd initially. The continued protest from allies helped give light to a death that would have been ignored. The weight that black women carry is hard to explain. The many arenas in which black women have to fight in can never be counted. I am not trying to increase a chasm between blacks and the rest of the world; or even between black women and other women. The conversation about the ways in which black women battle and fight with the world I alone cannot transcribe nor complete in one writing.

What I do know is that Breonna Taylor represents so many black women, young and old. The tenderness of her life and the violence of her death was felt deep in the bones for me and other black women all over. Even hearing the news that the cops were charged with endangering everyone else, but Ms. Taylor was a punch to the gut. Being charged for failing to hit their intended target emphasizes that the life of Breonna Taylor did not matter. Her body and identity were expendable. Hopefully one day we will know if the full story ever made it to court. If her voice will ever be heard. Right now, she must sit in this familiar space of not knowing. Was she the target because of her race? Did she not get justice because she was female? Did the combination of being both betray her?

What I do know as a Christian is that the death of Breonna Taylor should be mourned by all. She was created by a divine God and that life was taken violently. What I know as a woman is that the life of black women still alive should be protected by all. The wisdom and survival skills black women carry inside is valuable. What I know as a black Presbyterian woman is that when I read the comments on the PC(USA) sites, from those questioning if the Church should speak up about her death, I feel as if I am being questioned about my loyalty to the denomination all over again. I feel as if I must decide whether to be a black woman or a Presbyterian because I cannot fully be both. Jesus advocated for those who needed justice. Jesus mourned the death of others. Breonna Taylor is dead, but the fight of black women lives on. As Christians called to love one another and to seek justice for those unable to fight for themselves, we have a duty to demand for Breonna and other black women killed to find rest by obtaining justice on their behalf. 

Melva Lowry is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). She’s a ruling elder in the Greater Atlanta Presbytery at Rice Memorial. Mel holds 3 Masters from 2 PCUSA affiliated seminaries. She recently served as one of the Hands and Feet Fellows for the 224th General Assembly. 

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