Last summer, I was approached by a colleague about writing several commentaries for this blog. I don’t often write essays but I said, “yes” almost immediately. It seemed a challenge and I like a challenge. I asked what would I write about and he said it was rather open with a thought to spirituality. Now, being asked to write about my spirituality within the secular world in which I exist is something of a daunting task. Not because I don’t have some clear thoughts on the subject but because it is something that one just doesn’t talk about up here. It feels almost taboo in this part of the world.
You see, I am a Southerner. I was born and raised in the South End of Louisville, KY. I could call it suburbia because it is a neighborhood that is twenty minutes from the downtown center of Louisville. But since my neighborhood of Newburg got incorporated into an all black city when I was in high school, I could call it a city. However, since the houses in Newburg all look like teeny little matchbox houses that are a step up only from the shotgun houses that got torn down in the mid-1970’s AND since a short-sighted group of Newburg “city” council folk got nervous about leaving the protective care and services provided by the uber-white (Mitch McConnell is our senator) Jefferson County government and thus voted (within a year) to disband the “city” of Newburg—I think you can rightly call my birthplace a ghetto with some aspiration. But even if you do call it a ghetto, you must recognize that there are thirteen churches on the mile and a half long main road of my hood. Though I am sure the ratio of Christians to heathens is like comparing anthills to foothills, still a lot of folk go to church and they don’t have trouble talking about it.
And honestly, I didn’t know I had any trouble talking about it. I mean, I know I have never been an evangelist preaching the good news to anyone. And I can remember when my Freshman roommate at college turned to me the first week of school and said, “Shona, what is your relationship with Jesus?” I knew that felt icky to me and I didn’t feel I wanted to get converted to her Campus Church Fellowship team. But I didn’t think I had a “hang-up” talking about it. My partner often somewhat jokingly says, “You are so Christian.” And I mean I go to church every Sunday. I have all my life, except when I travel or have to work.
I teach at Vassar College. I am a drama professor. The first assignment I give for my beginning acting class involves creating a three minute performance narrative that lets the class know how you came to be at Vassar from birth to today. It is a tricky assignment but always rich and thought provoking. One has to make choices about what life moments are significant enough to fit into a three minute time frame. I have given this assignment for several years now. This fall was the first semester that someone, (another Southerner) used her Christianity as the motif that fundamentally defined her identity and it felt… strange. It felt very, very bold and brave. I found myself analyzing my life through this religious prism.
All the students in the class felt it. We talked about the fact that in this community where LGTBQ conversations are welcomed and celebrated, where there is a vibrant discourse about the Israel-Palestine polemic, and– we did not know it at the top of the semester but I can now add– where the atmosphere on campus is charged by several reported incidents of sexual harassment and racial profiling and where racial tensions in our nation are at a fever pitch because of the outrageous decisions of SEVERAL grand juries attempting to devalue my son’s life (I am the mother of a beautiful young black male), —in this community, talk about religiosity is a no-no. I am much more quick to speak about being a woman or African-American or an African-American woman. And don’t get me wrong, I feel that being Black and female in this community are critical matters to speak about. I, too have been profiled both on campus and by the City of Poughkeepsie police. This is a very big subject that needs a good amount of unpacking to ”break it down”. But what I’m discussing here, shouldn’t need so much soul searching, should it? I mean, this is America even if it is Vassar College. And I am not bashing the college. I am simply pondering my comfort level with living openly as a Christian in my world.
This past Sunday, I stood before a congregation of roughly fifteen hundred people and opened the Christmas season into Poughkeepsie. That sounds grandiose, I know. But it is a ceremony that is celebrated by Jews, Christians, aetheists, agnostics, Muslims, folk from New Paltz, Rhinebeck, Red Hook, Poughkeepsie City and Poughkeepsie town, etc..… It is magical. And on that day, on that day as my son lit the advent candles and rang the bell and I uttered the first words of the ceremony from I John 4—“God is Love”, I was proud to acknowledge and experience this kinesthetic joy and positive spiritual exchange coursing through this large body of people. I didn’t question my connections that drew me back to my childhood, standing in one of those thirteen churches on Indian Trail in Newburg, KY. Every Christmas growing up, I was in Peace Presbyterian Church leading a hymn or directing a choir or reading a poem. Is this the only time I am comfortable being a Christian out loud? I don’t think so. I tell people all the time that I go to church, but is this the same thing? I don’t know the real answer to this question and it makes me a little jumpy to even voice it on paper. But it’s a good question. And I’m glad I have a blog like this to grapple with trying to figure it out.
Shona Tucker is an Associate Professor at Vassar College and a professional actress.