This is the first in a series of two essays on why the author no longer attends church.
John Fountain's grandmother Florence G. Hagler was among the "prayer warriors" at his grandfather's True Vine Church of God In Christ on Chicago's West Side, where Fountain grew up and was once a deacon and minister.
"Sunday mornings used to mean something special to me.
But I now face them with dread, with a bittersweet sorrow."
Sunday morning arrived, like so many before, with a mix of sunlight and chirping birds outside my bedroom window and a warm greeting from my tiny son, lying beside my wife and me. My wife rose quickly, announcing her plan to jump in the shower and get ready for Sunday school at the Baptist church, not far from our house in suburban Chicago, that she and our two children attend.
As for me, in what has become my ritual nowadays, I turned over and pulled the covers up around my head. Soon I overheard my 9-year-old daughter's familiar question: "Mommy, is Daddy going to church with us?"
"No-o-o-o," my wife replied. After months of my failure to accompany them, she has abandoned the excuse that "Daddy has a lot of work to do."
Sunday mornings used to mean something special to me. But I now face them with dread, with a bittersweet sorrow that tugs at my heart and a headache-inducing tension that makes me reach for the Advil. I am torn between my desire to play hooky from church and my Pentecostal indoctrination that Sunday is the Lord's day, a day of worship when real men are supposed to lead their families into the house of God.
Once, that's what I did. I am the grandson of a pastor and am myself a licensed minister. I love God and I love the church. I know church-speak and feel as comfortable shouting hallelujahs and amens and lifting my hands in the sanctuary as I do putting on my socks.
I have danced in the spirit, spoken in tongues, and proclaimed Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. I once arrived faithfully at the door of every prayer meeting and went to nearly every Bible study and month-long revival. I attended umpteen services, even the midnight musicals and my church's annual national meetings, like the one held two weeks ago in Kansas City.
Yet I now feel disconnected. I am disconnected. Not necessarily from God, but from the church.
What happened? Probably the same thing that has happened to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of African American men who now file into coffee shops or bowling alleys or baseball stadiums on Sundays instead of heading to church, or who lose themselves in the haze of mowing the lawn or waxing their cars.
Somewhere along the way, for us, for me, the church--the collective of black churches of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination--lost its meaning, its relevance. It seems to have no discernible message for what ails the 21st-century black male soul.
While there are still many black men who do go to church, any pastor will admit that there are far more who don't. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago educator and author of "Adam! Where are You?: Why Most Black Men Don't Go to Church," contends that 75 percent of the black church is female. The church's finger seems farthest from the pulse of those black men who seem to be most lost and drifting in a destructive sea of fatalism and pathology, with no immediate sign of the shore or of search and rescue crews.
Without the church, most of those men are doomed. But it seems clear to me that the church does not--will not--seek us black men out, or perhaps even mourn our disappearance from the pews.
Instead, it seems to have turned inward. It seems to exist for the perpetuation of itself--for the erecting of grandiose temples of brick and mortar and for the care of pastors and the salaried administrative staff. Not long ago, a preacher friend confided: "The black church is in a struggle for its collective soul--to find itself in an age when it is consumed by the God of materialism."
This preoccupation with the material world is pervasive, and has bred a culture that has left a trail of blood and tears in black neighborhoods across the country with little collective outcry from the church. Still, it's one thing for the world to be ensnared by the trappings of materialism--but the church?
I am incensed by Mercedes-buying preachers who live in suburban meadows far from the inner-city ghettos they pastor, where they bid parishioners to sacrifice in the name of God. I am angered by the preacher I know, and his wife and co-pastor, who exacted a per diem and drove luxury vehicles, their modest salaries boosted by tithes and offerings from poor folks in a struggling congregation of families, a number of them headed by single women. This at a time when the church didn't own a single chair and was renting a building to hold worship services.
I wonder why, despite billions of dollars taken from collection plates--much of it from the poor--in my own denomination, I see few homes for the elderly, few recreation centers, little to no church-financed housing development and few viable church-operated businesses that might employ members or generate some tangible measure of return on years of investment. I scratch my head at the multimillion-dollar edifice a local church recently erected and wonder if that is the most responsible stewardship for a church in a community filled with poor families.
I have come to see the countless annual meetings and church assemblies, camouflaged as worship services, as little more than fundraisers and quasi-fashion shows with a dose of spirituality.
I am disheartened by the territorialism of churches, vying for control and membership, as a deacon at a Baptist church said to me recently, in much the same way as gangs, rather than seeing themselves as communal partners in a vineyard with one Lord and a single purpose.
And I find in the church: No place for me.
Originally Published in Washington Post Outlook -- Sunday, July 17, 2005