So much happens in the South in the name of religion. Political primaries are coming up and right now you can’t watch more than five minutes of TV without seeing a candidate walking around with a bible in his hand or with a cross necklace prominently dangling around her neck.
We call ourselves the Bible Belt. And, though the number of people who claim Christianity has dropped in recent years, the South remains one of the most religious regions of the country.
But what does that mean exactly? The Bible’s a big book, filled with conflicting and inscrutable stories, laws, parables and edicts. You could walk in any ten churches on a Sunday morning, and you might hear ten different interpretations of the same passage.
At times you start to wonder whether they’re all even worshiping the same God. And if politicians are promising to put God back into the classrooms, the locker rooms, the courtrooms, and all these other places, it’s worth asking… whose God are they talking about?
This week on the Reckon Interview, I spoke with Danté Stewart about his book “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle.” Danté grew up in a Black Pentecostal community in South Carolina but when he walked on to play football at Clemson University, he suddenly found himself in a very different faith environment. He kept getting drawn into white megachurch communities. The people he met were always nice and welcoming. They made him feel special. They assured him that Jesus didn’t see Black and White. That it was just one big Christian family.
But after a few years of immersing himself in his new faith, Danté had an awakening. While he was dealing with the emotional pain of seeing young Black men killed by police on TV and across his social media, his new church family were doing their best to ignore it altogether. Talking about his lived reality as a Black man in America made white congregants uneasy. He may have felt welcomed there, but they were the ones who always belonged.
And so Danté threw himself into Black liberation theology, reading an entirely different interpretation of scripture, one that connected him to a long line of leaders like Martin Luther King and, his main source of inspiration, James Baldwin.
Today, we talk about his experiences moving between faiths, whether Black Southerners and white Southerners worship the same God, advice for people who are struggling with their faith and a lot more.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: We are here to talk about your book “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle,” and I wanted to start by talking about what an epistle is. I guess in the Christian tradition, epistles are associated with Paul, of course. Who were you writing this letter to?
Danté Stewart: Yeah, I think that question for me has always been kind of unfolding. As I now have a little bit of distance from that revision phase of writing, and now that the book has gone into the world, that question of who this epistle was being written to has been ever evolving. First off, I think for me, it was very important for me to write this epistle to myself and to think about epistles as a form of communication through the lens of Christian tradition. It is very personal and intimate letters that weave history, that weave criticism, that weave instruction, and, even in some sense, that weave wonder and personal narrative together in very short, sharp ways so that people will have something they hold on to, a piece of you, until you can actually physically be there with him. And this is the whole thing of letter writing. It is giving pieces of ourselves to others so that they can hold on to that, to hold that space until we physically get there.
And when I think about who I wrote this epistle to, it’s firstly a letter to myself, particularly of the ways in which I have grown up and matured and even thought aboutthe ways in which I’ve failed and got better. Because failure and faith and maturity, but also messiness, is so woven within my own story, my own growing up as a young kid in the Black, rural South, going off to Clemson and then beyond. It is so much about the ways in which I learned how to return home.
So, home plays a huge part in this letter as well. It was almost like that phrase, you know, if there was a letter you can write to your younger self, what would be that letter?
For me, as I think about that, it would be, what would Danté need to hear when Danté was in college and playing football at Clemson University? Or when Danté was first entering into white churches? Or even when Danté as a grown man had left and found the courage to leave. So this way of remembering was to me.
But then also it was to Black people. And I think sometimes it could be overshot about like, “yo I’m writing for Black folk. And I think there is something that is true about that and should be true. Like writing particularly to us, but I feel like sometimes it can be performative as well. That’s like, “Yeah, I’m writing to Black people” as a way to perform a certain type of being a part of a tradition.
But when I think about what I was trying to do, like, yo, I really legitimate was trying to write to Black people, particularly in who I was writing about and the topics that I wrote about. Particularly writing about my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, my father, my uncles, but then also writing beyond us as well. Writing about South Carolina, writing about California, writing about a Black man in Minnesota, or a young black girl marching in the street. It was a letter to Black folk in general was to say, we already have enough. And we don’t need to prove ourselves in order for us to be human.
In another sense, it was also a letter to America, part of this long tradition of Black writing that says, “look at what you have become, look at what you do, look what you have made us, but then look at what we have made ourselves in spite of you.”
So if I think about epistles and who I was doing that too and doing that work for, that’s probably the way I would begin answering that question.
Reckon: Well, it’s a remarkable book because you are weaving in aspects of theology and history and commentary, as well as your personal story. You’re using your narrative, your testimony, as the vehicle for so much of your thought about America and American culture. You grew up in South Carolina in a deeply religious Pentecostal family. And I think the term Pentecostal conjures a lot of different images for a lot of people. I live in Alabama where Salvation on Sand Mountain and snake handling is kind of what comes to mind when people talk about white Pentecostalism. So what was the church community that you grew up in like?
Stewart: The best way to describe my church community is it was Black, Southern working class people who were oftentimes coming from being the janitors of the world, being the domestic workers of the world, being the construction workers of the world, who had done so much in this country or in our spaces to build something beautiful outside of their own space and came into the church and that was the space in which they, themselves, were made beautiful. I think about the prayer meetings as a kid, and I write about this in a recent essay, how oftentimes as children, we were beckoned to come to the front of the altar, to stand in a place of prayer. And our heads would be motioned downward, and we would be invited to say the name Jesus again and again and again and again. And it was almost as if, through that repetition, that there was a certain type of centering and a grounding and paying attention to one’s body and to your surrounding that I was given. And that awareness to say that whatever space we Black people create, whether it be outside or whether it be inside of the four walls, those spaces were sacred and worth the best you had to offer.
So even if there was something as small as opening up the church on Wednesday for Noonday prayer, and treating it as if you were cleaning up the White House, there was a type of excitement about church that we were kind of formed and shaped in.
But then, also, I think about sermons and choirs and dinners after anniversary services. And I think about this whole idea of sister churches, where you are finding the commonalities between you and other communities that y’all are around and y’all have so much in common. And I think about those things. And I say that so much of the imagination that I have as a writer right now was formed into those spaces.
And we always say that sometimes the best musicians in Black life come out of the Black church, and many times they come out of the Black Pentecostal church where you learn how to move and dance around the music, but then also make the music your own. Whether you’re talking about drumming or whether you’re talking about the organ or things like that, there are artifacts that are tied to these spaces that represent the sacredness of what we touch and what we contain. So when I think about that upbringing, I think about the good things that Danté was given.
But then also I have to think about the terrible things. As much as my Black Pentecostal upbringing, speaking in tongues, church all day was rooted in a certain type of excitement and a sacredness of Black life and just a certain type of wonder. There was also deep, deep wounds that were developed in that space as well. I’ll never forget this whole idea of ” sitting one down” in church, that if you kind of move beyond the norms, the cultural and religious norms of being a black straight man, if you moved out that place, then you were sat down. It was a form of patriarchal power and punishment. And so as much as I think about the beauty of the place that I grew up in, I also have to think about the wounds that that place contained as well. And how often, so many people, those who are like Black women, those who are Black and LGBTQ, where the church was a space where they longed for that self-acceptance and that self-love, only to be met by blaming and shaming for who they were and who they knew God created them to be. And so there are parts of the church, even now today, you know, as an essayist, as a theologian, as a cultural critic, as somebody still woven, very fundamentally within the church space, there are so many things that I want to hold onto and that I celebrate and that even create space for me to talk about the country or talk about myself or my family or talk about the tension of the ways in which all of those things intersect, there are things that I think inside of the church are worth getting rid of.
And I’m reminded of James Baldwin, I’m doing my work in the academy on James Baldwin, particularly on Baldwin, the Black sacred imagination and writing Black worlds. And I think about Just Above My Head or Go Tell it On the Mountain where these books are so woven within the church and the failures of the church and the beauty of the church. But also the ways in which the church became a space of liberation for some, but did not become a space of liberation for all. And where often the church would preach a message of love for Jesus, love of oneself, love of your neighbor, love of your country and solidarity and service to others, often times the church did not practice what it actually preached. And Baldwin in both of those texts, in some sense, like I’m trying to do in my book, was trying to deconstruct terrible ways of being together while trying to hold on to, as he would say, the kind of ethos of that space and the beauty that it contains.
Reckon: Well, it’s interesting to hear you describe it that way, because early on in your book, you talk about your grandmother’s Bible, which is this King James Version Bible which, I would say a lot of people probably think of as being one of the more inaccessible and inscrutable versions of the Bible today because it’s written in the language of the king and it’s written in the language of England in the middle of the 16-1700s, somewhere in there. And you talk about how “those words carried the divine, it was as transporting as fiction, yet nothing like fiction. It was honest, it was close. It flowed from her heart and her lips. This was her language. She took this language, borrowed from scripture and sermon alike, and used it to protect us, cover us. She made sure we’d learned this language too, of prayer and hope of resistance and creation.” And it’s always felt like one of the central tensions of Christianity in America is that it’s been a religion and a text that’s been used to both enslave and to liberate. And so I’m curious about the way that your family used the King’s Bible to craft a language of resistance and creation.
Stewart: Yeah, that’s good. And that’s a great question. And I think about how… like I was talking to my uncle a few weeks ago and my uncle is this middle age Black man going into like that elderly age of Black men. And he’s the pastor of the church, and he’s the preacher of the church. And I’ll never forget having this conversation with him some time ago about what needs to be done within the community. And we’re having this great conversation about what needs to be done. And he’s talking about politics and he’s talking about getting out and voting the right people in and how we need to show up for one another inside of the community and how he said, he’s going to put on his Reverend garb and go out into the community and pray and do all of this.
But then that same uncle is an uncle who would go on a homophobic diatribe, often times within church. And he would say even that there’s no Baptist, no Pentecostal, no Methodist and things like that. [But] he still used the Bible as a weapon against people that he refused to see. And I want to be careful how I talk about my uncle because, you know, I feel love to my uncle. I feel love to my people, but I think for the sake of the conversation, it’s important to understand the ways in which the Bible, in certain ways, has been used as an instrument of liberation, but in other ways, it has been used as a tool of power and control.
And this goes all the way back to the plantation. And even in the moment of enslavement and colonialism where in Southern plantations, you would have Black preachers, other enslaved Black preachers, go around from plantation to plantation and they would be literate and read the Bible, but they only got taught to read the Bible a certain way. And that way would be a reading a Bible in ways that did not see our humanity nor want to see us free, but only wanted to make us okay with and docile within conditions where we were second class and our labor was exploited. And we had to just simply embrace the violence of white supremacy as some type of spiritual offering and gift to God. And so these Black preachers were traveling the woods of South Carolina and the woods of Georgia and would have their old rundown Bibles and would go into these plantations to other Black people and would preach messages of “slaves, obey your masters,” because this is God’s service for you. This is God’s offering and gift for you.
And so this goes all the way back to those moments where the Bible was exploited by white and Black people to control those who would try and change the conditions of white supremacy. But then the paradox of that is also that the Bible was also a means of liberation where Black people, even when the enslavers would try to say “slaves, obey your masters,” and even changed the Bible. If you go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, you would see this thing called the Slave Bible. And the Slave Bible would be used against Black people.
But then there’s also the paradox of the Bible of the enslaved, if we can think about it in that language. Where the Bible was taken, these prophets and Jesus was taken in ways that as Toni Morrison would write about in Paradise, where this Jesus had been taken from the grips of white religion and this Jesus needed these Black young people to know that they didn’t have to prove their humanity. All they had to do was accept it. And when I think about my upbringing and even my vocation right now in this moment, and even my book, it is the willingness to criticize the sacred texts. And to say that there are ways in which this Bible continues to be used against people as a weapon. But it is also a way to try and look at the meaningful things that are contained within this world. These illustrations of life that become lived experiences as people intersect with these sacred stories. It is me trying to reach for those things and try to lean into the best of the tradition.
And when I think about my mother and my grandma and my grandfather and my granddaddy –and God bless his soul, he is now rested with God and the ancestors– I think about the ways there was something possessive about this language. There was something possessive about this artifact in that there was something that had the power to change the world. And you had it in your hand to do with it whatever you will. Sometimes that’s dangerous, sometimes it’s beautiful. And what I’m trying to say, and what I’ve been trying to do, is try to learn from the ways of which we, as Black people, have leaned into the most liberating readings of this text while also deconstructing ways of reading the Bible that devalue and ultimately destroy us.
Reckon: So much of the American tradition… what you’re seeing right now on the Right, uniting around the idea that American is a “Christian nation,” “one nation under God.” There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of agreement on who or what that God is. You know, is the God of the theologians that you’ve said you can no longer listen to anymore the same God as the God of Martin Luther King Jr. and the God of James Baldwin? Is the God that you worship now, the same God that you worshipped eight years ago? Is it the same God that you worshipped as a child?
And there is kind of this religious tradition, even within a monotheistic religion like Christianity, that God takes different forms. You know, he’s a burning bush, he’s the Son, he’s the Holy Ghost, he’s the father. And so I’m just curious, are we really more of a nation under gods than a singular God? And are you worshiping the same deity that you worshiped eight years ago?
Stewart: Yeah, I don’t know. You know, that’s a great question. I would lean toward that we are a nation under gods, because we have to be honest that all of our stories are always contextualized. And we read into these narratives, either religious or not, whatever we want to read into them. And we take those narratives, and we develop ways of showing up in the world that embody what we think those narratives want us to embody.
So when I think about the civil rights movement, you got the religion of the oppressor, the religion of the white people, and the religion of the Black people, using God as an argument for both the ways they want to kind of imagine and shape the world.
So I think for me in my own personal experience, my idea of God has expanded where I think that if those in the Hebrew Bible can think of God as a sword and a shield, then it should not be a problem for people to think of God as Black or to think of God as a Black woman, or to think of God as being queer. And I think that there is something generative about being able to listen to those marginalized stories and voices in a way that they think about God. Especially me being a black cis het man, as I lean into the voices of black women and those who are LGBTQ and I lean into the way they try to reach for faith and spirituality and the divine, then I myself become more human. I myself expand, you know, my sense of self and my sense of liberation and my sense of the deeper kind of purposes of life.
I think so much of the American tradition are afraid to do that because we would lose the kind of power we believe to be intrinsically in our tradition to shape the country. You know, if you think about politics and war, there’s so much of politics and contestation over land and boundaries, are oftentimes these contestations over what people believe to be the created order and their divine right to rule, i.e. manifest destiny. And I think looking at these historical narratives, people who try and make God whatever they want. And I think, on one hand, we have to give room for that. You know, we have to be honest about that. We have to give room for that. It doesn’t mean I have to accept it, but I do have to give room for it if I want to be honest about human life.
But what I’m trying to do is to say that if your God makes you believe that you can discriminate against other people, that you can hate other people, that you can harm other people, and believe that you’re right, then that’s not a God worth giving your all to. That’s not a God worth believing in.
All right. Well, I’m of the perspective that I don’t think America should be a religious or Christian nation. I think that we can be religious and be Christian in this nation and that can be a meaningful story and tradition, but we should be trying to create a more loving and just experience. I get kind of squirmy, you know, when people started talking about one nation under God, because oftentimes that God has been the God of the oppressor.
Reckon: When you were there on campus, that’s when you started to move away from that Black Pentecostal tradition that you grew up in. You did join a gospel choir when you were there, which was a predominantly Black space, but you were increasingly being drawn into predominantly white Christian spaces. What happened? And what attracted you to that community?
Stewart: I think what attracted me was that it was different. You know, growing up Black Pentecostal there are ways in which, like, we want to get away from the church. We’re tired of wearing suits. And we’re tired of being in church from like 10 o’clock to 3. And then when we get off to college, you know, we become our own people. And when we become our own people, we kind of want to make our own decisions and be like, “yeah, we like that but we want to try something different.”
And even though so many of our parents would tell us, “wherever you go, make sure you get connected. Make sure you find a church somewhere. Make sure you can find a church home, if you don’t come back home.” And many of us, we went to gospel choir and it felt, you know, familiar and there was an affinity that we had there. But then, those like me, and I’m assuming so many others, because so many people just hit me up about my book and they get to these sections and they tell me like, “yo, this is my story” inside of predominantly white spaces as a Black student or a Black athlete, et cetera.
And so many of us, you know, because we want an experience that’s different and something that’s like low commitment, many of us go into white church spaces because they got coffee and dim lights and big spaces. And it’s like a rock concert. And it’s just different.
I like to say some people go because they want to escape. Like some people legitimately want to escape and want to assimilate. But other people, they really go because they just want a different experience. The only thing is, we don’t necessarily take into account what that experience and what that environment costs us. You know, in sociology, there’s this idea that institutions inform individuals and shape individuals, and individuals shape and inform institutions. And wrapped up in the mutual shaping are oftentimes stories that give each of us meaning. So whenever we put on the paw, the tiger paw, there’s something about putting on that tiger paw on your helmet, and having the name on the back of your jersey, that you turn into somebody different. That when you show up in the world as a Clemson athlete, even inside Clemson, a predominantly white area, there was something different about you. There’s something quote, unquote, exceptional about you. But then if you put on those numbers of the Alabama Crimson Tide, and you wear that red, and people see you in that crimson and white, there’s something different about who you are and what story people believe about you. And I don’t think many of us take into account just how much whiteness informs that story.
And I’m thinking in the ways the institutions and the structures of whiteness, particularly Southern whiteness a sorta type of whiteness that’s like nice-nasty. That only is nice in so much as you’re making this space feel less racist, you know, you’re making this space feel like things are okay in the world and you become that Black friend or Black person that they talk about all the time. We didn’t really take into account how often whiteness distanced us from the places that we came from and how often it shaped us to be the type of people that oftentimes erased ourselves. And one of the things about white supremacy, especially when we think about the institutional nature of white supremacy, especially for young athletes– and I’m thinking Black male athletes on white college campuses– is that it, paradoxically, embraces us on the one hand, and our performance, but oftentimes erases us and erases our people.
And so as I went from gospel choir to FCA over and over, week after week, I was being shaped. I was being socialized. I was being, to use religious language, ushered into the presence of white people and ushered away from us and our story. And then when that happens, oftentimes you have a different value system. And for me, that value system meant that white people were better and whatever they had was the best and that being around them and close to them was going to bring me success. But being where I came from and being Black, rural, and Southern represented something to be ashamed of.
Reckon: It’s interesting because Clemson is a very religious campus, like a lot of public schools in the South are. And the football team and coaches have a reputation of being one of the more religious programs. You hear stories about players being baptized on the field after practice and things like that. And the Christianity of the coaches is not necessarily one that makes the right amount of space for the Christianity of the athletes who are predominantly Black. And you talked about at one point that you got the sense that the white community felt like, well, they belonged naturally and that Black athletes and Black church members should feel grateful to be in those spaces and that you were “walking into scripts that had already been written.” Can you talk a little bit more about what that experience was like as a student athlete?
Stewart: Yeah, I think because we’re so enamored with what it means to be “Danté Stewart, the Clemson football player,” we don’t really take into account what actually is happening beneath the surface.
I like to lean on Richard Hughes, he has an incredible book, called “Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning,” and he uses the language of myth or story and how we as human beings, we are meaning making people. We’re story creatures that when one sees Southern artifacts like the Confederate monument, there is a story that is trying to be preserved through those monuments. Or when you’re like us, as Black athletes, performing well, winning championships, giving so many white people so much to celebrate about around the dinner table while also, just a few hundred feet away there are unmarked graves of our enslaved ancestors. There are stories woven within those narratives and artifacts. And so we were walking, as I say, into a story, and it was a story where we take for granted the power of our presence, but more so the problem of our presence. I think a lot of people like to say, especially talking about diversity and inclusion, they talk about the power of Black people being in these spaces and how there is power in diversity, but I don’t know if people think often enough about the problem. And how we represent a problem for the power structure, so people who make decisions. And we represent so many of the things that they refuse to face.
So, if we think about the metaphor of enslaved people, having unmarked graves in a place where our bodies are physically there, and we don’t even hear about them often until we leave. There is a problem wrapped up in that story that we have made all this money, we have made all this influence for the university, and they have used it in the name of Jesus. Thinking about, you know, the experience of going into these religious spaces. They’ve used it all in the name of Jesus. Oftentimes, you know, it is in some sense, like the white supremacist’s dream where people will have our production, but don’t want to look at the validity or the humanity of our personhood. And I think this is one of the problems with America. And we think about it right now where we are in a situation where so many parents are trying to ban books and going to school board meetings and ban diverse curriculum. It’s just simply that what they’re trying to do is face things that they refuse to face because of what it would reveal about them. And oftentimes about the spaces they hold so precious.
And I think about Clemson. And Clemson’s just incredible ability to almost erase us in a very real way. I think religion is so much a part of that. And even this kind of religious space, because when we think about religion, like Southern religion, that we think about so many of these policies and politics and politicians of so much of this American Southern way of life, of this kind of enduring nature of the Lost Cause. So many of them are being as, James Baldwin would say in his 1987 essay entitled “To Crush a Serpent,” they’re being the modern-day gang where race and religion are always fearfully woven and tied at the guts of this nation. That to talk about one is to conjure the other, that oftentimes these people think that America is a Christian nation and therefore, being a Christian nation, is a chosen nation.
But I believe that, as Baldwin would say again, if people believe so much in the Prince of Peace, then they would stop committing crimes in the name of the Prince of Peace. And I think the crimes were not just the histories of violence, but the kind of sophisticated ways these systems and mechanisms were able to convince us– I’m talking about the Black us– convince us that the best we could accomplish in this world was with them. And the best we had to offer was with them. And this is woven in the story of faith that when we come into these churches, often times it’s like my Christian identity matters more than my racial identity.
And there was a story once told of a professor who was giving a lecture on Blackness and God, and this story really gets at the heart of what we’re talking about, as far as these stories that give us these stories underneath the surface and what we’re walking into. This lecturer was talking about Blackness and God. And once he got to the end of his lecture, a young man stood up and said that “when I became Christian, I stopped being Black.” And I was that person. I was like that person. When I went to Clemson, when I went inside churches, I would say that I became Christian, therefore I stopped being Black. My Christian identity was more important than my racial identity. And as this young man made this statement, the crowd went into an uproar. The professor waited until the crowd died down and he asked a simple question: “when did Blackness become so bad that God must save you from it?” And I think this gets at the heart, that Blackness is something to be destroyed and diminished, rather than something to be desired. And they give us all type of celebration and protection to uphold the power of that lie.
Reckon: Well, and I want to explore that issue a little bit more because I imagine that for a long time—even after you left Clemson, you stayed in predominantly white Christian megachurches out in California, and then later in Georgia—and, you know, there’s something attractive and seductive about the idea that we are all one people under God. That there’s one church. And I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say that all of the nice white Christians that you met in that church even know that they were asking you to subsume a part of yourself in order to be a part of it. And so what was it, ultimately, that led you to break from that idea and to realize that that idea was untenable?
Stewart: Yeah, it was really two things. When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered. And Donald Trump, you know, literally in the same year, during the campaign trail, all this is happening. Philando and then Alton is murdered, and Donald Trump is their guy. And I mean, he’s hitting heavy on the campaign trail and pretty much white evangelicals already sold out to Donald Trump.
And I think that was one moment. And that moment, really, was the first moment that I had ever really identified with the suffering of somebody who looked like me. I think when we’re in this space and studies would suggest that the longer we Black folk are in these white spaces, the more we individualize our racial identity and the less we identify with the people in the places that we come from.
And when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered, you know, I’m dealing with all of these kinds of reckonings within myself. Like reckoning with the person that I had become. Reckoning with the response of this community that me and my wife have given so much to. We not only gave them our presence, but we gave them our money, we gave them our trust. And when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered, instead of responding in compassion and love and solidarity, many of them responded in backlash and hostility and apathy. And then when Donald Trump is on the campaign trail and then ultimately elected in that fall of 2016, it’s as if white supremacy was in overdrive. I mean, these people really were trying to fight for what they believe to be the loss of their country. And the sad part was there were many, as my grandmother would call them, good white people in this space, but there were so many more who wanted to keep the space white and keep the country white and really tried to do everything they possibly could to keep it white. And in some sense to keep us silent.
So I’m reading in this moment and I’m asked to lead a group on racial reconciliation. This is when this language, you know, in response to situations where black people die or suffer many of the white responses was, “okay, let’s come together. Let’s be unified. Let’s pray together. Let’s have conversations regarding racial reconciliation.”
I don’t want to make myself the hero, right. Because like you said, like I stayed in these spaces for a long time beyond even Trayvon being murdered or even me leaving Clemson. I stayed in there a long time. And it was as if, when I’m leading this group, like I’m trying to read everything I possibly can, like this book is on racial reconciliation. So therefore they’re citing like other resources. I’m trying to read all of these resources as a preacher in this space. So I’m trying to do my due diligence. And as I’m reading literature, then I started getting introduced to Martin Luther King and then James Baldwin. And then I actually started reading these primary sources. I’ve started reading like Toni Morrison and then getting introduced to James Cone and Katie Cannon.
And as this started to happen, it was as is, like Baldwin says in “The Fire Next Time,” in the first part of it, it was as if my dungeon began to shake, it was as if I saw myself for what I had become, as somebody who gave these people power and became a weapon, but then I also saw this space for what it tried to make us. And that is, it tried to make us okay with giving these white spaces our best while they responded with their worst.
And so as Donald Trump is happening and Philando and Alton are murdered, all of these kinds of fault lines are being crossed and we’re bumping heads and all of this is happening, I am also having conversations with my wife. I’m having conversations with my coworkers at Enterprise. And during this moment, this was the first time since college, and I was like two or three years removed from college, it was the first time that I actually really in legitimate ways was around other Black people again. And I’ll never forget it. As I’m preaching, teaching, leading these people responding in hostility and apathy to our deaths and our suffering, even more than that, our lives and what we had to offer. I’m at work. And I’m talking about unity and like, “yo, white people are changing and I’m the first black preach at this church.” And then McKayla just simply responds to me. She says, Stew, you don’t have a damn thing to offer Black people. And what she was saying was what you have been taught we actually need is not what we need. You have been taught to give white people what they never deserved and that is trust with our lives and trust with our future. And then I go home that same evening, and I go to my wife and I tell her all that is going on, all this wrestling that is happening within me. And I tell her about McKayla and then Jas simply says, you always listen to other people when I’ve been telling you this the whole time.
And bro, when that happened, all of these reckonings began to happen. I started to realize that there was only one way that I could exist as a young Black person trying to find my way and that was taking the power back of my own story. And being willing to face the cost of what it means to leave and doing what was necessary to try and find my healing and freedom. And I did that and it was messy and hard, but I’m glad I did.
Reckon: I imagine a lot of people would listen to your story, white people in particular, because we have seen a massive white Exodus from the white church in the last five years, in part, because of the way that the church did respond to things like Black Lives Matter and the election of Donald Trump, a lot of those white people who have left the church either are agnostic or atheist or call themselves exvangelical because they don’t necessarily have another tradition to go to. You had that Black Christian tradition that you grew up in and you didn’t necessarily return to that, but you did seek out more Black Christian spaces. Why rather than turn away from faith entirely, did you go looking for a different form of faith?
Stewart: Yeah. I like to think about this through James Baldwin, someone who did leave the church, but then I would even say that even though Baldwin left the church, the church really didn’t leave Baldwin. Or what church and faith was really meant to be.
So as we’re recording this, it is March the 3rd and I was talking with a friend last night about exhaustion and was talking about just, how given everything that’s happening in the world, particularly with Ukraine and with book banning back here in America, and even with Amir Locke and all of these headlines happening, I was just talking about how oftentimes there’s so much pressure to feel like we have to be the saviors. And that’s what I learned in white evangelicalism is, you know, you feel like every faith is nothing but a war and everything is reduceable to an argument. And that if people don’t agree with you and get on your side, then they’re not right. And you gotta use all types of stuff to argue people down and just simply argue with them about something you yourself may be confused about.
And I’m in this moment, years later, I’m like, I don’t want to argue. I just want to live. And I want to breathe. I want to be free. And as I’m talking with my friend last night, I read him Baldwin’s essays. And my worn copy, it was between 1980 and 1984, the chronology says that Baldwin was hospitalized multiple times for exhaustion. He was hospitalized for just doing too much, being on the road too much, feeling like he has to always show up and speak and things like that.
As I’m thinking about this last night and I’m working on my thesis right now, my thesis project on Baldwin, I started listening to his interview with Mavis [Nicholson] that he did I think in the 1980s. And Baldwin is talking with Mavis and she says, you know, a lot of people seem to be returning to religion. And then Baldwin is like,” no, they’re not returning to religion, oftentimes they’re returning to a crutch. Often times they’re returning to something that would allow them to evade and to deny the struggle or the trouble of our world and the ways in which we’re caught up into it.”
And as I’m listening to Baldwin talk about this, I realized Baldwin says in this moment where he’s just so tired, he says that he oftentimes returned to Jesus because that’s where he learned how to love.
And for me, why didn’t I leave when so much of church is exhausting, when so much of the world is exhausting? It’s probably back to Baldwin where even though so much of the church was terrible, there were different ways to read this faith. There were different ways to embody this faith that was about liberation and wholeness and about not running from the problems or running from ourselves, or shaming ourselves or blaming ourselves, or trying to prove ourselves. But there were ways in which this kind of embodiment of love allow us to be present.
And I’m oftentimes broken hearted at the person I’d become back in the day, because so much of that person, I feel, still lingers. And I have to make sense of what it means to change and to leave so many of the people and these rituals that were so meaningful at one point, while also trying to hold on to whatever I can right now and in this moment that would keep me going.
And I think one of the reasons I didn’t leave was because of Baldwin. Like, when I started to read The Fire Next Time, the same Baldwin who would declare that “if the concept of God has any validity, it can only make us larger and more freer. And if God can not do this, then it’s time to get rid of him.” It was that same Baldwin who criticized the church, to say that people ought to love the Lord because they love him. Not because they were afraid to go to hell. And I think so much of the church is about fear and arrogance and power and control. But Baldwin, even as he left the church, there still lingered within his work and in his life these metaphors that allowed him to make sense of his own failure, but what he tried to re-imagine for his faith.
And I think right now so much of returning and leaving and growing is a part of faith. It is a part of, I’m not talking about Christian faith in particular, I’m talking about the ability to stay grounded in ourselves and do what makes us come most alive. It is to do what is most beautiful and humane and creative. And to give one another something that would tell each other again and again that you matter and you are worthy of the best we have to offer. That’s faith.
So leaving, I had to deconstruct those narratives and those voices. I couldn’t listen to certain theologians anymore or certain pastors or certain preachers, but so much of my faith going back to my grandmother and my grandfather, even though they were still in those Pentecostal spaces, it was something about their stories.
And then reading Toni Morrison and Baldwin and Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker. That really changed my concept of God and expanded my view so that God would become something just more liberating then what so many people have experienced. And this is the challenge as well as I do this work, is that I have to be sensitive that to say that I’m Christian, to say that I am in ministry and am a minister, is to meet people at a place of their trauma. Where so many people have been ruined by the church, so many people have been destroyed and harmed by the church. And I have to be sensitive enough to say that yo, if this ain’t your thing, That’s okay. But I want to write and live with a certain type of sensitivity that even if you feel the ways this lingers around me, there is something for you that tells you that you matter as well.
You can purchase a copy of “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle” here.