Prayer Warriors and Freethinkers
The prayer warriors have descended on the Crenshaw parking lot in South L.A. The first sentry, a slight man in athletic shorts, weaves through the parked cars on an old Schwinn. He flags down the driver of a T-Bird. They exchange quick greetings then bow their heads and join hands, oblivious, for the moment, to the crash of street traffic, the manic dance for parking spots, the rustle of grocery bags and runaway shopping carts. On this hallowed plot of blacktop time is suspended and God vibrates through the chassis of each parked car, as the men bond in the simple bliss of scripture.
I caught the parking lot prayer warriors a week before I was scheduled to speak at the Texas Freethought Convention, an annual October gathering of non-believers in Houston. It was an ironic send-off for my pending trip, reminder of the visceral grip of everyday Jesus and the unique challenges of black secularism. Five years ago, two men holding hands in this particular lot might have elicited homophobic double takes or a beat down. But now, the public performance of prayer, street preaching and proselytizing in urban communities of color is back with a revivalist vengeance borne of the vicious arc of recession.
Long before it became fashionable to lament the demise of the American dream, joblessness, foreclosure and homelessness were a fact of life for many in predominantly black and Latino South Los Angeles. Indeed, it has been said that when America catches a cold black America gets the flu. The titanic wealth gap between white and black America means that fewer young African Americans will be able to meet much less exceed the standard of living enjoyed by their parents. Over the past decade, socioeconomic mobility for black college graduates has actually declined. At 8.7% of L.A. County's population, African Americans are 50% of its homeless and 40% of its prison population. Lines at ministry-based food assistance programs swell with first-timers. In this era of endless recession, the prayer warriors have become both a bellwether and a vector of social malaise. Prayer is intimately woven into the landscape of public life, a hoary lingua franca that has morphed into a social movement exemplified by the 24/7 International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, Missouri. IHOP is at the epicenter of what the New York Times characterizes as "one of the fastest-growing segments of Christianity, attracting millions."
For African Americans, prayer is still a form of sanctuary. And while black religiosity remains solid it is Latino faith trends that have the potential to redeem Christianity from its dwindling white demographic. According to the Pew Research center, Latinos are "saving" American Christianity, as greater numbers of them break from the dreary pedophilic morass of Catholicism for the party-animal revelry of Pentecostalism. For some Latino worshippers, Pentecostalism offers a more personal, immediate relationship with God, free from the straightjacket of Catholic hierarchies and traditions. It also provides ethnic solidarity, a sense of belonging and kinship, a bridge to social services for multigenerational families, and seeming affirmation of moral standing in a national context that has become more explicitly hostile, racist and xenophobic towards Latinos and other people of color.
Against this complex backdrop of marathon devoutness, xenophobia and white nationalism, it was not difficult to see why there were few people of color "feeling" Texas Freethought. Although several grassroots black non-theist groups have emerged over the past few years, "freethought" in Texas looked pretty much like the usual white suspects (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, et al) speaking to rapt constituencies that mirror the deep racial divide of segregated America. As the sole person of color scheduled for a general session, my talk focused squarely on the national context and politics of this divide. I addressed the prevailing climate of racial and gender inequality vis-à-vis the white-dominated secular movement's complicity in the myth of "Kumbaya" colorblindness, highlighting the anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-imperialist foundations of black freethought. If mainstream freethought and humanism continue to reflect the narrow cultural interests of white elites who have disposable income to go to conferences then the secular movement is destined to remain marginal and insular.
During a panel I participated on entitled "Expanding Our Movement," the facilitator asked how the secular movement could attract freethinkers (presumably from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds) who weren't at the convention. Panelists Sunsara Taylor of Revolution Newspaper, Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and Rich Rodriguez of the Rational Response Squad unpacked the challenges of broadening a movement that has a straight white middle class face. Taylor, a young white activist who has been an outspoken radical voice on anti-racism and social justice, called on whites to confront white privilege and the belief that racism can be reduced to explicit in-your-face prejudice, rather than being reflected in institutions like the prison complex and segregated schools.
Yet, throughout the conference I was acutely aware that Latinos and African Americans are a majority of the Houston population. The city has a 20% poverty rate. The convention agenda gave nary a nod to any of these "minority" concerns. Certainly it is a secular issue that homelessness and mass-incarceration are a fact of life for many African Americans. Clearly secular liberation for people of color means the human right to be free from the current regime of criminalization that demonizes undocumented workers, students and their communities.
But white privilege means never having to be in an environment in which whites are the racial others, and secularism means more than freedom from religion. It means never having to be conscious that the black and brown hotel help outnumber the paying participants of color at plush academic conferences. It also means never being discomfited by the backslapping culture of good old boys at nice Southern hotels. There was much discussion amongst the African American freethinkers that I spoke to about the implications of the abysmally low turnout for black investment in the secular movement. Activist Donald Wright of the Houston Humanists Discussion Group was involved in the early planning stages of the convention. Wright, author of the book Let My People Go, a gripping analysis of his journey from church deacon to non-believer, expressed frustration with the shoe-horning of "diversity" into one brief panel. Washington Area Secular Humanist board member and writer Naima Cabelle Washington spoke of the need to frame secularism from a radical social justice lens from the outset, rather than append diversity as an afterthought. Both agreed that if there is no emphasis on intersectionality within the broader movement, non-theists of color will have little long term interest in the tiresome work of dragging resistant white secularists along.
Intersectionality is where most humanists of color do their work. For example, humanist feminist of color organizations such as my South L.A.-based Women's Leadership Project or national secular socialist groups like Radical Women link reproductive justice to challenging the religious dogma that encourages young women of color to conform to patriarchal norms of femininity. Both secular culture and religious culture are implicated in these regimes of power and control. These norms have deep implications for the conditions they are subjected to in their school-communities, as well as for their college prospects, their sense of identity, their interpersonal relationships and economic justice. So simply trotting out the bromide that people should choose to be enlightened freethinkers doesn't cut it; young women of color need academic support, mentoring and community reinforcement to overcome oppressive marginalizing conditions that prop up the Madonna/whore dichotomy. They need moral and intellectual grounding for self-determination in a culture in which the bodies of women of color have never been deemed to be free or human. In South L.A., where the storefront churches and the prayer warriors run deep, this challenge represents the real liberatory potential of freethought.