Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
In another life, I might have become a minister.
From the time I was young enough to misspell my own name in my delicate Precious Moments Bible, I paged through the gold-rimmed pages, curious what stories lay inside. As I grew older, three hefty Bibles that permanently dwelt on our living room coffee table replaced it. I would open the different translations up side by side, desperate for answers about church and God’s confusing idiosyncrasies.
Why was he unable to hear me if I did not don a head covering? Why did he ban pearl earrings for my aunts, but permit gold cufflinks for my uncles? Why could he only accept prayers from my brothers in church? Why was I labeled the one most susceptible to demon possession?
No one ever needed to tell me that God was a man. I knew he was. And so for over 700 Sundays, I fought the resulting idea that men held spiritual knowledge and authority that I could not access.
It took me a few more years to realize that the god of my youth was also distinctly, culturally white. In his church, he outlawed drums and permitted only organ and piano interpretations of British and German hymns. He frowned upon long box braids with beads that swung down to my waist. He didn’t have an answer for what the Bible’s dichotomy of light/darkness – good/evil meant for our times. And importantly, the theology he cultivated in his followers was a galloping, conquering individualism and an inattention to suffering.
God was white, male, and so far away.
That is, until about a year ago, when I followed theologian and social psychologist Christena Cleveland’s pilgrimage for Black Madonnas in France. I hadn’t known that since the first century, communities from Belgium to Brazil to Senegal have found comfort in images of a dark skinned Mary. There are over 450 Black Madonnas in the world, and Cleveland notes that “they’re seen as gifts from heaven to communities; associated with God coming and being present.”
Evangelical/Protestant churches tend to shy away from these ideas. We don’t attach sacredness to Mary. We’re not often invited to take pilgrimages. And while we neutrally accept the idea of God as white and male, the association of black femininity with the divine sparks discomfort, even repulsion (a disturbing revelation of what we believe is unholy and the farthest from divinity). We forget that the way we see God molds how we relate to God, each other, and the institutions around us.
Cleveland’s honesty with her pilgrimage awakened a new curiosity in me. While I am still in the process of weaving my thoughts together, these tangible recognitions of the image of God in black, female form affect me. Somehow, these ancient depictions of Mary—wise, caring, fierce—help me better understand and expand my idea of who God is. As a result, I gain strength to affirm the holiness of my global sisters—and of myself.
Though part of me fears how others will react to my empathic rejection of God as white and male, the more I learn, the more I sense that I’m following a well-trod path. Joan of Arc visited the Black Madonna of Moulins, France during her 1429 campaign. And for centuries, marginalized communities have held fast to a God who intimately knew their pain, even as their oppressors professed faith in a god with the same name.
As I deconstruct my singular image of God, I am celebrating the multifaceted images of God as a black woman all around me.
With baby steps, I can finally see women as Christ figures elsewhere in the Bible—women like Abigail and Esther who step up to power to redeem their communities and boldly usher in peace. I am rethinking what God’s power looks like outside of war cries and thunderbolts. I am looking for how God reveals Herself to the world beyond the colonial wave of missionaries. Finally, I am reflecting on how the longing to connect with God has and will continue to take me on winding journeys, like pilgrims of old crossing mountain ranges and forests.
And yet, amazingly, no matter how far away I feel, She is here.
She has always been here.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.