Waiting to exhale | SPECIAL: Black Culture 2004 | Indy Week
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Waiting to exhale 

A local minister recounts how he learned to breathe

Editor's note: In this essay, Carl W. Kenney II writes about his experience in the black church, and the issues of tradition and denial which often pervade religious practices, particularly in African-American communities. Kenney is a columnist for the Herald-Sun and the author of the soon-to-be-released novel, Preacha' Man. He is the founder and pastor of Compassion Ministries in Durham, N.C.

It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. After abiding by all the rules, going to all the right schools, and fitting into the neat box for those who wear holy garments, I was taken in a new direction. It was the road less traveled. I soon discovered many are on the same journey. We needed a place to breathe.

The itch began on the inside. Before long the infection had spread all over me. My mind, body and inner being were altered to a point of no return. I could no longer function within the context of a traditional church setting. People noticed a change in the way I looked. What they failed to realize was the transformation started long before my low cut fade became an Afro, and the Afro became twists, and the twists grew into locks.

The way I dressed changed to reflect the mood of a man set free from the limits of the traditional church. I wanted to stop it. I knew the consequences of change. For years I had functioned within an institution that clearly defined the dos and the don'ts of the trade. The people expected me to think, act and look a certain way. I tried. I couldn't take it any more.

The African-American church has stood as the heart and soul of the African-American community since slaves struggled to find meaning and hope in a land where they were forced to reside. It was this church, this heart, that stirred the souls of black folks to rise above the tyranny of oppression. This heart is now facing cardiac arrest. As the culture of dark-hued peoples changes, the African-American church has been slow to change--so slow that it has lost its connection to a large segment of the people who need what only the church can provide. They need to be touched where they are, not from where their mothers and fathers once stood.

I came to Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church in 1989, after my first year at Duke Divinity School. The church provided me with all the comforts a person comes to expect after completing a divinity program. At the time it was a small struggling church; it struggled not because of a lack of strong leadership, financial support, or committed membership, but because it had endured a painful split. (At the time there was a lot of infighting in the church between the pastor of Orange Grove, Rev. James Daniels, and the older membership, who disagreed on the direction the ministry was taking. In 1988, some of the congregation left, along with Rev. Daniels, forming Greater Joy Baptist Church.) The separation left the two congregations aching. Both wanted and needed to move on. Orange Grove needed time to heal, reflect and prepare for its future.

I came too soon.

It was, in many ways a perfect match. The church possessed resources that veiled the things I lacked. I brought energy, passion, vision and gifts of preaching and teaching. They brought skills of administration, an amazing music ministry, a care for the community and a desire to build God's kingdom.

Their love for me was reflected in the way they looked past my limitations. They gave me the space to grow within the work. They challenged me to become the best I could be at everything I brought to the vocation. Some loved me as a son. Others loved me as a brother. It was home.

A miracle unfolded before our eyes. After five years we moved into a new building. The ministry was growing fast--maybe too fast. We did our best to keep pace with the rapid expansion. It took time to add staff, but we did. Why did we grow so fast? What was it about the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church that drew people to the ministry? Was it the music ministry? Was it my preaching and teaching? Was it the educational programs offered at the church or the focus on youth? It was all of that and more.

So, what went wrong? I changed. My journey took me in a different direction. It started on the inside. The journey from within forced a peek at the things I wanted to hide from. The things about me that I didn't want to talk about. The things I felt that hurt too much to say. The things I was ashamed of. I wanted to scream, to cry out for help. I needed a place where I could receive what I offered to the people who came to me. I needed ministering. I needed to be loved through the pain that I hid from the people.

I had no choice but to cry out. Soon the flashbacks of my childhood hit me in the face. It became harder for me to stand before the people and announce: "God will never leave you or forsake you," when I wondered where God was when I endured sexual abuse as a child? How could I say that to the congregation?

The impact of my silent tears changed the way I looked at God and God's people. The people want to know their pastor has gone through trials, but they don't want to know he's going through them. It became apparent to me that the church is not a space that allows the man or woman of God to process their pain. I was forced to do it on my own.

The result was a change. I couldn't hide from me anymore. I needed to breathe. I never knew breathing could be so painful. It is. It hurts, because with each breath I took, a part of me came out. So much of what I'd become wasn't real. I was a shadow of my true self. The real me got lost along the way. Lost in my quest to become a good professional. The work of the kingdom had become just that--work. I was a professional figurehead. Survival required my pressing all the right buttons, playing the political game of not offending the people, and following all the rules.

People like me were not being reached. The traditional church serves a purpose. It does a great job of providing support to those who haven't been ostracized by those who see them as fitting outside the traditional mold. For those who carry a burden much deeper than anything any of us can see, something different is needed. They need room to breathe.

My breathing changed my social-political concentration. The mandate of the institution was for me to remain faithful to the needs of the local congregation. My columns became the subject of debate rather than a model of prophetic voice. I soon learned that the church had strayed from being an advocate for social change.

I wrote pieces that challenged people to move past their homophobia. I was told to remain silent and to recant what I had written. My eyes were opened to the hypocritical positions held by God's people. Is it possible to love a person yet reject the sin? Rumor and suspension replaced the love ethic. It was assumed that my position proved a struggle with my personal orientation. It wasn't true.

Then came the vote. August 22, 2002. Many saw it as the end. Fourteen years of service ended with an 89 to 87 vote. That vote forced a change that I wasn't bold enough to make on my own. I wasn't strong enough to say goodbye to the building with a steeple on top and stained windows. I wasn't ready to leave the structure and compensation provided by the institution I'd come to love. I was comfortable there. The paycheck twice a month and the benefits were too good to walk away from. But I was forced to walk away.

I heard the vote over the loudspeaker in my former office, as a deacon announced the results. I took a deep breath and said, "It's over." I did not cry. It was time to go home. I reached for the doorknob prepared to get out of the way before anyone saw me leave. There was no need to stay. I knew my time had come. I had changed too much to stay.

The people met me in the hallway. Some were crying. Others were screaming. They were shocked by the result. I took them outside to pray. I told them not to hold it against the members who voted against me. I reminded them that we are family. We prayed. I prayed for the church. I prayed that we would not look at one another as enemies.

Many weren't satisfied with a prayer. They wanted action. Names were collected. We met the next week at the downtown branch of the Durham County Library. The following week we met for worship. It was an exciting time; we could move on. Many didn't understand what moving on meant. It did not mean moving on to what we had before. It meant a new perspective, a different approach to ministry. It meant taking on the challenge that couldn't be met within the context of a traditional church setting.

The work required venturing into uncharted territory. We began with a name. "Compassion" came to mind. I liked the word compassion because it can never be separated from community. Compassion revels itself best in the context of community. I had searched long and hard for a community that would embrace me, love me, and celebrate the unique gifts found within me. Others came searching for a safe place to heal and grow. Compassion was what we all needed. We became Compassion Ministries of Durham because each of us is a ministry of compassion.

"I've traveled all over the world and I feel comfortable at Compassion," says Bill Cherry. Cherry, 67, is one of the oldest partners of the ministry. We call ourselves partners because being a member sounds too much like what a person does when they become a part of a club. We aren't called to participate in an elitist institution, but rather to bond together in order to change the world around us. "This ministry is different because the people care. They come with a great expectation of healing and feeling, and leave with a sense of fulfillment. It's a place for the gutter most to the up most," says Cherry.

That's how I've often felt, but I wasn't certain if this message was touching home. Was this a work that provided me a place to overcome the pain that I've felt, or were others feeling and experiencing the same thing? Carrying pain leaves a person in the difficult position of needing one thing when others are in need of something different. I had to press the question: How much of this work is about me and my need, and how much of it is about what the people require?

"I can be who I am on a day by day basis," says Tamisha Waden, 25. "I don't have to front. I can wear my hair ethnic without people judging it. I feel welcome and I have grown spiritually under this ministry." This was the good news I needed to hear.

Waden came to the church to work with the music ministry. A graduate of North Carolina Central University with a degree in music, her plan was to move to New York to pursue a music career. "It has always been my desire to write, arrange--not just music from the gospel genre but music from other genres," she says. "This ministry helped me explore that. It allows us to get in touch with our creative side. We're taught that we can't be classified under one genre."

The music ministry is so different that there are times when a person may wonder if they are in a church. The people walk around during collection to the music of Jill Scott, Me'shele Ndegeocello, Musiq Soulchild, or Floetry. "We just use all our talents for God. Our music, poetry, whatever, we see it as a gift from God and we use it for God," says Victor Moore, 29, the minister of music. "It may not be used in a traditional sense, but it's being used."

Moore moved to Durham to enroll in the music department at NCCU. He went on to complete his bachelor of music alongside his wife Elizabeth. Prior to coming to Compassion Ministries, Victor, Joey Holloway, Elizabeth and Aaron Griffin performed with local musician, Yazarah. Victor wrote some of the music for the artist's Hear Me project. All are now part of Compassion Ministries.

Early on, I assured members of the band that I would support their work outside of the church. We drove together to New York as Yazarah and the band performed as the opening act for Erykah Badu. I wanted that sound in the church; I adore the snap of the snare drum and the funky sound of the bass. I wanted more than a choir singing old hymns every Sunday.

I wanted to hear the full range of African-American artistry.

From the sound of an African drum--Coltrane, Miles, Billie--to James singing, "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," that's the soul of black people expressed best through the arts. I wanted a celebration that moved beyond the story of how we made it in the church. Can't God be found in other places?

"Poetry, drama, dance and other forms of creativity are an important part of the worship experience, primarily because it is a testament to the fact that God cannot be put in a box," says Angela Ray, director of Arts Ministry at Compassion and the author of Blackberry Whispers. "This, to me, is an integral affirmation of the faith walk of a Christian. When we acknowledge that God can minister through all the gifts that He bestows upon us, I believe we further strengthen our ability to receive all of the promises He has for us."

Ray goes on to say that these elements function to connect us with a traditional part of our heritage, making worship an inclusive veneration. Both Moore and Ray have sought ways to incorporate the full range of artistic expression within the worship experience of the church. From poetic praise, the dance ministry, the teen step team, drama, comedy and music, art is a major part of who we are. Why should we limit the way we express that faith?

Poets come to the church to share their gift: Tim Jackson, Chris Massenburg, Langston Fuze and Ray have all stood before the church during worship to share that gift. Once a month poets gather at Soul Food Coffee House, while the group Dirty Soul gives us a taste of the music that will soon be heard on airwaves across the country. There is no way to classify their music--it's not traditional gospel, it's not hip-hop, R&B or neo-soul. It's music of the soul for people who understand love, faith and the journey of the spirit.

Moore has watched people walk away from the ministry because of the non-traditional music that he provides--people want to hear the music played on the gospel radio stations. I challenged Moore to combine a variety of musical styles during the worship service. "They don't want us to sound hip-hopish," Moore says. "They don't want to use R&B. They think we should only use gospel sounds--whatever that means. We can use hip hop, R&B and other styles when we worship God."

"With Compassion, you're allowed to bring your life to church," says Elizabeth Moore, 33, Victor's wife. "Our dress is a symbol of that. Come as you are. Miss Lottie in a suit; Victor in sweats; other people in long skirts, short skirts, boots; Tim in his locks; weaves, ultra perms--you name it, we have it."

Many contend that the work of the Church is to teach people to think in a certain way. The goal, they argue, is to strip people of the part of themselves that contradicts the character of Christ. Some may think that Compassion deals too much with grace and not enough with judgment. Don't we need a balance?

"You have to be acclimated to who Christ has made you to be, not to what the world wants you to be," Elizabeth says. "God made me to come in my zanyness. I'm not going to compromise who I am anyway. Compassion allows me not to compromise."

Victor echoes the sentiments of his wife. "It ain't about changing who you are, you are already who you are. It's about applying the principles of God to who you are. I will still like chicken after I come to Christ."

Those comments remind me of my critics. I've been told that my approach to ministry offers too many excuses to remain in a life of sin. I am told that people need more reminders about the consequences of living a life of disobedience. "Compassion is not a symbol of 'come as you are and stay as you are,'" says Elizabeth. "It's not an excuse to be of the world. This allows you to be who you are in the world. You are working toward what Christ is making you to be."

"It's also about being true to yourself," adds Victor. "I like hip-hop. I like the sound of R&B--that's how God is using me in writing music. We're not reaching young people because it's not being heard."

It has been 16 months since Compassion Ministries was organized. We began with much fanfare. Christopher "Play" Martin, the former hip-hop star of the motion picture House Party, came to the church to help us tackle the question, "Where Are the Men?" Since then, Martin has been added to the ministry team at Compassion, where he will help formulate a strategy for reaching the hip-hop generation.

Since the early months, we have witnessed a falling away. We have learned that being innovative in a Southern culture isn't easy. People are enamored with tradition. Even young people are drawn to choirs that sing hymns, to services that have liturgies that have been passed down for generations, and to ministries that remind them of the way things were when they were members of their grandmother's church.

We've had to ask the tough question: Is it all worth it? Is there a place in Durham for a ministry like this, or is it impossible to survive unless you are deeply enriched within tradition?

Victor believes that Compassion Ministries is a place for people who are searching for ways of expressing their spirituality beyond the limits of conventional church worship. "People are in bondage," he says. "They need to be set free. Someone is taking a stand to be who they are instead of being someone else they will come to be because they are a part of this ministry."

I became the most dangerous when I discovered who I was," Elizabeth says. "At Compassion you have a whole group of people who have discovered who they are. That's dangerous. We're smaller because we don't fit in. We're the nerd, the ugly duckling--but we're not. People pick on us because they are insecure with themselves. We are the fat, chunky kid that came back to the high school reunion [who] no one recognized."

On Sunday, Jan. 18, Chanequa Walker-Barnes became the first person to preach her initial sermon at Compassion. The clinical psychologist, who is on faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will begin Divinity School at Duke this fall. She said it best during her sermon: It's important that you know who you are not. God has called us to be different. Shame on you when you're not.

It's a blessing to be different. Even when no one understands. EndBlock


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