The scariest point of my twenties was waking up one morning and realizing that I had no clue who I was, or who I wanted to become beyond the expectations that everyone else had for me. This was a taxing revelation that paralyzed me for months. It left me wallowing in a state of regret over the years I spent held hostage by the wants, needs and desires of my faith community, my family and even friends. I realized that I had built a prison for myself and granted everyone else the keys of what my life should look like.
Born in the U.S., I was raised by Haitian immigrants who provided me everything they could, based on what they knew and understood. While there’s a lot that I love and embrace about my culture and upbringing, I was also raised in the Haitian Church where many congregations lag behind when it comes to any form of progression. Their faith traditions are often steeped in legalism and antiquated cultural norms that are overly restrictive and prohibitive. Growing up, women were demonized for wearing pants and were forbidden from pastoral roles in church, while men were admonished for wearing braids/locs or earrings as if their very salvation depended on it. And much like traditional American church settings, I also witnessed women who fell pregnant outside of wedlock demonized by the very church members who claimed to love them. They often faced isolation from their faith communities by leaders who preached about grace, yet lacked it themselves in practice. So, I attempted to live in a manner to avoid those scenarios from playing out in my own life. After all, because I was entrenched in a religious environment that sought to control others under the guise of love and accountability, the voices of its constituents often sounded louder than God’s.
I sought to live a “super saved” existence, which included heavy participation in church activities, adhering to Haitian norms, obeying and honoring my parents, and denying my flesh of every natural desire that sprung forth, specifically pre-marital sex. I was so ingrained in this performative version of Christianity that looked great on the outside, but was slowly tearing me apart inside. Genuinely living by this “holy” template caused me to reject so many parts of myself and I ultimately suffered from huge bouts of anxiety in response to the pressures and expectations that were thrust upon me.
Being “saved” didn’t erase my anxiety or spirit of fear, but instead, exacerbated it. I suffered panic attacks and frequent thoughts of suicide, and was afraid to share this with others. As a praise and worship leader at the time, I feared that my faith in God would be called into question as a result being transparent about my issues. I couldn’t bear the possibility of confiding in those closest to me, only to be met with assumptions that I wasn’t praying enough, when I was literally on my face crying out to God everyday. Or that I wasn’t reading my Bible enough, when I constantly nose-deep in the Word. I’d never been perfect, but I was literally doing everything in my power to live the “right way,” yet still found myself drowning in a state of despair.
There were many parallels between navigating the world as a church girl and a first generation Haitian-American. Modern Christianity often calls us to be in the world, but not of it, and living in a Haitian household dictated that while I lived in America, I was to reject the American way while clinging on to Haitian traditions that I couldn’t always fully grasp or understand. Christians are called to have life more abundantly, but my experience in the Church kept me bound to the expectations of others and fearful of their judgment. This mindset fueled fears of how the most asinine decisions could affect the trajectory of my life (or afterlife). I lived a crippled existence, afraid to live and embrace the fullness of my humanity.
My path toward healing began through the grueling process of deconstructing my faith and identity in God over the last few years. I’ve had to “find myself” outside of the doctrine I’ve been taught in the Church. My journey has led me to the conclusion that a bulk of the morality doctrine taught in today’s church context (whether Haitian or not) stem from tradition rather than scripture. Also, the scripture that has been canonized into the Holy Bible of today was written in the context of a time period that is completely contrary to how we live today. In his work, theologian Karl Barth notes that human talk about God (which includes the Bible) is “limited by human finitude, and the meaning of human talk is inseparable from its original time, place and culture (postbarthian.com).” So, while there are many Bible passages that we can lean on for inspiration and hope, it doesn’t adequately address many concerns of today, nor should we expect it to. This alone has led me to reject many harmful ideas that I once regarded as universal truths.
It has been liberating to begin rediscovering my faith for myself. My existence today no longer mirrors the anxiety-inducing path that I was encouraged to walk. My evolution has set me free from the prison I had built for myself, and has helped ease the fears that once accompanied my faith. My journey has also helped me to understand that anxiety can be part of the human experience, and that I am valued and absolutely loved by God regardless.
My faith has now evolved to a place where I can begin to imagine what God looks like beyond what’s traditionally taught in the Church and recorded in scripture. Today, I’m no longer afraid to respectfully navigate Biblical text with a critical approach and examine how it’s been (mis)interpreted and taught differently over the course of time. No, I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve moved away from compartmentalizing God into the same legalistic box that perpetuated my spirit of fear. And I have to admit, the experience has been quite courageous and freeing.