A Catholic, a buddhist and a Jew walk us through what it's like to be black in Detroit and non-Protestant.
Religion and politics. If you’re hosting a spirited bunch for a dinner party, these may be two topics that you set aside in a fish bowl along with the cellphones, not to be touched until after the dishes have been cleared and the alcohol has dried up.
Talk of religion, especially, can raise voices and blood pressures before the main course is served, and black people – especially older, faithful black people – aren’t ordinarily shy.
“Where’s your church home?” is not an uncommon question. But more often than otherwise, this means, “Where’s your Christian church home?” Or even more specifically, “Where’s your Protestant church home?”
It’s a fair presumption, as most of us are descendants of southern Baptists – a Protestant subgroup – born and raised in the creases of the Bible Belt. A whopping 78 percent of African-Americans are Protestant – so says a 2009 Pew Research Center report. But what about the rest of us?
The Black Catholic
LEON DIXON of Redford says, “Growing up Catholic – just like any other religion – helped me develop a relationship with God and helped me think about things that were external to what was going on in my neighborhood.”
Dixon moved from Louisiana to Seven Mile and Wyoming almost 50 years ago when he was just 2 or 3 years old and started at Gesu Catholic School in Detroit not long after the 1967 rebellion.
He says “integration was hitting Detroit pretty good” and racial tensions were high. “In that first wave of black Catholics coming up, people of color coming into that school, we formed a bond” against racist whites and non-Catholic blacks alike. “I had some fights over (my faith),” Dixon says, “but for the most part, after I got comfortable in who I was, it never bothered me.”
Now he’s the director of the Black Catholic Ministry, a department of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, whose main operation is community outreach. Dixon stays out and about, interacting with people using what he calls an “unorthodox” approach.
“It’s my job as a Christian” – all Catholics are Christian, but not all Christians are Catholic – “to show who Jesus is, what God’s love is, but I can’t show you from an office. I can’t show you from a pulpit. I preached at a revival last year and I told them, ‘Show me in the scripture where it says Jesus preached at a home church every Sunday.'”
Dixon says while he’s out preaching on street corners or feeding the homeless, he often encounters people who are surprised that he and his group are Catholic. “It’s hard being Catholic in a city like Detroit,” he says because of bias – racial bias within the church and religious bias within the black community.
If he visits a Catholic church that isn’t also a black church, Dixon says it’s not extraordinary to have his faith questioned or to be refused communion. Sometimes, parishioners will even go so far as to ask that he prove his faith by posing questions like, “Who’s the pope?” His answer is to sarcastically feign ignorance.
The barrage isn’t much gentler from his black Protestant peers. “(Catholicism) is perceived as being white. I don’t think the church has done a good job over the years of presenting itself as not a white institution.”
Plus, some tend to take issue with or misunderstand some of the practices, like the prevalence of holy statues and confession. Dixon says many non-Catholic blacks think Catholics worship statues instead of Christ and say you shouldn’t confess your sins to a man.
He says, “The clergy – your bishops, your priests, your pastors – they’re standing in the place of God’s servant. So it’s not like you’re going to just ‘some man.'” And, of course, some “woke” folk take issue with organized religion, particularly Christian religions, in general.
“Yeah, I acknowledge that Christianity was used in slavery; Islam was also used to get the slaves on the boat,” Dixon says. “Organized religion has always been used to manipulate people, but it doesn’t negate the fact that Christ died for our sins. Man is the variable, it ain’t the religion.”
Once, while he was preaching on the street, a woman pulled up. She’d just gotten out of the hospital after being severely beaten by her children’s father. Dixon offered to pray for her, but she declined, saying that she didn’t believe in God and just wanted to sit.
He eventually got her out of the car with the promise that he’d hold her hand. He says everyone else left around 10:30 p.m. and the two of them just stood on the corner holding hands until midnight. “Preaching to her wouldn’t have done nothing. Singing to her wouldn’t have done nothing. She just needed to be with somebody.”
The Black Judaist
DAVID POWELL was raised by a Baptist family in El Paso, Texas, but says, “I feel like I was born a Jew because the basic premise – believing in God and the Ten Commandments – those are things I was always oriented toward.” For this reason, he doesn’t like to say he “converted,” but rather, he “returned home.”
Powell says he started reading the Old Testament when he was living in Battle Creek and attending the church of the Seventh-day Adventist – a group of Protestant Christians who observe Saturday as Sabbath.
He says when he was introduced to the early books of the Bible, Powell realized what he says he’d always known, which was that he identified with the Jewish faith. Nearly 30 years ago, he started attending synagogue and has been practicing Judaism ever since.
“One of the things we don’t like – or at least I don’t like to think we do – is delineating Jews based upon color or anything like that. That’s not supposed to have any affect,” the Detroit resident says.
“Even when they consider you to be a convert, you’re not even supposed to harp on that.” When asked whether that’s the reality, he laughs and says, “Of course not.”
He says that while he’s not experienced any overt racism or discrimination within the Jewish community, “There are some subtleties and stuff like that, and it’s just a matter of people learning to deal with people of different ethnic backgrounds. They’re sometimes surprised when they see blacks practicing as Jews, but the one thing they do accept is if you’re a Jew, they have to accept you as a Jew. And basically, bottom line is: They will do that.”
Powell says, “Judaism is a way of life” and acceptance is granted as long as you live the life – which, in addition to charity, requires that you “are to love the lord God with all your heart and all your soul, and then to love your brother as yourself, and everything else is supposed to emanate from that.”
Islam and other faiths sparked Powell’s interest at one time or another, but he says nothing else touched him in the way that Judaism has. He’s been attending Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit for almost three decades.
“Being located in downtown Detroit, from time to time, a lot of blacks would come through,” Powell says, searching for an identity. Isaac Agree was started in 1921 and, as of late, has been working to reestablish the Jewish presence in Detroit that was disrupted by the rebellion of ’67.
“Back in the civil rights era, there was a great affinity. The Jews supported the civil rights movement very much, especially financially. But that’s part of the Jewish belief, that you’re supposed to look after the oppressed, the widows, the orphans,” Powell says.
“I saw a symmetry between (the oppression of blacks and Jews). When I read the Torah and they talked about slavery, I’d say, ‘What happened in Egypt sounds just like what happened in America.’ And so I have always felt that there is a kinship between African-Americans and Jews.”
All of Powell’s extended family is Christian. “There’s so much pressure from the other faiths to convert the Jews, and Jews have been holding onto this faith for 3,500 years.” He says Jews don’t go around looking to recruit members to the faith, but “the door’s open.”
In regards to his family, he says, “They’ve learned to respect my beliefs and we get along in terms of that stuff. I just kind of slough it off because Jews try not to get into debates on the faith because they (have) led to so many bad outcomes.”
The Black Buddhist
MELANIE J. DAVENPORT started practicing Buddhism about 20 years ago when she was in her early 20s. And when she discovered Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit, she says, “From that point I sort of committed to the practice and said, ‘This is home for me.'”
Her mom taught her meditation as a child, but it was reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – a novel about the journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Buddha- that truly piqued Davenport’s interest.
“The whole story just struck me as this very human person with very human problems and very human desires deciding, ‘OK, I’m going to put all of this wealth and stuff away and I’m going to sit here and be enlightened.’ It was attainable. It felt attainable, more than anything else.”
Now she’s an abbot at the temple, in charge of maintaining the functionality and cleanliness of the physical space, scheduling classes, speaking and more, working under a guiding teacher.
She’s also ordained in the faith, which is a confirmation of sorts similar to what a baptism is to Christianity. It involved a ceremony and, at the end of it, she was given her Buddhist name, Anzen, which means peaceful protector and safety.
“Some people just stay right there, but for me, I felt the need to take it a step further into the seminary,” Davenport says, which meant “three years at its core just to become what would be the Christian equivalent of a minister (and) three more years to have permission to open another temple if I chose to, but instead I became an abbot here.”
On being a black Buddhist, she says, “Buddhism in this country, it’s very white and it’s very male. And that’s only because back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the beatniks were able to drop everything and go to Asia and study. The average black person didn’t have that luxury – with a few exceptions. I’m grateful for the knowledge that came over. But yeah, I’m kind of in a culture that’s predominantly male and predominantly white and can be a little macho every now and then.”
Davenport uses the challenge of being a black woman in America to aid her in her study and practice of Buddhism. “Buddhism at its core is a kind of science of the mind rather than just a religion. A lot of people that come here (to the temple in which she also lives) are relatively well off, middle-class and usually white. They haven’t been followed around the store when they go out into the suburbs, you know? They haven’t been called a ‘nigger’ in the drugstore at 7 o’clock in the morning.”
She’s even had people mistake her for the maid. She tries to bring those experiences into her teaching. She says she gets some pushback about her faith from non-Buddhists, including her mother who’s Christian, despite being the one to introduce Davenport to the meditative and spiritual practices that would guide her toward Buddhism.
“Sometimes I tell people and they can’t get over the fact that it’s a non-theistic religion. Buddha emphatically said he was not a god and ‘You will not worship me and I will not be worshipped. What you need to worry about is the here and now and not the hereafter.’ It’s kind of like, there is no savior here but yourself. Part of the practice is developing yourself to the point that you don’t actually need a savior.”
Buddhism’s emphasis on compassion is what first drew Davenport to the practice. “At the time,” she says, “I didn’t have a whole lot of compassion for myself. And I started to see how that manifested in my interactions with everybody else. Once I was able to sit for long periods of time and accept my own human, flawed self, things opened up in a whole lot of ways: emotionally, physically – everything.”