Exploring the intersections of my identity
January 6, 2020 / By Alonzo D. Turner
Editor's Note: The United Methodist Ecumenical Campus Ministry at Hendricks Chapel, Syracuse University applied for and received the Ercil Cady Grant in 2019 and they put on a spirituality writing contest that was geared towards students of Black/African American and Native American descent. Alonzo D. Turner won the contest with the following essay.
One of the most rewarding opportunities that I have been afforded as a doctoral student at Syracuse University is being able to explore the intersections of my identity. As a Black Cishet male who was raised in a Christian home in the South, (lived in North Carolina), I have received different narratives about what each identity means. However, the narratives that I typically received were not taught in an intersectional manner. Instead, my identities were addressed separately.
Even as a Black person in America, I realize that I have been afforded different privileges. This is especially true when compared to the experiences of my peers. To the same extent that being a male isn’t monolithic, neither are the experiences of what it means to be Black. Also, these identities are not totally detached from each other. As a Black male, I was privileged to come from a two-parent household in a community where more than 72% of Black children are born to mothers outside of marriage. This allowed me to have opportunities to spend time with my father as he shared lessons about what to watch for growing up as a Black male in the South.
My father would give pearls of wisdom regarding racism that caused my childlike optimism about the world around me to heed the gravity of his message. Till this day, we still discuss the challenges of how socioeconomic status, academic success, and well-dressed clothing still do not serve as a repellant against racism. When I call my father on the phone, we still talk for hours at a time about sports, politics, family, faith, and our experiences as Black men. However, these subjects, tend to be compartmentalized. I would reason to believe that this approach to discussion runs parallel with my upbringing as it pertains to discussions regarding identity.
My mother would be the parent that I would label as the religious one. She was faithful to everything that was attached to the church. From the big family Bibles on the coffee table to the picture of the white Jesus in the living room (You know the one that most Black families ironically have), my mother was adamant about raising us in a Christian home. This was a responsibility, task, and calling that she took seriously.
Whether it was Sunday morning devotion, Sunday School, Sunday morning service, Bible study, or choir rehearsal, we were seemingly at the church every time the doors were opened. This connection to the church was further deepened due to my grandfather on my mother’s side being the pastor and due to my parents being deacon and deaconess of the church. Through this consistent involvement with the church, I mastered religion at an early age. That is, I mastered the practice of what was expected from someone who identified as a Christian.
Early on, I understood that there was an expectation for me to fulfill the expectations of what it meant to be a Christian. As far as my parents were concerned, this meant consistently attending and participating in church functions. It also meant that there would be no participation in secular activities while under my parent’s watch. This meant that tv shows, music and even words that were not deemed “becoming of a Christian” were not allowed in our house.
I remember the resentment that I had for my parents when my peers would have certain conversations about Black culture. It was rooted in FOMO- the fear of missing out. I could not help but think to myself, “How could my parents essentially ban me and my siblings from being connected to different parts of Black culture?” And that’s when it dawned on me-----the expectation was for me to be Christian over everything, all the time, at all costs.
If I attempted to pinpoint it, I would say that this epiphany is where I first began my journey into exploring spirituality. I realized that I had been taught to value a religion over everything else in my life. I was literally on my way to become a bigot due to eliminating and being intolerable of anything that didn’t fit the mold of what it meant to be a Christian. This revelation was powerful and nuanced as it came with principle truths that did not require the approval or endorsement of a religious institution or a figure head in the form of a pastor. Faced with such new insight, I realized that I had a decision to make. Would I challenge myself to go beyond what I’ve been taught to believe and thus shake up the family and religious system that I was raised in? Or would I go along to get along with silent resentment knowing that I am compromising what I truly believe and be validated as someone that I am not?
It came with immense struggle, resistance, self-reflection and still does till this day-----and I am still grateful that I chose to break the bonds of bigotry that I was raised in. From my revelation that occurred during my teenage years to where I am now, I have continued to grow and identify with all the intersections of my identity. Even more, as one who identifies as more spiritual than religious, my focus has shifted from valuing religion to desiring authentic relationships---with God (as I understand God) and people. By doing so, I am now authentically and unapologetically living my life in a way that consistently challenges my personal development and as a result, enables me to challenge the systemic barriers that marginalize different people in our society.
During this school year, I encountered friction within my own family even while being hundreds of miles and hours away. This friction occurred due to different posts that I made on Facebook pertaining to secular music, LGBTQIA issues, and Black identities. Apparently, my mother, who doe not have a Facebook page, was informed by someone about my posts pertaining to secular music. I was informed of this via a text message in which my mother accused me of being a lukewarm hypocrite due to my music not being of a Christian genre. In that moment, I felt a pain ooze through my soul as my heart grieved with the gravity of how damning the lukewarm connotations were.
The words spoken to my mother via text were a deep wound to who I was becoming. Every lesson that I had learned about myself and the world around me was seemingly on the line. Every single step of progress that I had made in self-discovery and personal growth was being threatened. Even worse, the woman who had birthed, raised and nurtured me was condemning me to hell due to the same bigotry that I had fought so hard to break. I would once again be faced with two choices—fight or flight.
I believe that institutions, and even sometimes people, are faced with two choices—either evolve or evaporate. Sometimes evolving means that you must stand up to bully whether it’s an institution, an individual or in my case, your own family. I decided to follow up with my mother’s accusatory text by talking with her on the phone. After all, text doesn’t always do justice to tone. Still, our phone conversation confirmed every feeling that I suspected during our text exchange-----my mother was thoroughly convinced that I was hell bound and needed to repent due to my taste in music.
During our conversation, I respectfully and firmly stood up to the bully, knowing that as I took a stand for myself, I was also taking a stand for others. I explained to her that while I still identified as Christian, that my expression of what it meant to be Christian tends to break the traditional norms of what religion and legalism says that a Christian should be. I also went on to explain to her that I would be co-facilitating an LGBTQI Spirituality series on campus in order to advocate for individuals whose identities of sexuality and spirituality intersect. We did not end that conversation on the same page in terms of agreeing how one should express their Christianity. However, as we ended our conversation, we were able to respectfully disagree. As for my mother, while mortified and disheartened, she came to the understanding that night that I was not just her son or just a Christian----- I was an advocate, counselor and a man who was not afraid to stand for what he believed in, even if it meant standing alone.
As for me, my journey in exploring my spirituality has continuing to evolve and flourish due to my experiences here at Syracuse University. During the spring semester, I was afforded the privilege to co-facilitate an LGBTQI Spirituality series at Hendricks Chapel. The series came about as a collaborative effort between the Counseling Center and Hendricks Chapel to help provide a validating space for students navigating the intersections of their sexual and spiritual identities.
Over the course of the semester, we had six bi-weekly meetings for LGBTQI students in the Noble Room at Hendricks Chapel. Through this experience, I learned so much about LGBTQI students at Syracuse University. First, I learned that LGBTQI students are still marginalized at a high-level despite being at a progressive university with an LGBT resource center. While there are organizations for LGTBQI students on campus, they do not always address the aspect of spirituality within their identities.
For this reason, we decided to center the space on how current events serve as a microcosm for the challenges that students at Syracuse University may be facing. For example, when the Methodist denomination decided to vote against the possibility of affirming same-sex marriage or same-sex clergy, we provided students a safe space to disclose how the decision made by the Methodist denomination ran parallel with personal experiences of marinization and erasure in religious settings. Students disclosed how the decision reactivated memories of being ostracized in the name of a higher power and due to religious law despite how well they had served their respective faiths. In another session, we showed a scene in the tv show “Pose” in which one of the main characters is kicked out of the house by his two Christian parents due to identifying as a gay Black male. After reviewing the scene, group members were able to process their own experiences of how family support and spiritual identities impacted their disclosure and visibility of their sexual identities. As we had these different discussions, the information that was shared by group members confirmed why I found such advocacy necessary and edifying.
The experience that I had with the LGBTQI Spirituality series serves as a microcosm of my overall spiritual journey. It enables to me a place to advocate for the least, lonely and left out. To come along side the marginalized and oppressed in our society. In return, it served as a reminder of how even within our differing sexual and spiritual identities, that we are still much more alike on a humanistic level. It also served as a reminder that even with our differences, that our differences can lead to ideas and our ideas can lead to change if we lead with an open mind and an open heart.
This journey of spirituality is ever fluid, constantly shifting, taking different shapes and forms. I am extremely grateful to be on the path that I am on spiritually as it allows me to explore and incorporate all the intersections of my identities. Whether it is burning sage, praying or meditating to clear off negative energy, listening to certain secular songs to find motivation to do school work or longing to hear form the ancestors for answers, my spirituality is an essential part to my daily growth. My aim is to continue to evolve within my spirituality and be open to new ways of exploring my identities as a Black Cishet man who identities as Christian while advocating for LGBTQI individuals. With an open heart and open mind, my hope is to continue to evolve spiritually as I increase my love for self and others.