Growing up, of the many phrases my parents continually repeated, “God helps those who help themselves,” is right there with the best of them. This is not unusual when you grow up Catholic. Another Catholic favourite is, “Offer it up,” which is, as they say, Catholic speak for “quit bitching.”
My parents are daily mass attenders. I am objectively not nearly as prayerful as them but I am a Catholic by birth, faith, and practice, and adulthood hasn’t changed that. I am also more religious than many of my friends, colleagues, and people who I interact with regularly. Some may identify with one religion or the other, but it is more so in inheritance and in name, than in practice or perspective.
It is no walk in the park to be a young person of faith – of any faith. The secularization of society is a real experience during this time, and especially in this part of the world. But it is not just secularization that is felt, a certain de facto agnosticism, appears to be creeping into the social culture. This is not to position me or other young Christians as marginalized. In truth, the United States is still more Christian than not. And in comparison to any other faith, being a Christian in this nation is to be in a position of privilege.
As a Black, African woman I understand what the experience of societal marginalization means in lived experiences. So it would be untrue to determine that Christianity sometimes renders me to the same position of social disadvantage that my Blackness or African-ness or womanhood does in this culture. It would also be ahistorical to overlook the ways in which the Christian identity is attached to the very essence of the United States and the West. Still, it is also not untrue to observe the culture, and to determine that Christianity is scrutinized and resisted by contemporary social norms, and increasingly, the political left.
It is a good time to mention that I am neither right nor left. This may surprise people who follow my work and make assumptions about my politics. But for the very reason that I coexist in an “interesting” concosion of identities – foreign, African, Black, Nigerian, woman, Catholic, religious, academic – I find that my values simply cannot belong to one singular political ideology. I think this is actually true for many people, but they sacrifice some values for others, or at the very least prioritize their values.
I, however, find myself in a position such that I may hold two important values that are fundamental to my understanding and existence in the world – and one belongs to the left, and the other belongs to the right. But mostly, many times, with some exceptions, I find myself at the center.
I have written a lot about death since I’ve started (publicly) writing: police brutality, terrorism, and mass shootings – the latest, the San Bernardino shooting; I have written too much about death. I don’t enjoy it. You might think, “Well, nobody does.” Perhaps. But some people are far more attune to reporting and analyzing the deaths of large groups of people than I. But I have often found myself in the position of having to do it. It is a self-imposed endeavor I suppose, but an endeavor nonetheless.
I write a lot about human suffering and the tragedy of the human experience for the individual, and for particular bodies and groups. But there’s something about continuously writing about death that starts to feel monotonous. Was it not Stalin (of all people), who said, “One death is a tragedy but one million deaths is a statistic”? That, I think, is what I don’t like about writing about deaths continuously – it starts to feel like reporting on statistics. I prefer to emotionally absorb the stories even when the side effect means the possibility of personal mental and emotional investment. It would be better for that to happen than to lose sight that real people with real loved ones and livelihoods and hopes and dreams, lost their lives due to the failings of humanity.
Do you know what else I do while writing about death and tragedy? I pray. Probably not as often as I should, but I like to stay in conversation with God; often speaking, but these days I’m learning to do more listening. Why do I pray? Because I am imperfect, because I don’t have all the answers, and because my spirit is often restless when I observe the fallen world. Prayer, I believe, changes things, as it is often said. But more importantly, prayer changes me.
Still, God helps those who help themselves, right?
When it comes to the mass shootings, the terrorism, the police brutality, the violence in the world, I think it’s fair to say that thoughts and prayers are not, per se, enough. I have said this. I have said this because I do not believe that God is a magical genie who I can call on at any time and – poof – I get what I want. (If He were, prayer and religious devotion would not be declining in these parts.) But I insist on the importance of more than just the verbose of prayer, because I inherently believe that with prayer, comes works; the Good Book says it too. And that is what my parents raised us to believe with that slightly indignant insistence, that we help ourselves too even while asking God to intervene in our conversations with Him.
But what do you do when you cannot act? What do you do when you are not in a position to act? What do you do when you are at a distance from the hurt or the pain or the violence that you are witnessing or experiencing as a third party? What do you do to show solidarity with men and women and children around the world who are at the very moment in need of help? What if, at best, all you can provide is monetary support? And what if, at worst, the only thing you do is sit by a screen digesting news and more news?
For many people, like myself, prayer is something we can do. Prayer is something we offer, and in the moment, it is how we show love and compassion to the world. Indeed, there may be actions to follow beyond that. But for the moment, prayer is the gift we are able to give.
This is of course foolishness to anyone who does not believe in God. That is fine. I accept the foolishness of my faith regularly, even as a Catholic who was raised to look for intellectualism and reason in faith. Still, I accept that I cannot bring to any person who demands it, scientific proof of God’s existence, or the rational explanation for a faith that is based on The Holy Trinity, or confirmation that my prayers are reliable and verifiable. I grew up in an academic household and I am in the same path; I know how those arguments go – with little if any respect or constructiveness or understanding among individuals and groups on multiple sides who are hell bent, no pun intended, on proving their position rather than learning about someone else’s.
I don’t try to “prove” faith to anyone, and most certainly not in the scientific sense. God is not a scientific hypothesis. What I can tell people is that in the darkness of the world, in the loneliness of being human, when I have fallen and failed and been defeated; when I have seen the destruction that human beings are capable of, and the suffering that the most vulnerable and innocent have endured, even then, and especially then, I have experienced the presence of God. Because the world is fallen, and humanity is broken, and we do hurt each other in so many ways. And still I see goodness and righteousness and hope and love – which always reminds me that God is there; God is here. I do not need all the answers.
By all means, demand that those in power, those with voices, those with privilege, speak for the vulnerable. Demand that people rise up and challenge the status quo to lessen the environments which make possible the different forms of violence in the world. Demand that people act and demand that leaders act; demand change and work for it. Because the people deserve better – humanity deserves better.
But it is not courageous to believe that prayer is an affront against acting. It is not valiant to say that God doesn’t change things. It is not heroic to determine that one must act beyond prayer. And it is not accurate to claim that this was only said about those in power. As a young Christian, I can tell you that these things are said every day in multiple ways. The message was loud and clear about the increasing social dissent on prayer, long before “prayer shaming” entered into our new contemporary vocabulary.
In the end, whatever you think about prayer and politics, we still have a problem: we’re still killing each other. Shootings, terrorism, police brutality, and all the rest.
On some days, some of us head to our local city councils and demand our politicians hear us, and on some days we protest and resist. On some days we volunteer for and with the most vulnerable, and on some days we put our money where our mouth is, and vote with our dollars. Indeed, on some days we participate in hashtags and we talk and we enlighten and we educate, and on some days we sit and watch and wonder why. On some days, some of us also write. And we should because we must be allowed to give comfort to the world the best way we know how and can.
Thus, some of us take a moment of silence, a moment to kneel or sit or stand, and engage in conversation with something much bigger than us – some of us also pray.