This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.
In his 1953 essay, “Stranger in the Village,” writer James Baldwin explains how “the white man’s” description of hell as being “black as night” demonstrates the ways in which language and legend shape our reality.
In the Christian tradition, the myth of hell is often used as a rhetorical device cajoling listeners into acknowledging the distance between themselves and the ideal — with the ideal often described as “pure,” “sinless,” or “white as snow.” Here, Christians have associated Blackness with sin and whiteness with salvation. This impacts reality, generally speaking, when looking at the history of racialization in the United States. More specifically, perhaps this is why former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson referred to 18-year-old Michael Brown as a “demon” when explaining why he shot and killed the Black teen back in 2014.
I don’t believe in hell, nor do I believe in heaven. But I do believe that language and legend often converge to shape our collective reality. This is especially true for religion, where this convergence encourages adherents to make their mark on the material world. Sometimes, as is the case of the dominant Christian tradition’s association of Blackness with damnation, religion has a negative impact on reality.
But during my conversation with Olga M. Segura, who is an author, organizer, and co-founder of the multimedia platform Religion in Revolt, I was reminded that religion can have a positive impact on reality, too. Whether it’s Baptist pastors dedicated to honoring Indigenous stewardship and protecting forests or Black Catholics associating the ministry of Jesus with the Black Lives Matter movement, Segura is often telling stories that demonstrate the fact that Christianity can have a positive impact on reality, even when it’s not connected to an institution. I sat down with Segura to talk about her Catholic faith, the Black Lives Matter movement, writing, and how to change our current reality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me about your first book, Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church.
Olga M. Segura: I’m a Bronx-based writer, author, and organizer who graduated from Fordham. I quickly got swept up — the way a lot of English students get swept up — in Catholic media.
I worked at America Magazine for about seven years, [by the end] as an associate editor. Then I left to write my first book in 2019, and then started working on this book shortly after George Floyd was killed and right at the start of the [COVID-19] lockdown happening in New York City.
I had been doing a lot of writing around how Black Catholics were just responding to the signs of the times. I was going to rallies and protests and talking to Black people in New York City about the Black Lives Matter movement and talking to a lot of Black millennial New Yorkers who were involved in organizing spaces.
A lot of the writing I did at America was drawn from having conversations with people who were not associated with any specific institutional church [but] were still showing up to these rallies in very spiritual ways.
Something I often heard was that “there’s not enough Black Catholics.” [That] the numbers of Black Catholics are not big enough to justify doing a survey into this community. But that was in complete contradiction with what I was seeing when I was at these rallies and with people who were engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement.
I interviewed Black Catholics in New York City and in Ferguson, Mo., who had been involved in this movement in different ways. I interviewed one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Alicia Garza. We had a conversation about people saying there’s no religion in this movement.
I’m sure you’ve heard it as well; folks say, “[BLM] is not as religious as the Civil Rights Movement,” and yeah, it’s a different generation of people who are [dissatisfied] with the institutional church. Garza [told me], “When we were in Ferguson in 2014 there were church folks down there, there were Christians who were showing up for this movement.” I had this idea that the book was going to be very historical [with] me talking about the church, the whiteness of the church, the whiteness of institutional Catholic spaces that I’ve been a part of. And then persuade folks to realize that Catholic social teaching is very much in line with the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement. So I left America in 2019 and I started writing the book. [Around that same time,] George Floyd was murdered, and the book just completely changed. Also being in the Bronx, a community where people were drastically dying from COVID-19 and our urgent cares didn’t have doctors, our hospitals were overwhelmed, we didn’t have tests, and it took us forever to even have vaccines in our community.
Those two things happening at the same time just completely made the book become more of this urgent, militant call to say “No, Black people are actually suffering, Black immigrants are suffering.” Speaking from my Black immigrant perspective, it became more about weaving in my story and my relationship to the church and my understanding of the church with everything that’s happening around me.
Before, I was very much [of the opinion that] the church could be saved. You just have to find the right storytellers, the right words to get people to believe that Black lives matter. And then, being in lockdown due to COVID-19, people I love getting very sick, friends of people I love dying every other week, I became much more committed to saying, “No, these systems are actually failing us. It’s not just about trying to convince white people who you work with or who you go to church with that racism is a thing.”
I’m actually trying to survive in these systems and I actually have to talk from that place. The position I was in as a writer drastically changed, and that was very hard.
You are Catholic, right?
Mhm. Catholic in the very Caribbean way where I grew up in a Catholic household, went to Catholic schools my whole life, but have never been baptized and have never received the sacraments — the first time I admitted that was in my book.
The pushback I got from folks was like, “What? How dare you write about this if you don't care about the sacraments?”And I was like, “I never said I don’t care about the sacraments. This is just the truth of it.”
That was a space that I had to write from as well [and it felt] weird. But in a Caribbean, Black syncretic sort of relationship to spirituality, that was normal. That’s what I knew. I know folks who are very culturally Catholic, but who have never been baptized. Everyone in my family has a very different relationship [with Catholicism]. Some folks are baptized, and have walked away from the church, and I have never been baptized, but have never left the church, as hard as I try.
You recently co-founded the Religion in Revolt with activist and writer Dwayne David Paul. What made you want to create this outlet? And why do you think it’s important to talk about religion in a time like this?
Religion in Revolt grew out of this understanding that we are both Caribbean Black people raised in New York City who had stepped into very institutional Catholic spaces and had existed in these spaces the way that we were told to. But [we had] this understanding that Black people have always had this ability to opt in and out of institutional Christianity.
It grew out of us sharing our dissatisfactions [about] our individual spaces. Dwayne had been organizing with Catholic orders since he was in Hartford, Conn. I started editing his work when I was still in Catholic media. The project really grew out of our relationship to our faith, our relationship to Catholicism, our relationship to religion — whatever word we choose to use at any given moment. We are both abolitionist thinkers and we remain in these spaces because we believe we can build [abolitionist spaces within Catholicism.] So, we created this project where we could have a space for Black people who are disengaged with the institutional church, but who still very deeply believe that human beings have a right to have a home, food, to live a life with dignity, and to live a life outside of the oppression of capitalism.
We’re creating a space where we can help people gather and think through what it means to take whatever faith you’re from and to take the deepest, most powerful parts of that faith tradition and link it to abolition and the actual needs of our local community.
Religion in Revolt is us reclaiming the Catholic social teaching that we were raised with, and is still very powerful to us, and creating a space that’s rooted in the Black Catholic and Black abolition tradition.
What does religion mean to you?
Religion for me is the idea that Black people have always had a connection to the supernatural. Even before colonialism, our ancestors had always had a relationship to the supernatural — a relationship to the divine and the land.
For me, religion is a return to that. Religion is being able to actually live sustainably and authentically, rooted in love, with space and land around you. It took me a long time to even be comfortable naming this because, again, I was in very Catholic spaces that had this very high-brow, theological, elitist idea of what religion is. For me, at its most basic level, [religion] is just the wholehearted belief in humanity and love and God and all of those things already around us.
Especially when we’re thinking about the ecological crisis, religion is a call to value the spaces we are in. I love how Pope Francis uses this idea of “throwaway culture.”
To me, this is very ancestral — I’m from the Dominican Republic — and we share an island with Haiti. When I read about Taíno spirituality and I read about spiritual practices before the Spanish arrived in the DR, that is what religion feels like to me. Understanding that God really is everywhere. And if God is everywhere, then what does it mean to move with that intention?
What does it mean to move with that care, that love, and that real belief that nothing is disposable, that the living things around us are not disposable? Religion is grounding myself in the practices of my ancestors and returning to how my ancestors thought about the divine.
Religion, for me, is an active decolonial process of returning to that ancestral work and returning to [who] God really is.
I don’t know of another religion that bases its entire belief system around God being crucified. To me, that’s the most compelling part about Christianity: That we worship, or if you like, “pledge allegiance” to this crucified savior.
I’m grateful for the work of M. Shawn Copeland, a Black Catholic theologian who writes about the power of Christ being crucified. It’s a lynching. And reading her book Knowing Christ Crucified [helped me see how] him being on the cross represents the oppression we’re seeing today and how it is a literal challenge to think about what it means for systems to crucify human beings today. I’m so grateful for Copeland’s work because I would not have gotten there without her.
The cross, the lynching tree, the knee in the back, the chokehold. We are approaching 10 years since the killing of Mike Brown. And I wonder what you imagine the future of the Black Lives Matter movement to be?
There have been very valid criticisms of when this movement has used the names of victims of police brutality. And what does it mean to try to raise funds for a movement that [has had] transparency and financial [issues]?
We are going to continue to see Black people call out the movement in very real ways because that is a part of life. [Black Lives Matter as a movement] is going to probably join a lot of the other types of resistance that we’re seeing now in this country, like the Palestinian cause, Stop Cop City. The most powerful part of this Black Lives Matter movement has always been the way that it can galvanize people really quickly and spread information.
This movement for Black lives is going to grow into something bigger. I think it’s going to just naturally be plugged into other forms of liberation. A lot of people, especially older folks, struggle with a movement that is not centralized — That it’s a bunch of different people and chapters across the country doing local work. [But] because of the structure of this movement, I think it's just going to become a part of all this other liberation work. And I think that’s okay.