Rebecca Riley is a writer, filmmaker, and a former multimedia/online assistant at Sojourners. She lives in California.
Posts By This Author
Beyond the Sanctuary: The Lives of Black Churchgoing Women
I'VE NEVER REALLY thought about what church ladies do when they’re not at church. My interactions with them have always been tied to the building and its activities. In pre-pandemic times, I would see them at service and maybe hug or shake hands, chat briefly, or just wave goodbye on my way out the door. But easy smiles and they’ve-got-it-together appearances belie the “less presentable” parts of everyone’s story, bits that, if shared, could create a space where we no longer feel isolated, but instead are comforted by the fact that each of us is trying to deal with at least one hot mess in our lives. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw unflinchingly tells the stories of a few of those messes, stories of the things that we hide.
Each narrative in the collection aches with a desire for connection, and Philyaw provides the reader a sometimes uncomfortably intimate view of how these “church ladies” try to meet this need. Some characters turn to intimate affairs, choosing partners with whom they can envision more or partners with whom there can never be more than fleeting and secret arrangements, sometimes due to the damage of homophobia. Other stories aren’t about romantic desires at all, but feature characters longing to connect with family, carrying a deep-seated, perpetual wish to simply be seen, valued, loved, and embraced for who they are by the people they thought could be expected to do so.
I particularly love that this collection features characters of diverse ages. I’m so tired of how not-entirely-subtle ageism has crept into various avenues of storytelling, as if all significant human experience, growth, and formation is wrapped up by the time you’re 40. Philyaw rejects this notion and delivers fully formed characters of all ages.
Practicing Faith as a Black Woman in America
SOMETIMES I WONDER if my “Black card” is in jeopardy. The main source of this concern is that my encounters with the Black church are few, the most consistent being the yearly family viewing of the 1996 film The Preacher’s Wife, though even I know the brevity of that movie’s scripted sermons is far from accurate. My few in-person Black church experiences taught me the basics: Wear your Sunday best, and expect the service to be long. But beyond that, the Black church has always been a bit of a mystery to me, a place that has never felt familiar.
Yolanda Pierce’s In My Grandmother’s House provides an intimate entry into this world. From tarry nights and foot washing to patriarchal structures, Pierce details her experiences and invites the reader into the tension of celebrating the beautiful aspects of the Brooklyn Holiness-Pentecostal church of her youth while also laying bare the ways in which that church, and the Black church at large, has failed to be the loving and inclusive body it professes to be.
In the preface, Pierce describes her book as “a work of Grandmother theology,” a womanist theology that draws on the generational wisdom of older Black women and provides a different way to know God. With the childhood stories she tells, Pierce seems to identify her grandmother Vivian—the woman who raised her, served faithfully in the church, and whose home displayed a portrait of a Black Jesus—as the primary theologian in her life. In a culture that so often elevates the thoughts and analysis of white, male theologians, to read and reflect upon the lessons that Pierce learned from her grandmother and her church mothers makes an impact, lessons that continue to inform how she lives today.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’: A Beautiful, Gutting Tragedy
When I sat down to watch Netflix’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I was hoping to be uplifted by the Black excellence I was sure to find in a film helmed by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. I was ready to exhale and escape. But while the anticipated excellence exceeded my high expectations, it didn’t take me long to realize that the uplift I’d hoped for would not be found in this story: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tragedy.