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Mentoring

For Black ‘nones’ who leave religion, what’s next?

When Black Americans leave religion, they rarely leave it altogether. But even as they retain elements of Christian culture, what other communities are they embracing beyond the church?

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(Photo by Jed Vallejo/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

February 12, 2024

By Kathryn Post

(RNS) — When Black Americans leave religion, it’s rarely a clean break.
Take Rogiérs Fibby, a self-described agnostic, atheist and secular humanist who grew up in the Moravian Church. The head of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Black Secular Collective, Fibby also considers himself “culturally Christian.”
“I know all the lingo, the theologies of different denominations, the theological distinctions, how to move in those different spaces theologically and interpersonally,” he told Religion News Service.

Or take Felicia Murrell, who served in church leadership across a range of denominations for over two decades. Today she thinks of herself as “interspiritual,” but she also told RNS, “Christianity is my mother tongue.”
Then there’s William Matthews, longtime Bethel Music recording artist who left the church for about six years, starting in 2016. Today he’s the music director at New Abbey, a progressive, LGBTQ-affirming church in Los Angeles where exvangelicals and religious ”nones” regularly attend.

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William Matthews. (Courtesy photo)

“We don’t have the privilege to not need God, or some type of God or spirituality,” Matthews, who now identifies as Christian, told RNS about Black Americans. “It’s always been our backs against the world.”
Of the roughly 20% of Black Americans who are religiously unaffiliated — or nones — about one-third believe in the God of the Bible, and over half believe in some other higher power, according to a January Pew study. Eighty-eight percent believe humans have a soul or spirit, 71% think of themselves as spiritual, and by nearly every other religious or spiritual metric — belief in heaven and hell, daily prayer — Black nones come across as more religiously enmeshed than other nonaffiliated groups.
“They are not affiliated with a religion, but that does not mean they don’t have various devotional practices, various spiritual beliefs,” said Kiana Cox, senior researcher on the Race and Ethnicity team at Pew Research Center, who also pointed out that Black Americans generally are more likely to engage in religious practices than other racial groups.
While statistics on unaffiliated Black Americans paint a clear picture of their spiritual nature, the data doesn’t explain why this group seems to retain religious attachments, or what sorts of communities they are embracing beyond the church. As Black nones continue to depart the religious institutions that have historically served as vehicles for social change, the answers to these questions could have broader implications for the future of Black-led activism.
According to some experts, the central role religious groups played in securing civil rights is part of why Black nones retain elements of religiosity.

“When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, when we think about Reconstruction and African Americans coming out of slavery, it was important to identify with these institutions for social reasons and for economic reasons,” said Teddy Reeves, curator of religion at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. “It was a way of safety. It was a way of community. It was a way of creating meaning out of what was going on in their everyday lives.”

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Felicia Murrell. (Courtesy photo)

For Murrell, some of her most formative memories are of her grandmother starting each day sitting in her chair, Bible in her lap, glasses slipping down her face. The stories about God’s deliverance that have been handed down from generation to generation, Murrell said, are deeply rooted in the Black American experience.
“I do think a lot of the overcoming of hardships, a lot of the way that people endured, was through their belief in God, that God would make a way somehow,” said Murrell. At testimony services in the Black church, Murrell said, it’s common for folks to share stories about tragedy happening in their life, and then to say “but God!” to indicate how God intervened on their behalf.

“I think you have people looking for deeper answers,” she said. “They’re looking for a faith that can sustain and hold their mystery.”

R. Khari Brown, (A Sociologist)
R. Khari Brown, a sociologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, told RNS that while the educational attainment of some Black Americans could be impacting Black nones’ departure from institutional religion, others struggling with poverty may also be impacted if they are more focused on survival than attending worship services. 
“So one pattern is, people who are highly educated tend to be unaffiliated, which is the case among all groups,” he said. “But for African Americans, I think the role of poverty, and social instability linked to poverty… is also correlated with not attending.”
Jason Shelton, author of the forthcoming book “The Contemporary Black Church: The New Dynamics of African American Religion,” added that some historical denominations can seem overly formal or outdated.
“There’s still a sense that you have to dress formally. There’s still the sense of the detachment of the preacher in the pulpit far away,” said Shelton, who was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and is now part of the United Methodist Church. “It’s an old choir, and that organ, good God!”

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Kiana Cox. (Photo © David Hills)

Some churches’ theology, too, can feel hostile to those who are queer or LGBTQ-affirming. That was the case for Fibby, who in the late aughts was working as a church musician in both a Black Baptist church and Afro-Caribbean Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brooklyn, New York. While the two churches differed wildly on much of their theology and polity, “the one thing they agreed on was the homophobia part,” said Fibby. As a queer Black man, he said the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric he routinely heard from the pulpit is part of what made him skeptical toward claims of the faith.
Given the prominence of religious institutions in Black culture, disaffiliating from religion can leave a void in terms of community. In response, according to Reeves, who created and produced the documentary “gOD-Talk: A Black Millennials and Faith Conversation,” Black millennials are gathering elsewhere, from meeting up at music 

festivals such as Coachella, AfroTech and Afropunk to getting together for brunch regularly. Social media, too, has become a hub for connection, he said, and some Black nones looking for spiritual fulfillment might turn to online leaders such as the Rev. Melva Sampson of the Pink Robe Chronicles and Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry.

After Murrell first left the church due to an experience of “church hurt” in 2014, she began teaming up with her husband to host the “Brunch Bunch,” monthly gatherings centered on food and discussion with about five other families who’d left church. Murrell also finds regular community with her Girls Nite Out group, women who, she describes in her forthcoming book, “And: The Restorative Power of Love in an Either/Or World,” are “as likely to tell you about the tarot cards she pulled or gift you a crystal as another is to pray for you and give you a prophetic word.”

Matthews ended up returning to church after his years away — the pandemic, he said, and the accompanying isolation eventually “pushed” him back to church. He found a community with progressive theology and an anti-hierarchical model, but he knows not everyone will find a church to call home. Outside of religious institutions, Matthews believes Black nones will need to consider what groups will be responsible for generating collective action.

“For us to see the type of change we want to see in the world around social justice issues, around racism, sexism, homophobia, it will take collectivist work,” he said.
In some places, Black-centered institutions offering community and activism have already emerged. Around 2010, Fibby used social media to connect with other Black Americans who, like him, were looking for belonging on the other side of religion. Many of those online connections have translated to long-term in-person friendships. And as the leader of the D.C. chapter of the Black Secular Collective, Fibby connects with like-minded individuals through regular meals, volunteer work and participation in marches and protests.

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Teddy Reeves. (Courtesy photo)

Shelton also voiced the need for institutions to galvanize Black people around issues of racial inequality.
“When Black folks leave organized religion, and they have their reasons for doing so, no question about it, but what does that mean for African Americans and mobilization to address long-standing disparities?” he asked.
While Reeves echoed concerns about the importance of physical meeting spaces for social change, he also said it’s an “amazing time for Black faith.” It’s a season of change, and perhaps a time of reckoning, he said, as millennials refuse to put themselves in spaces that no longer serve them.
“This generation is following spirit,” said Reeves. “And if spirit is leading them outside the walls of our churches, and outside of the walls of our temples, and outside of the walls of our mosques, it begs our institutions to figure out: Are they listening to spirit and the new ways this spirit may be moving?”

Truth Stutters

A Love Letter to My Younger Self
JOHN ONWUCHEKWA

FEB 14    

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I grew
I grew grew
I grew…I grew up
I grew…up, up, up
Stutter-stuttering
I grew up with a stutter.
I hated it. It wasn’t a life-threatening condition. It was a soul-emptying one. Simultaneously embarrassing and terrifying. They say when you go blind or lose one sense, your others progressively heighten. I know speech isn’t a sense in the traditional sense of the word, but the same truth applies.
When you can’t speak, your eyes and ears improve. You instantly become a fantastic reader and listener.
I soon started hearing facial expressions. Furrowed brows were lips that mouthed silent words of confusion, frustration, pity (not the good kind either), condescension, anxiety, confusion, and frustration (I know I already used those last adjectives. My repetition wasn’t a typo; it was just a bit of an example. If reading them in print twice is frustrating, imagine how exhausting it is to read them on every brow aimed in your direction).
You begin mixing up the syntax in a way that doesn’t make any real sense; you just hope people won’t notice. Sometimes, when the adjective you want to use starts with a d, you put it after the noun because it’s easier for you to get it out. You rearrange your syntax so much that people begin wondering if English is your first language. The furrowed brows are subtitled again, and you can read between every one of these lines.
Not this again.
Not him again.
Hurry up and move on.
Why are you stuck on these words and these phrases?
Soul-Emptying.

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Move On
Everyone knows the feeling of speaking before you’ve thought things through. Wanting to pick up the words that so carelessly fell from your lips. And apologize to everyone for speaking without thinking. Very few people know the agony of wanting to take back not your words but your thoughts. Very few know what it’s like to want to take back these thoughts because you know you’ll never be able to express them. And the longer they sit unexpressed, they create an indigestion of sorts that makes you envious and bitter of someone who will eventually come along and say your insightful remark or steal your joke (that would never be funny coming from your mouth because the timing of the punch line would always be off).
Very few people know what it’s like for the whole world to beg YOU to

MOVE ON and
TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE!?
Very few know the internal ache that pulsates in your diaphragm when you so desperately want to MOVE ON and TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE….but you can’t. You just can’t seem to finish the sentence and get the words out.
But then, you grow up.
And in some ways, you don’t outgrow the stutter, but you grow out of it. In College, you learn that people can’t sing and stutter at the same time, so you start to do spoken word (because you know you can’t sing). The same principles apply. The controlled breathing. The predictable melodic cadence that will follow you for the rest of your life. The inadvertent adoption of East Coast pronunciations of certain consonants and vowels was because they were the only ones with quality video and audio footage back then.
It sounds almost like raps, but you grew up in the suburbs, and despite your athletic frame, no one will believe you had a hard life. Your eyes are too gentle, and you like to show your gap-toothed smile too much. So you call it a spoken word and learn to control your breathing. You learn how effective dramatic pauses can be. (People often think you’re inserting a dramatic pause, but you’re not. You’ve learned to know what consonant combinations trip you up, so you hold your breath, catch it long enough to rehearse the sounds in your head, remind your heart to keep beating, and tell your soul it’s okay if you mess up and reveal to the world you still stutter. It all happens in a split second, but you’ve controlled it, and now you release it smoothly).
The brows furrow differently. You read between those lines, and those lips aren’t frowning. They’re smiling.
You learn to talk about a full range of topics. You can talk about spirituality, sports, socio-economic development, real estate, entertainment, music, art, biography, hip-hop, etc. You make a living off it. Your speaking takes you all over the world.

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Finally, you’ve learned how to MOVE ON. You’re pretty good when it comes to TALKING ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. Finally, you can meet the Old World’s request to MOVE ON and TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. You’re ready.
But then, your brother dies. One of the people who never seemed to care that you stuttered or teased you about it because he knew how much it hurt you. The one person not frustrated or even slightly annoyed by it is gone.
You can’t help but to start talking about his death.
And grief.
And for the first time, you don't want to move on even though you’ve learned how to talk about other things.

Not So Fast
You blink twice, and nine years have passed. You’ve spent the past 2 years sharing your writing publicly in book form. You host two nationwide tours on it. You write a substack. You executive produced a mini-doc and an album. You finished a doctoral dissertation and degree on the topic. You start to get tired of talking about it, sensing the rest of the world would be happy for you to MOVE ON like they did when you stuttered.
But now that you can talk about other things, people are begging you to keep talking about the same stuff.
They don’t want you to MOVE ON.

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They’re happy to hear the same words and phrases.
And you stumble into a soul-filling realization.
Maybe stuttering isn’t that bad.
Maybe truth stutters a bit.
No truth sinks in the first time we hear it. We need to hear the same message again.
And again.
And again.
Maybe it’s okay to be known as the “grief guy” for a little bit longer. The people who lose someone tomorrow will be happy you wrote something about it today.
Dear Younger John,

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While you’re learning how to speak words of hope to the world, do me a favor.
Love Yourself.
Stutter and all.
It’s gonna come in handy one day.
Peace,
John

Cincinnati Fellowship helps young Black men enter the education field

By Tanya O'Rourke, January 17, 2024

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At a preschool in Cincinnati's West End, two young Black men are sitting with the children, reading with them and reviewing their letter sounds.

Those two men are with the Literacy Lab, teaching preschoolers as part of the Cincinnati Leading Men Fellowship. Carlton Collins is the program manager for the fellowship, overseeing the work of 20 fellows.

"Black men represent less than 2% of the teaching population," Collins said.

His job is to help change that statistic.

"I saw it as getting more Black men into classrooms is protection for Black children, right? They get to grow from it, there's cultural understanding, but most importantly, they see what they can become ... and they no longer question that because they have someone who looks like them in front of them in the classroom," Collins said.

This job is just one of Collins' passions. Being raised by a single dad with a brother, he feels, makes him uniquely qualified to understand the need for and role of a Black man in young Black children's lives.

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Collins' father and grandfather impressed upon him from a young age the importance of serving. So it came naturally when he wrote his book "Resist Every Bias on Every Level" seven years ago.

He said his grandfather's words served him well when he helped found the My Brother's Keeper — Heights Movement. Having grown up in Lincoln Heights, Collins heard the sound of gunshots his whole life emanating from the Cincinnati Police Department's gun range nearby. During the height of the COVID pandemic, it became clear to Collins that the gun range needed to go.

"We first made the argument that no child should be still hearing gunfire. And it became a real issue when it came to COVID, right? Because they didn't change their shooting schedule," Collins said. "Kids were home, right? So imagine a kid virtually tuned in to class, and he can't come off of you because the gunfire scares the rest of his class."

Recently, the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center named Collins a finalist for its Upstander Award, recognizing his significant contributions to making the lives of Cincinnatians better through his works and deeds.

"One of my favorite quotes is from Howard Thurman," said Collins. "He says, 'Don't ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive because what the world needs is more people to come alive.' So I feel like that's my role here."

Note to Readers: In this section, we remember one who mentored and protected the legacy of his parents.

Dexter Scott King, son of civil rights legend, dies at 62

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Leaders around the country are mourning the death of Dexter Scott King, son of the late civil rights giant, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The King Center in Atlanta said the 62-year-old died Jan. 22 at his California home after battling prostate cancer.  Credit: Helen Comer/The Jackson Sun via AP, Pool, File

“He transitioned peacefully in his sleep at home,” she said.

At the time of his death, Dexter King was serving as chairman of the King Center and president of the King estate. 

An attorney, Dexter King focused on protecting the King family intellectual property and managing his father’s legacy. 

It was Dexter King who most resembled his father, and was persuaded to play his dad in a small role in the 2002 CBS movie, “The Rosa Parks Story.”

Born in Atlanta on Jan. 30, 1961, and named after the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama where his father once served as pastor, Dexter King was the third child born to Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. He was only seven years old when his father was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968.

His mother, Coretta Scott King, died on Jan. 30, 2006. Her death was followed by the passing of his oldest sister, Yolanda King, on May 15, 2007.

Dexter King is survived by his wife, Leah, older brother Martin Luther King III, and younger sister Bernice King.

Leaders around the country are sending prayers to the family, including Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.-07). 

“My deepest condolences go out to Martin III, Bernice and the entire King family on the passing of Dexter Scott King, chair of The King Center and president of the King Estates. Our prayers are with you during this time of sorrow and loss. Dexter will be greatly missed by all of us.”

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DECEMBER 19, 2023

A majority of Americans have a friend of a different religion

BY REBECCA LEPPERT

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It’s common for Americans to have friends of a different religion than their own.

Overall, about four-in-ten U.S. adults (37%) say that all or most of their friends have the same religion they do. But about six-in-ten (61%) report having at least some friends whose religion differs from their own, according to a December 2022 Pew Research Center survey. That includes 43% who say only some of their friends have the same religion they do and another 18% who say hardly any or none of their friends do.

How we did this

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Americans’ friend groups tend to be more alike in ways other than their religious composition. Broad majorities of Americans with at least one close friend say all or most of their close friends are the same gender as they are (66%) and the same race or ethnicity (63%), a separate survey from July 2023 found.

Still, some demographic groups stand out for having greater religious diversity among their friends.

Men, younger adults and those with less education are slightly more likely than other Americans to say hardly any or none of their friends share their religion. For example, 20% of U.S. adults with a high school diploma or less education say hardly any or none of their friends have the same religion they do, compared with 14% of those whose highest level of education is a bachelor’s degree.

Related: 30% of Asian Americans say all or most of their friends have the same religion they do

Differences by religious identity

Particularly large shares of “nones” – those who identify religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – report having friends whose religious identities differ from their own. About four-in-ten (39%) in this group say only some of their friends have the same religion they do, while another 32% say hardly any or none of them do.

Other groups, in turn, are more likely to have religiously similar friend circles. Members of historically Black Protestant churches (59%) and Hispanic Catholics (54%), for example, are among the most likely of all Christian groups analyzed to say all or most of their friends have the same religion they do. This includes 13% of those in the historically Black Protestant tradition who say all of their friends share their religion. (There are not enough respondents from smaller U.S. religious groups, such as Muslims and Jews, to report on their answers separately.)

It’s important to note that how Americans define religious belonging may vary. For example, it’s unclear whether all Christian respondents would consider a friend from a different Christian denomination as having “the same religion” as they do, or whether atheists would consider agnosticism the same religion – or a religion at all, for that matter. These findings only reflect Americans’ self-perceptions of their religion and others’ connections to it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans who highly value religion are much more likely to have friendship circles where most people are from their own religious tradition. More than four-in-ten U.S. adults who say religion is very or somewhat important in their lives (44%) say all or most of their friends have the same religion they do. Just a quarter of those who say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives report the same.

Talking about religion with others

While it’s common for Americans to befriend people from different faiths, most do not discuss religion with others very frequently, according to a separate survey conducted in spring 2019.

Only about three-in-ten U.S. adults (31%) said in 2019 that they talk about religion with others outside their family once or twice a month or more often.

In the same survey, 62% of U.S. adults said that when someone disagrees with them about religion, it’s best to try to understand the person’s belief and agree to disagree. A third said it’s better to avoid discussing religion with the person, while just 4% said it’s best to try to persuade the other person to change their mind.

Note: Here are the questions used for this analysis, along with responses, and its methodology.

Research Analyst Michelle Faverio contributed to this analysis.

Topics:  Interreligious RelationsFriendships Rebecca Leppert  is a copy editor at Pew Research Center.

Talking about religion with others

While it’s common for Americans to befriend people from different faiths, most do not discuss religion with others very frequently, according to a separate survey conducted in spring 2019.

Only about three-in-ten U.S. adults (31%) said in 2019 that they talk about religion with others outside their family once or twice a month or more often.

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Note: Thanks to Rev. Dr. Charles D. Tinsley, IV (HR), Community Chaplain Legacy Village Senior Living Community

Xenia, OH and Southwest Ohio Regional Chaplain National Church Residences for sharing this information.

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