Racial Justice Organizing: Religion of the “Nones”?

I circled the block, looking for a downtown parking spot on a busy weeknight. Everyone else was hurrying home from work, but I was heading out to attend a meeting of the Portland, Oregon chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). As I navigated parking, building access, elevator, and finding the room, I juggled a big salad bowl, notebook, and my cell phone, turned on in case my daughter’s babysitter needed to reach me. Over fifty people came to the meeting: grandparents, college students, veteran organizers, middle-agers.

Much of my workday life is spent in Christian churches. I’m currently a ministerial intern at my denomination’s historic downtown church, and active in my home congregation on the far east side of the city. My work as an activist involves holding vigil on a street corner, marching down boulevards in the rain, attending planning meetings in cramped non-profit offices, and gathering in front of the justice center and city hall. On weekends, I preach from the pulpit or sing from the pews.

So perhaps it’s natural that when I talk about activism, I liken it to spiritual practice. For me, protest is prayer, chanting while marching is a way to worship, and holding vigil is a meditation.

At the SURJ meeting in late October, however, I experienced a different kind of intersection between faith and activism.

I noticed the way that 52 people excited by a common longing, a shared vision, lit up the room with a current of energy that in my tradition we call “Holy Spirit.”

Our meeting began with a moment of silence, remembering those who had endured violence that week, holding quiet grief for the churches targeted by arson in St. Louis.

Then we potlucked, filling plates with food, chewing around sentences, handing out silverware. The first year and second year cohorts shared their experiences with newbies and greeted one another: hugging, squeezing hands, asking about family, job, school.

Our leader glowed among us, welcoming and connecting, guiding our facilitators through our evening program: discussion, a video, interactive small groups, more discussion, announcements.

At the close, we gathered in a circle to speak out a one-word blessing for our time together and the work ahead. Standing in the circle, I thought: this is the moment when we will pass the basket of bread and cup of wine. I shook my head to clear it and reminded myself firmly: I am NOT in church. I am at a planning meeting for a secular, activist group. And yet.

One of the dominant stories in my denomination is about the “rise of the nones,” those 20-something millennials who were raised Christian but decline to identify with any religious tradition. The oft-cited Pew Research states that this demographic has risen from 16% to almost 23% in the last 8 years. The church frets: have we failed this generation? how do we get these young people (and their financial support) into church?

As I stood in a circle with the members of SURJ, I felt like I was in church. No one prayed or read from a holy scripture. But a sense of shared commitment to community and to our community’s larger purpose in the world was unmistakable. It felt sacred and connected and authentic. Maybe that’s what church used to be like, before it betrayed us.

The nones haven’t left the mainline white Christian church for no good reason. In racial justice organizing, the nones have found something the church doesn’t offer: an embrace of the world as it is (in all its brokenness) and a vision for how the world will be one day, because we are working, now, for the sake of ourselves and our children.

Bewildered, the Pew Research authors report that “about 7% of U.S. adults say their religion is “nothing in particular” but also say that religion is “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives, despite their lack of a formal affiliation.”

I don’t see a contradiction in this data. Religion can be very or somewhat important in your life, if religion is the institution that you are fighting against.

When White Christian church is the place where people go to bless police officers, pray for an end to “looting and rioting,” and complain about stock market instability due to “migrant” (refugee) problems, then religion is VERY important in your life. Religion (aka white Christianity) is the reason that your parents are denied a marriage license. Religion is the reason your kids get in trouble at school. Religion is the reason traffic stops turn into murder.

Claiming a religious affiliation of “nothing in particular” is public resistance against complicity and a mythology of American dreaming that everyone under the age of 40 knows is a lie meant to lull us to slumber.

A white person I met at a Race Talks discussion said she recently read Between the World and Me. She compared Ta-Nehisi Coates to Morpheus, his book the red pill for white America.

And when we choose? What renegade ship will fish us from the gutter, airlift us into rehab so we can survive in the world of the wide awake? Rescue doesn’t come from the church, but from “nothing in particular”: the movement that is home to relationship, meaningful work, and a life worthwhile.


*Photograph By Michael Wiley (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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4 thoughts on “Racial Justice Organizing: Religion of the “Nones”?

  1. Beloved Community, Holy Spirit, Shalom. It’s wonderful to feel it in a room with others whatever you call it. It is my favorite sacred feeling.

  2. This is a wonderful reflective piece on your own faith and activism as well as that of others who may or may not identify with a faith tradition. I especially appreciate your re-frame on Religion can be important whether you are fighting in the name of it or fighting against it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I’m glad to hear the post resonated with you. Blessings!

  3. This article captures the notion of the modernity/postmodernity chasm the church refuses to cross. Thank you for speaking this intimate experience. I left my church ministerial post when the decision was made to build a $4M gymnasium. I worked with Phyllis Tickle before she died to speak of the inherited church/emerging church dilemma/opportunity. Keep up the good work.

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