A photo from inside of a Church

How It Is

The Other Church Abuse Story

The viral video depicting an exasperated churchgoing kindergartner Naszir Ferrel bravely speaks for so many of us, when we’re not supposed to speak out against the sacred space at all.

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I have found a new hero: a 6-year-old Black boy from Oakland, California, named Naszir Ferrel.

On Christmas Day, while visiting his grandmother’s friend’s church, Ferrel wanted to give a speech. Because he hadn’t practiced it, his grandmother attempted to dissuade him. According to ChristianPost.com, the boy said, “I started getting mad and I went up on the stage. I said, ‘I’m tired of this church.’”

In the video that went viral, you can hear a wave of gasps coming from congregants as he defiantly handed the mic back to a woman. Those sounds let Ferrel know that he had no allies in the sanctuary.  He walked away from the stage, head and shoulders down as if he were bracing himself for the consequences. Once the video hit social media, folks were calling for him to be whupped. “How dare he behave so disrespectfully in the house of the Lord?” “That’s what’s wrong with these kids today, they’ve got too much mouth.”

The pastor took the boy into the bathroom and scolded him, saying “Don’t do that again.” It was later reported that Ferrel’s father spanked him for his transgression. Why is the bathroom in Black churches such a sanctuary for adults to punish children during services?  Isn’t the church supposed to be a safe space, a house of love, peace, fellowship, turning cheeks, loving enemies, and forgiveness? And how can that be possible if church also sometimes becomes a place where very young children are shamed and have their self-esteem assaulted simply for expressing a moment of authentic frustration. Ferrel didn’t curse or say he was tired of God or religion. He simply said he was tired of this church, and was punished for telling the truth.

Ferrel’s video harks to many others we’ve seen recently, depicting Black children who are punished, and then publicly shamed in the digital realm simply for being kids. There was no love on display, no compassion and no understanding coming from the adults in that sanctuary and online. None of those fruits of the spirit were shown to a kindergartener in that house of worship. What church folks do inside their sacred spaces is a model for how they treat people outside the church—and here, they appear to have cared less about Ferrel than how his actions and words reflected upon them.

I understand why Black folks may be especially sensitive: Ferrel was essentially “back-talking” to the church, which is considered blasphemous. Black churches have sustained the community for centuries while living in the insanity of white supremacy. This is how we got our hope to survive. In a world that devalues our humanity at every turn, come Sunday, we are somebody. It is the one place that we own and operate in this country. It gives us dignity and titles and respect. For this boy to say, “I’m tired of this church” is an anathema. His grandmother pressured him. His father went after him for not following church rules and embarrassing him and his mama. And other folks, fellow congregants and online commenters, responded with the worst of our learned behavior in response: shaming, chastising, and beating him.

But as we’ve seen with so many other houses of worship, not least of all the Catholic Church, church can be a pernicious space for kids, who get wounded in these halls by hypocrisy and meanness and the false sense that they’re in a safe space.

So I applauded young Ferrel, because his testimony recalled my own memories of being a little girl growing up in a Pentecostal Church. I was 5 the first time I attended a service with my adoptive parents—and it was frightening. The music was hella loud. People were crying, running wildly around the sanctuary, and catching the holy ghost. A woman’s wig flew off. A woman next to me nearly smothered me with her huge breasts when she caught the holy ghost and flailed about.

What was wrong with all these people, I thought? Why were they yelling and acting so strangely? Over time, I became accustomed to the boisterous services. But, despite all the adults yelling, “Amen!” and furiously fanning themselves, it was a struggle to sit still. The sermons were boring. I was constantly shushed, forbidden to ask any questions. I didn’t dare get caught giggling with the other kids, or I’d get popped or pinched or taken to the bathroom for something worse.

The rule of the church is that any child who acts like a developmentally normal kid must be instantly checked. Or else that child’s parent(s) got the stank eye from church ushers and other parishioners for having an unruly youngster playing in the house of the Lord.

I was forced to go to Sunday school. Forced to sing in the choir. Forced to get up in front of the church for Christmas and Easter and perfectly recite some scripture that a youth director had given me to say. I had to get it right or else I’d hear about it on the car ride home. “Don’t embarrass me,” my adoptive mother warned.

I hated going to church, and I had to attend throughout the week—not just all day Sunday for Sunday school, regular Sunday worship, Sunday night worship. I also went on Monday for the usher meeting; Wednesday night for Bible study; Friday night, worship.  And those tent revivals in the hot ass summer time with mosquitoes and drunk people stumbling inside from the streets—it felt oppressive, with so much preaching about fire and brimstone because God was jealous and angry. And the countless inflexible rules about how to live: Preachers described kids as “little demons” that “needed to be beaten.” We kids were admonished to obey our parents so that our “days may be long upon the earth.” In my experience, church did not nurture the voices and autonomy of young people. We were frightened into believing in God, swallowing the religious propaganda whole and without question, or else our souls be destined for eternal damnation.

When people around me cried, spoke in tongues, and caught the holy ghost, they were clearly feeling something that I could not. They had a tangible relationship with God. They could hear his voice; they could feel his presence. I heard nothing. I felt nothing. I thought I was broken and unholy. I felt like a sinner for asking logical questions.

In this brief but powerful video clip of young Ferrel, and descriptions of the consequences he experienced, we see the long history of how Black Christianity is related to slavery and racial control in this country. We see the compulsion to squelch truth and individual expression, even if they have to be beaten out of us at a very young age.

We know how kids can be beaten for simply speaking the truth. Ferrel was basically saying, “This is bullshit.” And the pastor immediately had to punish him for not buying into the indoctrination. How dare this little boy transgress church etiquette? How dare he disrupt the fragile sense of control that Black Americans rely upon the church to give them, since they can’t get it elsewhere. How dare a kindergartner not believe what he’s told to believe and behave as instructed?

Blogger Natasha Crain of Christian MomThoughts explains why some kids don’t like to attend church: It’s boring. It’s not relevant to their lives. Their friends aren’t there. Or they don’t like the other kids who are there. They don’t like their Sunday School teacher or youth leader. They don’t believe in God. They’re doubting Christianity. They don’t feel a close relationship with Jesus. They’d rather be doing something else.

Churches are filled with kids pretending to embrace the church and religion for their parents’ sake. And when parents force religion on their children, they’re not raising independent, critical thinkers or giving their kids the freedom to question adults and their beliefs.

And it’s ironic to me when Black folks get mad at a child for dissing a religion that’s not even native to our people. The brand of Christianity practiced by African-Americans was forced on our foremothers and forefathers during colonization and slavery. When this country was founded, Europeans imported their remixed version of Christianity to these shores. Anyone who questioned authority was suspect. Witches, heretics, and others were seen as threats to the Puritanical definition of a “godly” existence. Public whippings, brandings, hangings, beheadings, and being burned at the stake were common punishments during the Colonial era, for folks who didn’t conform.

In this “model” Puritanical version of Christianity, there was a place for everyone, in the church, in the family, and in the larger society. Free expression was not valued or encouraged. Under the banner of white male supremacy, it was required to accept authority and rigidly defined societal roles. People were viewed as belonging not to themselves, but to society, so children had to be shaped and controlled to respect authority and follow the rules. Parents were duty-bound to teach their children respect rather than dooming them to a life of sin and souls condemned to hell. Children had to be ruled through shaming and other harsh, punitive measures, so that their alleged wickedness didn’t bring harm to the newly formed colonies.

Babies were believed to be born with the “original sin” of Adam sitting on their souls. Society had to break their young spirits and “beat the devil out of them” to make them “civilized.” The Christian belief that children were born “bad” and had to be broken and shamed did not come from Native American or West African societies. Those beliefs grew out of being colonized and/or enslaved by and interacting with white people.

Grounded in these dynamics, Black preachers often encourage parents to whup their kids for normal childhood transgressions such as not following rules, or not doing well in school. But I don’t believe that Jesus told little children to “come unto me to get shamed and your butt whupped.” He was gentle, welcoming, coddling, nurturing, and kind. He offered empathy, love, and understanding, and encouraged their questioning minds. Jesus would have tolerated a moment of dissent from a fed-up 6-year-old Black boy—or any exasperated, disillusioned kid. Besides, Jesus did most of his preaching in public spaces while traveling, not in a sanctuary.

When religion promotes shaming and physical punishment as expressions of faith and godliness, we’ve got a problem. The misquoted phrase, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” is pushed as the foundation of responsible child-rearing. But its true purpose is to say that it’s okay for parents to incorporate violence toward children “for their own good.”

As African-Americans converted to Christianity in the early 19th century, they were influenced by white perceptions that they were inherently savage and childlike, unable to mature without white controls. In response, many Black folks took that Christian reasoning and used it to beat their children into the respectability that society demanded.

We can’t dismiss the vital role of the Black church as central to the survival and progress of Black Americans. They have made it possible for us to survive enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, and today’s ongoing racial inequities. The Black church has long provided a safe, nurturing emotional sanctuary—often the only place where we could gather, release the never-ending trauma of racism, and heal in community. But the specter of white influence and control always lurked in the background, always put pressure on the Black church to control its members, lest they get “out of line.” This pressure has compromised the church’s ability to function as a truly radical organizing tool and as a healthy and liberated violence-free zone to nurture Black families.

So when Ferrel was seen as getting out of line on Christmas Day in his grandmother’s friend’s church, he experienced an institutional response grounded in centuries of programming. Of course the pastor shamed him. Naturally his daddy whupped him.

And what do we think the long-term impact will be on this boy’s attitude toward the church? Thanks to viral video, he can never forget his youthful moment of honest expression or live down the public humiliation that resulted. He isn’t likely to associate the Black church with positive experiences. He might join the growing ranks of young people who are moving away from the Black church to explore other options, including traditional African spiritual practices.

As Luna Malbroux writes in Splinter, “Although black Americans still tend to be more religious than the general population, those under 30 are three times as likely to avoid religious affiliation as black people over 50.”

If Black churches want to attract younger members, they need to evolve. So many Black people who are traumatized and suffering feel betrayed, let down, disappointed and hurt by the Christian church. We don’t know what young Ferrel had experienced, what weight he carried in his young soul. Whether he’d seen violence, experienced poverty, hunger, family disruption, bullying at school, or any of the countless stressors burdening our children and families these days. But we do know that, on that Christmas morning, Ferrel was being pressured by adults in his life to do something against his will. And while he might have been simply telling the truth, as he was taught at home, he was punished for doing that very thing.

The Black church needs to do some soul-searching and reevaluate how our children are being trained up. For all the wrong reasons, this is likely a Christmas he will never forget.

But I want that precious child to know that I support, applaud and look up to him for his moment of courage and truth. He could teach those folks who punished him a thing or two.

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