When I would ask about my absent dad, my mom would tell not me to worry, reminding me of my Heavenly Father watching over me from up above. I love you, Mom, but that’s crazy talk. I don’t want white Christ watching over me as much as I don’t want to go to church on Saturday. White Jesus doesn’t care about me, and he certainly doesn’t care about any of the other Mexicans living in South Gate.
It took time to realize this, though. I went to a Baptist school from pre-K to the fifth grade. I attended school chapel on Wednesdays and Seventh-day Adventist sermons on Saturdays with my mom well into my teen years. I could sing and sign most of the songs, knew the commandments like the back of my hand and recited “salmos” every night before bed. I was a good Christian boy. Now, I’m sickened by the sight of a cross, disappointed when I hear a person of color singing hymns on Sproul.
From cathedrals to storefront churches, “mi barrio” is littered with these colonial outposts, where tithes replace taxes and 526 years of oppression are replayed Sabbath after Sabbath. The dozens of churches lining Tweedy, Firestone and Long Beach are more equivalent to spiritual rackets than spaces for divine communion. These are the kinds of places where we are taught to hate under the guise of love, all the while being threatened with the blade of eternal damnation sharp against our throats: Control your body; hate your skin, your crotch; hate the Muslims and the Jews for being wrong; hate everything that ever was before Christ walked across the sea.
What does Christianity have to offer that could outweigh the evil under which it operates? For over 500 years the church has wielded its power to advance the white colonial project, conquering land, body and mind. Our ancestors in Mexico and throughout the Americas were murdered and enslaved, their histories burned and languages outlawed under the banner of Christ. And in return we got communions, baptisms, racial supremacy, quinceañeras, self-hate, a colonial tongue, polka music and gendered violence — the real Columbian exchange.
There was no way in hell I could continue to pray to a god who would let this happen, even though my mom asks me to do so every time we talk on the phone: “Que Dios te bendiga, mijo.”
Each and every prayer carries baggage as heavy as the church’s coffers or the bodies of those executed in Jesus’ name (amen). How much easier it is to memorize the gospels than to resist the immense power of the church, to fill the mind with divine mistranslations allowing no space for rebellion, to pray along the beads of the rosary and not liken them to the links in a chain. I can hear a pastor say, “We must be meek to embody Jesus and allow the judgment of the Lord upon evildoers to be carried out in due time. We must continue to pray that the Holy Spirit may touch their hearts and turn them from evil.” No Chicanx person should have this kind of outlook. White Jesus won’t solve our problems. We have to exit these prisons of prayer!
Walking through the doors of a church, closing myself off from the beauty of the outside world — it doesn’t make much sense to me. Praying inside? Wasn’t mankind given a garden? Why pay to go to church? I thought God was everywhere and in everything. Is God a capitalist? Why are men only endowed the divine right of priesthood? Why did the Father ask Jesús to stay after sermon? Is all that stuff in the Bible true? Did only men ever write in the Bible? Who translated it? Were they Mexican like me? Who’s la Virgen? Tonantzin?
Contradictions, problems and lies. These are the answers to those questions. To be associated with them arouses a vague discomfort buried beneath a mass of bodies. A Mexican-American identity is so heavily tied to the church — it’s carried in our names, our manners of speech, our cities and streets. These saints and figures put white faces on the spirits of old, and, in essence, celebrating them connects us to the practitioners of old, but it is a beyond-perverted bond.
A radical spirituality must take its place. A spirituality free of centralized control where we experience the eternal within us all. Communion with the Almighty doesn’t require a Western liaison. ¡Somxs la raza cósmica, de oro! Divinity surrounds us and is present within each and every one of us. We act out its message every day, absent of good and bad. Its face is our own, and its aura is of roses in bloom. Breathe in its sweet scent. Beyond the church we can experience a holiness as old as the stars and as new as the sunrise.
Michael Alonzo Bustillo-Sakhai is pursuing a master’s degree in Civil Engineering and plays guitarrón in Mariachi Luz de Oro.