The Message in the Margins

A guest post by Kisha Harper

When writing, you always have to observe certain rules of grammar and punctuation, but the most seemingly insignificant parts that are commonly forgotten or overlooked are the margins, the gaps on the top, bottom, left and right between the main content on the page and the page edges. It is common practice to make sure that there is the proper amount of space within the gaps to separate your content from the edge before continuing with the next line or ending with some sort of punctuation. The text can be justified flush to the left, right or evenly distributed with the margins, creating a neat and clean appearance. However, this does not account for content, message or narrative which solely depends on the writer.

Being the daughter of Baptist ministers, the word “text” was used to describe the main content in my parent’s Bible-inspired and spirit-filled sermons. Growing up in the South, in the heart of the Bible Belt, I have sat through numerous fiery sermons and often felt like I was in the gaps and margins outside of their text and left feeling dejected and ignored.

An introvert’s biggest fear is standing out in a crowd and will generally try to remain hidden in an attempt to blend in. For years, I hid in children’s ministries, women’s ministries and in the pews among hundreds of congregants. However, in my case and many others, over a long period of time, it becomes increasingly more painful and difficult to maintain. Like trying to blend black and white, you end up with a lot of gray areas. It’s never as simple as you would like. People who fall outside of the margins of the message usually end up filled with shame, guilt and severe sensitivity. Deep wounds start to develop and though scabs cover old wounds, it only helps to hide internalized pain of what some may call “church hurt.”

Being a black woman in a predominantly white evangelical Christian congregation or a lesbian Christian in any congregation can result in a severely wounded individual. In the South, and in a polarized political climate, politics always find its way into the sermon. Its easy to voice your opinion amongst people that share the same views on hot topics such as religion, race, sexuality and politics without even considering the person sitting in the next pew and to assume that they too are included in the main text or think in the same way. There is no room for gray area: you either agree or you are a sinner needing deliverance. Some assume the area outside of that text or sermon, the margins, is filled with sin and debauchery. Often the margins are filled with people who love God just as much, having the same desires, hope and dreams, seeking their purpose and simply seeking to belong.

So what happens to a person who falls outside of a pastor’s sermon text claiming anyone who doesn’t support a certain candidate is not a true Christian or when a spiritual leader that they have supported for years destines them for eternal damnation based on their views on topics such as abortion, religion, their sexuality or political affiliations?

When you find yourself as an outsider of the message of a person who you see as a messenger of God, it becomes difficult to separate the messenger and message from God and God’s love. The feeling of separation due to guilt, isolation and shame often leads many people to throw the baby out with the bathwater and walk away from God and the church completely. To that end, Brian McLaren, in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration, exclaims, “No wonder so many religious folks today wear down, burn out, and opt out” (p. 6).

Brian McLaren refers to the message of Jesus being kidnapped, saying, “And no wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both find ourselves shaking our heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity? What happened to Jesus and his beautiful message?’ We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as antipoor, antienvironment, antigay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant, and antiscience (not to mention protorture, proinequality, proviolence, pro-death penalty, and prowar). That’s not the Jesus we met in the Gospels! That’s not the Jesus who won our hearts!” (p. 6)

Luckily, God’s message of hope, love and redemption that was made for outsiders can still reach those dejected and ostracized that may not fit into the political, religious and societal messages of some churches. God’s message can come from the outsiders themselves. Many of Jesus’s close friends from the uneducated fishermen, a possible prostitute and a tax collector were found in the margins. One can even say that Jesus himself was from the margins and was not included in the message the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law taught, but was from Nazareth out of where nothing good ever came spreading the Good News of love, redemption and reconciliation to other outsiders.

God can use whatever is needed to speak to the ones that are in the margins.

After sitting through countless direct and indirect homophobic messages via sermons from my beloved pastor, a month long sermon series speaking against homosexuality, and me building up an emotional wall to protect myself from years of church hurt and conservative banter, God used the simple words from a song in the Broadway musical The Color Purple to give me the courage to no longer secretly hide in pain in a congregation but rather to live boldly in the margins and have compassion for others also in the margins.

For weeks, song after song resonated and reiterated God’s love for me, as though God was serenading me. Not the me who wanted to fit in and hide neatly in the message, but rather me, the black lesbian who loved Jesus, but was no longer so sure about many of his followers. I randomly discovered The Color Purple at a time I was newly fascinated with Broadway musicals. I had a connection with Celie, the main character, a lesbian and the victim of a hard life and tough circumstances that loved God but eventually felt that God had forgotten her. She was reminded with a humble message that God had not forgotten, but in fact loved her. At the end in The Color Purple (Reprise), she concluded, “God is inside me and everyone else that was or ever will be. I came into this world with God, and when I finally looked inside, I found it, just as close as my breath is to me.”

Though not a song typically sung in a church, it was a message that I felt God wanted to convey to me. While guilt and obligation kept me at a church whose message no longer seemed to reach me, I started visiting and livestreaming other churches referred by people also in the margins. One Sunday, while feeling tired of hiding amongst my former church pews, I decided to livestream a church service whose pastor recently started preaching a message of radical inclusion. Suddenly, I began to hear a familiar song and my heart started to swell. The song that had given me comfort for weeks was being sung from the pews of that church. With that confirmation, I knew I could come from among the margins of my former church into a message that spoke to my wounded heart and that the healing could begin. With that healing came a compassion for social justice for other marginalized people as well as opportunities to serve them in a greater way that would not have been available had I not come from among the message and lived freely in the margin.

Kisha Harper is an artist, graphic designer, and data analyst from Nashville, TN, who has a passion for art, musicals, nature, and community service. She aspires to create art and children’s books that promote love, diversity and acceptance while also providing an empowering message for marginalized people. You can find her on Instagram as @lharp15.

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