I Attended a White Supremacist Church

illustration from 16th century “Nuremberg Chronicles”

I cannot tell you how ashamed I feel typing that title. I admit, I never gave a thought to white supremacy in my church back in the 1970s and early 1980s. I should clarify — throughout junior high and high school I attended two churches. The primary community, which my family attended, was an Assemblies of God church in my home town. It was a group of about 100 people, and our pastor had been a missionary and raised his children in Ghana, Africa. He often told us joyous stories about how the congregants of that church served each other, worshiped, danced to the offering plate (whether they had a financial offering or not), and of course dramatic stories of individual conversions to Christianity. The pastor’s personal burden was that he always wanted a beautiful church, and when they were finally able to build one in northern Ghana, it almost immediately burned down. Our Assemblies of God church met first in a local preschool, then in the religious education building of a Lutheran church, and never had its own building.

Ours was an all white congregation in a fairly integrated suburb. Only one of my friends attended an integrated church, a Baptist church in Harvey, Illinois. My suburban friends were Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran. My best childhood friend, who was Black and lived on my street, was Christian Scientist. Everybody had their church — and ours was, I knew, the most extreme. It was fundamentalist and charismatic. There was speaking in tongues and faith healing. There was fire and brimstone, but also, the people there were loving, hurting, real people who always cared for and supported me and my younger siblings. We were the only teenagers in the church.

In high school, one of my friends invited me to a Full Gospel church youth group. That, it seemed, was where all the born-again Christian teenagers were. It was a large congregation with a dedicated, active youth group, many of whom attended a small Christian high school.

If there was overt racism in these churches, it didn’t register with me. I did not feel like Black people were not children of God with the same status as other Christians. I did not think my church would disapprove if I dated or married a Black man. I did not think about race in a religious context at all, even though it was a major issue in my community, where I saw plenty of social and educational segregation, heard the racist attitudes of my parents’ generation, and recognized with pain that as I grew there was more and more separation between me and the Black young adults my age.

I tuned in to an episode of the podcast/NPR radio show Snap Judgment called “The World Tomorrow from Love & Radio” last weekend, on which host Glynn Washington, who is Black, is interviewed about his childhood growing up in a white supremacist Christian cult, also referred to as an apocalyptic Jesus cult. How does a Black family end up in a white supremacist Christian cult? I was fascinated. Until I was confronted.

Washington gives accounts of overt racism toward the few Black people in his church, The Worldwide Church of God, headquartered in Pasadena, CA, led by a charismatic preacher named Herbert W. Armstrong who supposedly could trace his lineage back to Adam. At summer camp, Black kids were explicitly told not to dance with the white kids. In fact, they were talked to as if they were sexual predators.

Then he told a story that came from the pulpit.

When I was 11 years old, I was sitting in church next to my buddy, and the pastor starts talking about the story of the flood that you don’t know, the secret story of the flood. Noah, God tells him he’s got to go and make this ark. And Noah starts doing it because Noah’s faithful. And then animals start following two by two. Cool. People are still partying and being sinful, Noah gets in the ark with his wife and his three kids. The rains come down for 40 days and 40 nights. The ship sails for a year. And finally, he stops. And the world is clean and it is new. It’s free of sin. All the sin has been washed away by this flood that was sent by the Lord.

And then, Noah gets out and he’s so happy. He’s so happy he does a dance of joy to the Lord and finally falls down, exhausted. And when he falls down exhausted, brethren, that’s when the bad thing happens. One of his sons, who was on that boat with them, one of his sons defiles him, does something evil to his body when he is in a sense of slumber, it is a terrible, terrible, terrible thing. And when the Lord found out about it, when Noah woke up, the Lord cursed that son, cursed him. And brethren, brethren, you can see the effects of that curse here today, because that curse is the color of a black man’s skin, because they are the descendants of the person, of the son who committed that evil deed against Noah. Yeah, that’s what I heard. I was 11 or 12 years old.

I know this story, too. I know as soon as Glynn Washington describes Noah dancing, that this is the story of Ham, and the Sons of Ham. Ham is the son who “defiles” Noah when he is drunk and naked, passed out in his tent, and I know that defilement is sodomy. And I know Ham is cursed by being banished and by the sun burning his and his descendants’ skin black. They become the Canaanites. The Canaanites, I also know, were evil and eventually God commanded the Israelites to destroy them. Leviticus and Deuteronomy charges them with taboo sexual acts, child sacrifice, and idol worship.

I was wide awake now, and horrified. What other stories did I know? Was Cain also Black — was that the mark of Cain? And you know what else has never sat right with me? The story of Ishmael, how he and his mother were cast out into the desert to die but God took care of them. Ishmael’s descendant is the prophet Mohammed, not from the true line but from the illegitimate son of Abraham’s concubine, who was basically raped.

I got out my Bible. I looked for the story of Ham’s curse. In the Bible he does not “defile” his father. He laughs at him. He looks on and laughs at his father’s nakedness, then goes to tell his brothers. And the brothers, Shem and Japheth, take a garment and walk backward so as not to see their father’s nakedness, and cover him up. And then: “When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9: 24–25).

No sodomy. Nothing defiling. Ham’s sin is looking at his father’s nakedness and telling his brothers about it. And most importantly, no blackness.

I turned to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is marked, but there’s no description of how others will recognize him — and the purpose of the mark is to protect Cain and his descendants so no one will murder them. He is both cursed and protected. And he is also not burned by the sun. No mention is made of his skin color, which is undoubtedly the same as his father Adam’s.

Back in the 1970s, one hundred years after slavery in the U.S., I was being told stories used to justify slavery. I knew there was a lot of slavery in the Old Testament. The Israelites were slaves. Our whole identity was based on receiving freedom through Moses. As a kid, the story of the Exodus was the powerful one. We were the descendants of slaves. Slavery in the United States was an evil, and in its way equally remote from me. The Black kids didn’t talk about it. No one ever said, “my great-grandmother was a slave.” It was there under the surface. In my church, it seems, the Biblical justification for enslaving Black people was carried forward — Black people were cursed and meant to be slaves — a biblical story embellished and used to justify slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Embellished and sexualized to portray the Sons of Ham as people who would rape their own fathers. Sexual deviants. Sexual predators.

Growing up in the South Suburbs of Chicago, I saw plenty of racism. I heard Black men and boys demonized. I saw the effects of slavery and more specifically of the racism and oppression that was the white people’s response to the Great Migration, on my neighbors and schoolmates and their families. I recognized, though I had no words for it, real estate “steering” that kept Black families in the impoverished neighborhood of Beacon Hill, where even Black friends told me I should not go.

I did not hear much about slavery in school. I did not learn about the Great Migration. To be honest, I heard very little about the Civil Rights Movement or Martin Luther King, Jr. Our focus was on European immigrants. We visited Hull House. We visited the Pullman district and learned about the great worker strikes of the 20th century. A social studies teacher read to us, in the most painfully boring way, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about the conditions of Chicago slaughterhouses. We read Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” and all the while the poet Gwendolyn Brooks was living and writing twenty miles to the north. We did not learn about the Harlem Renaissance. We did not read or see Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which had everything to do with how our own suburb was founded, intentionally to be inclusive of African American and Jewish families. Instead, the whole school was shown the film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

My church, it turns out, espoused white supremacist values, told white supremacist stories. They claimed to preach the Bible, as it was written, and believe every word. But in fact they twisted and embellished and used the Bible to defend and promote slavery and oppression and distrust of Black people. And no one pushed back.

I’ve spent a week reckoning with this information, what it says about me and my church. Like 11-year-old Glynn Washington, I had no tools to understand it or resist it. Being white, I could just ignore it, place it in a history that no longer existed. Except it did exist. Except it does exist.

It is the hope of everyone doing social justice, anti-racism work, that we now have the tools to resist it, to confront the falsehoods, to properly feel the wound and contextualize and have empathy and most importantly, to do better. There is resistance to this work by a large number of Christians, who are fighting this awareness of our history in our country, our texts, and our sermons. That hurts my heart. And I don’t know what to do about it except tell my truth and work, personally, to do better.



poet, writer, gardener, cook, Catholic, cancer survivor. author of 3 books of poetry and 1 novel. Stanford and Sarah Lawrence. susansinkblog.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Susan Sink

poet, writer, gardener, cook, Catholic, cancer survivor. author of 3 books of poetry and 1 novel. Stanford and Sarah Lawrence. susansinkblog.com