What Does God Really Look Like?
"What if I told you Jesus was a Black man?"
How I came to ask Marie this entirely provocative question five minutes before the start of 7:45 a.m. Mass is a mystery to me now, but I never forgot her answer and its delivery, "Jesus can't be Black, because I would never bow down to a Black man." Her voice was firm and her eyes darkened under the memories of abuse she faced at the hands of various Black men in her life, including her then-husband, Max, whose fatal bout with cancer did nothing to inoculate her from his venom.
Say what you will about her logic, but her Jesus, and by extension, her God, had to be the opposite of everything -- including color -- of the pain she'd experienced her entire life. Her Jesus, and by extension, her God, was blonde, with blue, maybe green eyes. He was gentle, kind, patient, and best of all, loved her -- black and blue -- to no end.
Before I converted to Catholicism, I was a card carrying Black Hebrew Israelite. If you're a New Yorker, you might remember these Black men on busy street corners, a fixture at 42nd Street near the Port Authority, dressed in Old Testament Hebrew garb, broadcasting their one-two punch megaphone missive: "The white man is the Devil and the Black man is the true Jew." It was a message that defined everything about me for four years and it made my Jesus, and by extension, my God, a Black man with an Afro to rival any seen on "Good Times," with a Barry White baritone-laced gravitas that would make you alternately stand at attention and swoon.
So, for me, God had a color, and gender -- he was a man. And not just any man, he was the opposite of everything -- including color -- that I was taught to value through seemingly innocent social studies lessons and pop culture consumption. Jesus was a rebel, just like me. He rejected the mistreatment of the most vulnerable in our society like I rejected White supremacy (and I know, had he specifically addressed it, that he would have been on my side on the supremacy issue). His hair looked like mine. His lips were thick, if not thicker than mine. I could relate to the divine because the divine looked like me.
But as with all reflective Catholics, and through the edifying power of grace, I had an epiphany. In Oprah-ese you might call it my "a-ha moment." It was the moment I realized that nothing I believed about how God looks ever mattered. It was like St. Paul trying to convince the disciples that, "Hey, what we're doing here is totally different! We're not Jews following Jesus. We're Christians!" Get the difference? God had given me a new vocabulary, and a new set of eyes, that wasn't tied to the hot-button issues of terra firma. It was more than what the eye could see. It was what an eager heart, through grace, could discern: God looks like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness, and best of all, He looks like he's not giving up on any of us any time soon.
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Shu-Fy H. Pongnon holds degrees from Columbia University and NYU. She is the Assistant News Director at NETNY, in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which produces the nation's only nightly news broadcast from a Catholic perspective. Shu-fy's contribution to Patheos' Future of Religion series can be read here.