Monday morning, and I cannot put this thought to rest: we have consumed the names of the kidnapped Nigerian girls for the sake of our own piety.
If Facebook is any indication, yesterday (Mother’s Day) many American churches prayed for the Nigerian girls and young women who were abducted from their school on April 14, and many of those churches prayed for the students by name using a list that was circulating online. Churches took extra time in worship to read the names as a litany, or distributed the names on pieces of paper for individual prayer. Some preachers used the occasion to call attention to the dire treatment of women globally, daring to preach about justice on a day when the pews brimmed with corsaged women and their families en route to Mother’s Day lunches.
If Facebook is any indication, yesterday we American Christians felt good to have joined the cause, prophetic to have added our prayers to the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Never mind that many of us didn’t know about the abduction in Nigeria before last week. Never mind that many of us don’t understand & didn’t bother to research the economic, political, religious, tribal, and historic dynamics of the country.
Never mind that the abduction itself happened one month ago, unnoticed by American churches and barely reported by the media.
Never mind that the girls’ mothers and families in Chibok, as well as Nigerian activists and writers, were already rallying and demanding action from their government.
Last week, Americans took notice and determined that the world needed us to come to the rescue, and American churches vowed to bedeck that bandwagon with prayer.
Forgive my cynicism.
I believe that prayer is powerful. I believe that churches prayed yesterday with sincere faith and genuine concern for the fate of the Nigerian students. I believe that my colleagues in ministry planned the prayers for worship thoughtfully, carefully, not meaning to exploit the girls’ stories or names.
I also believe — I fear — that we did just that.
We called them “our girls” — a casual familiarity especially problematic in white American Churches — as if we were their mothers, thus abstracting the girls from their own mothers and families (like a viral child sponsorship program for our time of prayers). We splashed the face of a brown girl (any brown girl would do, we didn’t need to know if she was one of the kidnapped or even Nigerian) across Twitter and Facebook and maybe even on the projector screens in our churches. We pretended that the girls’ names and their faces were ours to distribute, ours to wail over, ours to make into poster children whose brown eyes would teach us to pray.
Now it’s Monday morning, and the worship bulletins have been recycled. The slips of paper have been posted on our refrigerator doors to collect dust. Next Sunday’s worship service will return to its usual habits and hymns. We’ll share the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag a few more times, but otherwise in pulpits and in pews we believe that our duty to the Nigerian girls was accomplished; the girls served their purpose to help us feel — for one Sunday — that faith has an urgency and an impact. Next Sunday, we’ll again prefer our faith to be sweet and consoling.
Next Sunday, I fear the girls will still be missing.
Next Sunday, I fear many American churches will forget them.
Next Sunday, I fear we will neglect to repeat our prayers for girls and young women who are abducted, abused, raped, sold — not only the Nigerian students whose names we consumed in faith, but many other Nigerian girls and young women, many Native American women in both the US and Canada, many women in war zones around the world, many women cis and trans* alike, women who live next door and women who attend our churches.
Next Sunday would be one too many Sundays in a row to cry for justice from the pulpit and raise a lament in the pews.
. . . In fairness, pastors plan weekly worship with the whole life of the congregation, the whole span of local & global events, and the whole work of God in mind. We do not pray or preach every Sunday with only one village in mind any more than we pray or preach Sunday after Sunday with only one scripture passage in mind . . .
Yet I suspect that our fervent prayers over the Nigerian students may be revealed as self-righteousness if, in retrospect, it becomes apparent that we intended only to name the girls once so that God could soothe the lament in our own souls.
When the girls’ names were released — and who bothered to double-check them, because we were satisfied that they sounded foreign — we gobbled up that list without so much as a pause to consider the over/undertones of our centuries-long American habit of devouring Africa. My discomfort with the fervent rush to pray for the girls reflects my suspicion that our flash-in-the-pan interest in acquiring their names for the sake of our prayers is paralleled in the shadows by our inability/unwillingness to examine critically the relationship between our faith and our American white savior complex.
I don’t intend that we should backtrack in guilt over yesterday’s prayers, sermons, and worship services. I’m observing the need to move forward with care, minding the ways in which we consume and appropriate others’ stories for our own spiritual fodder … with a particular caution to predominantly white congregations, because good intentions and sincere faith do not extricate us from participation in systemic racism.
I’m suggesting that our prayers (and our political action, if we connect the two) remember with humility that we are not spiritual patrons or great American rescuers in the effort to #BringBackOurGirls. At the forefront of the protest are the mothers, fathers and families in Chibok; we are their supporters, not their saviors.
And I’m suggesting that maybe — just maybe — we practice remembrance more than forgetfulness next Sunday in worship, and for many Sundays to come.