for church girls who considered compromise when living holy wasn’t enough

black-church

In the year since Whitney Houston left us, I have not been the same. I never met her. But I knew her.

I knew the girl who grew up in church, singing on the choir. I knew the girl who smiled as church mothers told her how pretty her dress was and said “thank you” when deacons snuck her an extra piece of pound cake at the annual church picnic. I knew the girl who graciously accepted the standing ovation after she sang her first solo or recited her first Easter speech. I knew the young lady who was thankful for the Bible she received for her high school graduation. I knew the young woman who struggled to reconcile her foundation of righteousness with the everyday demands of budding popularity and the complexities of human emotion.

I knew Whitney because, in many ways, we were the same.

Granted, I do not have millions of albums sold. No one will ever refer to me as “The Voice” and I will not be remembered for singing about unrequited love so effortlessly that it made everyone, for 4 minutes and 35 seconds, want that old thing back.

But I do know the pain of falling short and hearing a mother or grandmother say, “Now you know better.” I know the embarrassment of people laughing when the stench of your defeat hits their noses. I know the price of living under the weight of people’s perception of who they think you should be. And I know what you lose when you search, desperately, for moments when you can simply be yourself. Be free.

It would seem that this was Whitney’s plight. On the surface, she was a woman who, to many, squandered potential. She was beautiful. She had talent. She was witty. And homegirl had a smile that could make the heavens open. She had it all. And, like a tragic Lifetime movie, we watched it all slip away. She lost the adoration of many of her fans and the respect of some of her peers. In many ways, it seemed Whitney lost herself.

There were those who rushed to assess blame for Whitney’s painful spiral. It was all Bobby’s fault, we thought. Recently, we found a new place to focus blame for losing the Whitney we knew when her brother Michael confessed to introducing her to drugs. But no matter where we pointed our fingers, guilt still laid there at our feet. No one wanted to admit that, while Whitney was indeed a woman capable of making sound decisions, we did not make it easy for her. Forcing people to maneuver through constructed false realities is, both, repressive and demonic.

As a child, I was taught the importance of holiness, though the concept seemed a bit flawed. I wrestled with the education that not doing a host of things made me somehow right in God’s eyes.

If I didn’t drink, I was holy.

If I didn’t curse, I was holy.

If I didn’t lie, I was holy.

If I didn’t have sex, I was holy.

My identity, then, became encased in the ability to articulate who I wasn’t more than who I was. As I stand now, a year older and wiser, I refine my definition of holiness. For me, to be holy is to live authentically and unapologetically in the freedom of my creation. I believe we are created to bring light and goodness into this world. Anything that betrays that fact is not holiness. I am my holiest when my actions align with the truth of why God made me.

Walking in this reality is not easy. And, as a result, I compromised. At times, I have lived in opposition to myself, experiencing moments of wild abandon where my purpose didn’t matter. In private, in darkness, I rebelled. Many of us find fleeting moments of freedom in drugs, alcohol, sex, retail therapy, food, school, careers and the like. We wake up in stupors, sobering from not caring, only to find that pain is still there. For a few moments, we just wanted to be free. But we were not free. Whether it is living up to the unrealistic expectations placed on us by everyone else or finding painful mediums through which to escape, we are still in bondage.

Contrary to what people say, this life isn’t an easy one to navigate. I would argue that the church has not made it easy for us. Even the most well polished church girl struggles behind the scenes. We have perfected the performance of happiness. We know when to smile and what to say. Behind those smiles and words we fight to believe ourselves is the truth: we want to know freedom too.

But we can have it. We can be free of the church girl weight that so easily besets us. Our actions must be deliberate and intentional. We must choose ourselves. Our desire to look in the mirror and like what we see must be greater than the need to have others pleased with daily caricatures of who we are. We must listen to the voice inside that tells us when we are being inauthentic. It tells when we are not being holy. And we must fight. We must fight against everything that would try to make us deny that we are holy when we are, simply, ourselves.

Since Whitney’s passing, I have mourned her but also envied her. She does not have to deal with this anymore. The stigma of who she isn’t and the weight of living up to who she does not want to be is no longer her concern. A lot of people say they wanted Whitney to “win”. I don’t know what that means entirely. I just know I wanted her to be free to be her own person. I wanted her to be able to be the Whitney she wanted to be.

I want that for all of us. I pray we can have it while we are here.

Candice Benbow is the host of Divine Dialogue, an iTunes podcast that discusses social and religious issues in the African-American Community. A writer, Candice is currently at work on her first book.

9 Comments

  1. T. Boomer

    February 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    So glad to finally hear someone admit the truth. That “church girl weight” seems like the elephant in the room at times. I must say, quite a different take on Whitney’s death… everyone else seems to either judge her lifestyle or act as though the last 15 years of her life never happened. Great article!

  2. M. Frederick

    February 11, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    What a wonderful article. I’m glad Whitney wasn’t vilified. She was a talented woman with a life filled with triumphs and struggles. I’m glad a realistic portrait of Whitney was painted with your words. Kudos to you for giving voice to the silent struggle of church girls everywhere. It is a weight, a heavy burden to carry. It’s no wonder that so many try to find freedom in an assortment of ways. Bless you for finding you own path, in terms of holy living. How I wish I was able to read something like this years ago! Continue on in your wonderful work.

  3. Deanna Walton

    February 11, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    I am amazed at the power of these simple words. Wow! If this isn’t conceptualizing my current struggle. . .

    I am an educator by trade, and by purpose. I will print this article for the girls I teach, and the older girls that I mentor. It was powerful enough, yet plain enough, to reach a multitude of women.

  4. T.Richardson

    February 12, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Whitney Houston was a very talented person. She was great! I believed that she herself chose who she was and who she wanted to be. Although she was great she had the potential to be even “greater!” Everyone has struggles and things that only God can help us with or deliver us from. His Word tells us that there is a way of “escape” made for us by “Him” for everything that plague His people. We only have to believe that and act on it. By faith God can do anything but “fail!”

  5. Rev Carolyn

    February 12, 2013 at 8:09 am

    Such a powerful article and so true. Unfortunately many of us either take years to realize or never realize that a true relationship with God is not built on “should nots” but based on the freedom to live a life that is amazing, satisfying and full of wonder and creativity. A life that enriches and instead of deletes. A life that is about progress, compassion and love and not one that forces you into the shadows because the “living holy” goals seem just to high to reach.

  6. Arria Ferguson

    February 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    What an excellent article on the spiritual plight of our beloved sister Whitney!
    She was/is a believer in Jesus Christ–she’s with Him today!! Now unfortunately, we view success and the abundant life all too often in a materialistic sense. Whitney, though well to do with worldly accoutrements, lacked her spiritual freedom at it’s cost. To know and accept the Lord’s love and forgiveness is SALVATION. But to not obey His commands is spiritual destitution while we sojourn in this world. We deprive ourselves of our fullness of joy when we live contrary to His will and ways. There is TRUE FREEDOM in submission and obedience. I can attest confidently to this beautiful fulfillment of the Lord’s plan for us while we’re here on earth.
    Our churches most often fail to teach the freedom of authentic faith. They default to legalistic teaching that leaves us like the writer, Whitney and at onetime myself were, into the bondage of religion.
    THERE IS TRUE FREEDOM IN REAL FAITH. The key is surrender to God’s will daily and have your own personal relationship with Him.

  7. Lauren H.

    March 22, 2013 at 11:16 am

    This is a fantastic article! I completely agree that a lot of times we go through the motions of being the good church girl and it does become more about what we don’t do than who we are. I love this passage “I believe we are created to bring light and goodness into this world. Anything that betrays that fact is not holiness. I am my holiest when my actions align with the truth of why God made me.” I too am learning to live more authentically and I commend you for for tearing down the mask and being real!

  8. Melanie S.

    February 11, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Beautiful words, and applicable to so many of us who find ourselves trying to live in a way that isn’t authentic. Thank you so much for writing this, and writing in such a moving way.

  9. Yasmin

    July 3, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    I am an Asian-American Muslim and I sincerely appreciate this article. There are so many beautiful truths stated that are applicable and also assuring to my life. Thank you for this piece :)

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