God Is Us by Ashley Elizabeth

May 8, 2024 | Bubbler

I remember taking the subway to my grandmother’s church on the corner of North Paca and West Saratoga street in my frilly socks and pastel dress. Maybe this was Easter or maybe this was just what was expected. On Sundays, we went to church as long as everyone was in good health and good spirits and we had something in our bags that was acceptable as “church clothes.” “We must look good for the Lord,” she said. “We are a proud people.”

As such, it is not the gods that save us; it is ourselves. It is also that the gods restore and give and take and show us what we need—they are guides. It is in church, after all, where many of us begin to read, suffering (or stuttering in my case) though thees and thous. At my grandfather’s funeral, I am ten and at the pulpit reciting The Lord’s Prayer because my grandmother asks me to. The word “enemies” trips me up. Not because I don’t know the word because I do; I’ve been reading since I was two. It’s the “eh” sound at the beginning of the word that stalls and sputters me before I move on entirely. I am my father’s daughter; he does this too. Afterwards, she gives me a piece of candy from her purse, and I look down at my feet for the rest of the funeral.

I later learn that Moses had a stutter, and it makes me feel the teensiest bit better as he, too, was chosen for more. God is funny in that way.

I did not always believe in Him; I must be honest. What kind of god allows their flock to be treated the way that I have in terms of who has accessed my body without my consent? That other Black people have with slavery and broken bloodlines? I asked all the questions but never got any answers—or maybe I do not remember them. My mother tells me she used to catch me staring at the ceiling and I told her I was talking to God, but this must have ended around middle school. Of course it is trendy to be atheist or agnostic or just to question everything, and the question “Why?” was stuck in my throat in the same way “enemies” was through her diagnosis and subsequent church- hopping, gathering as much prayer as one could muster.

The healing came in waves for her, but my questions persisted against everything. Why am I praising a god that seems to only take? And if you know anything about church folk, Black ones in particular, they don’t like questions or deviations or interpretations outside of what their pastor or their mama said. The Good Book is gold and answers all and if you question, there has to be a demon in you. I don’t make the rules here; I just write them down.

When I came out as bisexual, then later lesbian, then even later queer, I lost a lot of people because of what the good book says, rather how it’s been interpreted for the masses. This caused even more questions because of the hypocrisy. We’re supposed to “love our neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) and “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1), so how is my queerness something to be shamed or hated for? Not one human is the jury for the afterlife, but that did not stop people from sending me to their imagined hell. I like to think that they think they are doing something for the betterment of the universe, you know, assume the best from others, but it is hard when what they do and say and how they abandon others is so evil.

As an adult, I understand now that life isn’t easy, that sometimes we have to face the consequences of our actions, that we are put through challenges because we can face them, but this lifetime of struggle was never what I envisioned when I heard of God as a child. Part of me weeps for the little version of me who thought the world would be nice and sweet because God existed and did talk to you.

God came, then stopped—or maybe I stopped looking.

Ashley Elizabeth (she/her) is a Pushcart-nominated writer and teacher whose work has appeared in SWWIM, Voicemail Poems, Rigorous, and Sage Cigarettes, among others. Ashley’s debut full-length collection, A Family Thing, is forthcoming from Redacted Books/ELJ Editions (August 2024). She is also the author of the chapbooks CHARM(ed) (Fifth Wheel Press, November 2024), black has every right to be angry (Alternating Current, 2023) and you were supposed to be a friend (Nightingale & Sparrow, 2020). When Ashley isn’t teaching or working as the Chapbook Editor with Sundress Publications, she habitually posts on Twitter and Instagram (@ae_thepoet). She lives in Baltimore, MD with her partner and their three cats.