Photo by Diana Simumpande/Unsplash/Creative Commons
For years, Deesha Philyaw, a Pittsburgh writer, editor and writing coach, has gradually crafted stories about church ladies — but these are not the stories you’d likely hear sitting in the pew of a Black church.
Now, her new book, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” has been named a fiction finalist for the National Book Award. In it are nine stories that cross generations and families, tales of Black women whose lives are a mixture of religion, sex, love and grief.
There’s the single woman and the married man who first meet in the hospice facility housing their elderly Christian mothers and who later end up in the back seat of a car outside.
And the longtime best girlfriends who as teens dreamed of a double wedding with male mates but now have their own sexual rendezvous together once a year. One still hopes for a man; the other questions God.
And the girl whose mother regularly shares peach cobbler and herself with their married male pastor. The girl, now a teen, begins tutoring lessons and a liaison with the same pastor’s son.
Though the details may be invented, Philyaw, 49, said her book reflects the real-life “dissatisfaction and struggle” of some Black women raised in the church, but also the comfort and guidance many of them find in God.
Author Deesha Philyaw. Photo by Vanessa German
“I see the book as centering Black women in their own stories of the tug of war they experience between their desires and what they may have learned at church,” said Philyaw, a Black woman who no longer considers herself to be religious. “I want to be sure it’s the women who are centered and the church is sort of in their orbit as opposed to the other way around.”
Hours after learning her book was an award finalist, she spoke to Religion News Service about growing up in the church, writing about affairs and what she thinks her late mother and grandmother would think of a book that she would definitely give an R rating.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on being named a finalist for the National Book Award. How did you react to that news?
Oh, the scream that I let out, let me tell you. I am so honored and thankful and just excited that people have connected with it the way they have. And I’m going to try not to start crying again.
Of all the topics you could have chosen for your first short story collection, why did you pick the secret sex lives of Black women and girls who had close or distant connections with the Black church?
They live in my imagination, because I was a church girl. I grew up in the church. I grew up in the South. How do you navigate the really tight space that church can often bind us in when it comes to many things, but our sexuality in particular? I was raised by my mother and my grandmother. And it was just their stories, their voices, their contradictions and all of my curiosity about them that has stayed with me.
In your acknowledgments you thank “my mama and Nay-Nay for sending me to church and Sunday school all those years.” Where was that church?
Jacksonville, Florida, is where I was born and raised. And it was many churches. We talk about “the church” and we know the Black church isn’t a monolith, but in my collection, it’s sort of the traditional evangelical Black church. But for me growing up, it was numerous churches, numerous denominations: AME (African Methodist Episcopal); Baptist; Pentecostal; COGIC, which stands for Church of God in Christ; Missionary Baptist Church.
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw. Image courtesy of West Virginia University Press
Though these are works of fiction, how would you describe them as far as how true to life they are and what they say about Black church women in general?
I’ll defer to the Black women who have said to me, “I know these women,” or “I am these women,” or “I used to be that woman,” or “I knew exactly who you were talking about in this story.” So I think it’s very true to life.
More than one of the nine stories features lesbian love, whether two grown women or a girl with a crush on her male pastor’s wife. Do you consider attitudes about LGBTQ people to be one of the bigger issues that Black churches continue to grapple with?
It’s one, but I really want to put it in context. Because there’s often these conversations that somehow Black people or the Black church are more homophobic than other folks. And so I don’t want to really put a fine point on that particular area. I think it’s part of a larger continuum of the binaries of who we can be. We can be the Madonna or the whore. We’re in God’s will or we’re outside of God’s will. It’s really a larger question of the church giving us so few options about who we can be and how we can be in the world and what it means to be good, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. And certainly part of that is in terms of how you identify as queer or not queer. So that would be one factor.
On top of the many secrets in the sex lives of these characters, there also are what seem like superstitions, especially among their relatives — like the grandmother who dreams of fish and is then sure someone in her family is pregnant. What does that say about the influence of factors other than faith in the minds of some church ladies?
What’s revealed to us in dreams, those things we typically call superstition or old wives’ tales, they are drawn from our African roots. They get all tangled up when enslaved and formerly enslaved people adapted to Christianity and folded those practices in. So sometimes we can’t tell where one starts and one (ends). But as Black people, we own all of it. But too often, what we point to as superstition is presented as antithetical to Christianity or to godliness and many of us know that’s simply not true.
There are so many traditions of the Black church that you touch on in this collection — from the specific pews people sit in Sunday after Sunday to the special flower worn on Mother’s Day. What are you hoping to reveal about the ethos of these congregations?
I hope people see those things as the ways in which I am not bashing the church, that I still have fond memories of those kinds of traditions and that the church in and of itself isn’t the problem and so there’s a lot of good. There are reasons people cling to the church, very good reasons. There are reasons I have these memories and it’s not because I had bad experiences at church. It’s because I looked forward to Mother’s Day and knowing what those flowers meant and seeing who had the red flowers and who had the white flowers.
For those who are less familiar with these traditions, would you explain that tradition about the red and white flowers?
On Mother’s Day, you would wear a flower on your collar or your lapel, or you pin it to your dress. And you wear a red flower if your mother is still living and a white flower if your mother has passed away. Mother’s Day is a day where a lot of people come to church, usually or perhaps at the request of their mother. Maybe they don’t come any other time, but you know, mama or grandmama wants you to be there so you go and you wear your flower.
There is a story titled “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands.” It’s written in a different style than the others, a literal list that starts with “park at least one block away” from the home of the serial mistress. Why did you choose to include this?
I liked the concept of this serial mistress. But in the triad, if there’s a husband and there’s a wife and there’s this woman, she’s the one we hear from the least. She’s the most vilified. So I thought, what if I kind of subverted that and what if instead of her being the person on the margins, what if she controlled the narrative? I’m a big fan of what is called hermit crab essays in nonfiction, where you write an essay, but it takes the form of something ordinary. So I thought what if I did that with fiction and she wrote a little instruction manual for these guys? Now I can be creative and a little clever. But still tackle something that’s pretty serious.
How do you think your mother and grandmother would react to your fictional take on the secrets in the pews of churches — churches like the ones you attended with them?
I think they would be proud of me because they were just always proud of me. I don’t think there would be any exception about this book. Now, it gives me pause ’cause there is a lot of sex in the book. But, even with some of the more provocative content, I think they’d still be very proud and very happy about it.
For those dipping their toes into the dating pool during stay-at-home orders, it’s been like swimming in a version of Netflix’s reality series “Love is Blind.”
In the show, contestants must get engaged before ever actually meeting one another in person. And while a lockdown engagement might be a bit extreme, it’s entirely possible that two people have grown to really like one another over the previous weeks and months. Maybe it started with a match on a dating app, followed by flirting over text. Then came regularly scheduled Zoom dates. Perhaps they’ve even started envisioning a future together.
Now, as states start to ease restrictions, some may have broached taking the next step: an in-person rendezvous.
What are the chances that their online connection will lead to true love?
In my book, “The Science of Kissing,” I describe how compatibility requires engaging all of our senses. And absent the touch, taste and smell of a potential partner, people dating online during quarantine have essentially been flying blind.
Human attraction involves the influence of cues that evolved over millions of years.
On a traditional date in a restaurant or move theater, we actively gather details about someone by walking side by side, holding hands, hugging and – if things get far enough – kissing. These experiences send neural impulses between the brain and body, stimulating tiny chemical messengers that affect how we feel. When two people are a good match, hormones and neurotransmitters bring about the sensations we might describe as being on a natural high or experiencing the exhilaration of butterflies. Finding love isn’t rocket science – it’s anatomy, endocrinology and real chemistry.
One of the most important neurotransmitters involved in influencing our emotions is dopamine, responsible for craving and desire. This natural drug can be promoted through physical intimacy and leads to the addictive nature of a new relationship. Of course, dopamine is just one player in a chemical symphony that motivates behavior. Intimate encounters also promote the release of oxytocin, which creates a sense of attachment and affection, and epinephrine, which boosts our heart rate and reduces stress. There’s also a decrease in serotonin, which can lead to obsessive thoughts and feelings about the other person.
In fact, one study showed that people who report that they’ve just “fallen in love” have levels of serotonin similar to patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. This chemical cocktail can even lead to trouble sleeping or a loss of appetite – symptoms people often attribute to meeting “the one.”
Our noses also play a powerful role in who we fall for. The famous “sweaty t-shirt experiment” reported that a man’s natural scent may influence how women choose a partner. The women in the study nearly always expressed a preference for the odor of men who differed genetically from them in immune response to disease. Scientists theorize that selecting someone with genetic diversity in this region, called the major histocompatibility complex, could be important for producing children with flexible and versatile immune systems.
A kiss can make or break it
While a man’s natural scent may not be something women consciously notice early on in a heterosexual relationship, getting up close and personal can serve as a kind of litmus test for a couple. A kiss puts two people nose to cheek, offering a reliable sample of smell and taste unrivaled by most other courtship rituals. Perhaps that’s one reason a 2007 University of Albany study reported that 59% of men and 66% of women have broken off a budding romance because of a bad first kiss.
Complicating matters, factors that typically grab our attention in person are less obvious to recognize in a witty profile or photo. Studies of online dating behavior reveal superficial features are correlated with the level of interest an individual receives. For example, short-haired women do not tend to get as much attention from men as those with long, straight hair, while men who report a height of six-foot-three or six-foot-four fare better than their peers at interacting with women. The initial focus on appearance promotes pairing based on characteristics that aren’t significant in lasting relationships, compared with more important factors for long-term compatibility, like intimacy and shared experiences.
Still, at a time when many of us are feeling more isolated than ever, online dating does offer some benefits. Quarantine has encouraged men and women to take additional time to learn about each other prior to meeting, sparing the anxiety of rushed physical intimacy.
For some couples, a real-world date will kindle the spark that began online. Many others will realize they’re better suited as friends.
I seriously dated a brother in Christ last year who happened to be a divorcée. Before then, I never thought much about divorce–let alone remarriage. Frankly, I didn’t know what either of these meant from a faith-based perspective.
I honestly didn’t think it mattered.
Yet, as I began to pray, study God’s word and talk with Christian peers who have experienced divorce and remarriage, I came to realize that my courtship could not move toward matrimony.
Don’t get me wrong. Being divorced isn’t an automatic deal-breaker for me. But I do believe there are important spiritual and practical matters to consider when dating Christians who have been previously married.
KNOW WHAT GOD SAYS ABOUT DIVORCE
God tells us in no uncertain terms that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). God’s perfect will is that divorce never occurs because husband and wife are ONE flesh in His eyes (Matthew 19:3-6). It is His intention that marriage be for life and that no man separate what He has joined together. Ultimately, the law of marriage is a bond that should only be broken by death (1 Corinthians 7:39; Romans 7:2).
CONSIDER THE STATISTICS
Statistics show that remarriages have a higher fail rate. While 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, the number rises to 67 percent for second marriages (and 73 percent for third marriages). These increases are due to remarriages entered into on the rebound, spousal comparisons, children, and individuals not being fully healed from their previous unions.
These stats don’t mean a remarriage can’t succeed. But you must know what you’re up against so that you can watch for the stumbling blocks; then proceed with wisdom, caution, and lots of prayer.
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING INTO
Marriage is a blessing, but as my friend Trish admits, “It’s hard.” This is especially the case with remarriages involving young children, she says. In fact, she finds the experience of her second marriage to be more challenging than her first. “No matter how bad a [first] marriage is–yes, even with adultery–when children are involved, it is best to forgive and reconcile [with your first spouse] than to remarry and try to blend a family in a new marriage,” Trish says when thinking of her own situation.
My friend Kathy, on the other hand, shares that her second marriage has been restorative. “My first marriage was a nightmare,” she recalls. Kathy’s first husband was unfaithful, abusive and manipulative. She was extremely reluctant to remarry after him.
When she met the man who would become her second husband, she thoroughly examined his character and was eventually won over by his faith in Christ and kind spirit.“He took to my children like they were his own, and my family loved him,” she says. “I fought remarriage until they wore me out.”
And after he proposed? “The ring stayed in the box for six months until God told me to stop acting silly.”
Yes, Christians should date with the intention to marry. Nevertheless, marriage isn’t possible if your intended belongs to another in God’s eyes. As we date those who have been previously married, ask questions to learn where they stand with Christ and in their previous marriages. Then, seek the Lord to determine if you would be permitted and willing to stand with them in holy matrimony—until death.
It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.
Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.
However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?
The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.
However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.
Fighting for Love
“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”
To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.
And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.
Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.
Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.
Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.
She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.
“Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”
After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.
Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.
Turning Off the Gaslight
Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.
“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”
Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.
As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .
Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”
As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.
“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.
Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).
In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.
It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?
That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.
Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.
Early on, relationships are easy. Everything is new and exciting. You go on dates, take trips, spend time together and intentionally cultivate experiences that allow your relationship to grow.
Then, somewhere along the way, life happens.
One study on married couples in their 30s and 40s found that their marital quality declined over the course of a year, in terms of love, passion, satisfaction, intimacy and commitment. Too often, people shrug their shoulders and convince themselves this is just how it goes. Switching to relationship autopilot feels justifiable when you’re short on time, low on energy and must focus on other priorities like careers and kids.
This is when doubt can creep in and tempt you to hit the reset button.
But maybe you’re being too hard on a perfectly good relationship. Every couple experiences ups and downs, and even the very best relationships take effort.
Rather than getting out, it’s time to get to work. Whether your relationship is already stuck in a rut, or you’re trying to avoid ending up in one, most people need to focus more on what happens between “I do” and “I don’t want to be with you anymore.” As a relationship scientist, I suggest the following four psychology research-based strategies to kickoff your relationship maintenance plan.
1. Use boredom as a pivot point
No one raises their hand and says, “Sign me up for a boring relationship.” But boredom serves a purpose. Like your phone indicating your battery is low, boredom is an early warning system that your relationship needs a recharge.
At different times, all relationships experience boredom. Psychology researcher Cheryl Harasymchuk and colleagues have explored how people react. For example, to turn things around when you’re bored, do you fall back on things that are familiar and make you feel self-assured, like taking a walk around the neighborhood? Or do you choose growth-enhancing activities – like going for a hike on a new trail in an unfamiliar park – to mix things up?
It turns out that study participants preferred growth-enhancing activities when they were bored, and when given a chance to plan a date, they incorporated more novelty into those outings. Rather than resigning yourself to boredom’s inevitability – “This is just how relationships are” – use boredom as a call to action.
2. Keep dating
Rather than wait for boredom to strike, couples would be wise to be more proactive. It’s a simple as continuing to date. Early in relationships, couples prioritize these one-on-one outings, but eventually begin to coast, just when the relationship could use an extra boost.
To recapture that early relationship magic, research shows that couples should engage in new, challenging and interesting activities. Rather than sitting at staring at your phones, couples should break their routine and try something different. It could be as simple as trying a new restaurant, or even a new dish at a favorite place.
Not only does branching out counteract boredom, but trying new things helps you grow as a person. All of this spills over into the relationship, increasing levels of passion, satisfaction and commitment.
In one study, researchers asked married couples either to play games like Jenga, Monopoly, Scrabble and UNO, or take an art class together. All couples increased their levels of oxytocin – the so-called “cuddle hormone” which helps partners bond. But the art class couples had larger oxytocin increases and touched each other more, perhaps because the activity was newer and further outside their comfort zone. That novelty may encourage them to rely on each other for assurance.
3. Movie nights
Not looking to dig out your oil paints? Here’s a lower key option: Grab a spot on the couch and have a couples movie night. Over the course of a month, researchers asked some couples to watch and discuss a romantic comedy such as “When Harry Met Sally,” while others did an intense relationship workshop. Fast forward three years, and the movie watchers were less likely to have broken up.
It probably isn’t just taking in any film, but rather that watching a romantic story gives couples a less threatening way to discuss relationship issues. It may also help them see their relationship differently. That’s important, because research from psychologist Eli Finkel and others shows that viewing your own relationship through completely neutral eyes helps couples hold off declines in marital quality.
4. Finding the bright spots
Activities are great, but you also need to do daily maintenance.
There’s an old adage in psychology research that “bad is stronger than good.” For relationships, that often means focusing on what’s wrong, while overlooking what’s right. Talk about self-defeating.
Write the story of their relationship, focusing on the positives, then share with their partner
Write a letter of gratitude to their partner
Identify their partner’s strengths and their strengths as a couple
Create a list of positive moments or activities partners want to share with each other. Pick one, and plan a time to do it
Create a desired happiness chart and discuss what small relationship tweaks can help make it a reality.
At the end of the month, compared to couples on the study’s waitlist, participants reported more positive emotions, better relationship functioning and improved communication. Another month later, their average relationship functioning remained better than that of the comparison group.
Few people enjoy cleaning, doing laundry or mowing the lawn. Yet, if you neglect those tasks, life quickly falls into disrepair. Your relationship is just the same. Rather than thinking about replacements when your relationship shows signs of wear, invest the time and energy into a little maintenance. Using any or all of these easy-to-implement strategies should not only help a relationship survive, but hopefully even thrive.
Let’s face it. Being single and Christian is hard. It’s even harder to find that person you want to spend the rest of your life with. There are so many factors to consider: age, personality, looks, and spirituality. It can all become a blur. How do you even figure out if someone is a match for you? What does God have to say about it? Here are five powerful secrets to finding Mr. or Mrs. right as a young Christian single.
The first thing to consider is whether you and the other person are serving the Lord. One of the first things I discovered about my wife was that we were both passionate about serving God and looked for ways to bless others.
In fact, I met my wife preparing for a short-term mission trip. The funny thing is it wasn’t love at first sight for either of us. We continued to serve together at different times and in different places for about four years.
One day I looked up and I realized we were spending a lot of time together and I had stars in my eyes.
You can’t find the right person for you if you are putting on a mask in public. The person you attract will be drawn to the mask and not the real you.
So don’t be afraid to share your real opinions about things. Put your likes and dislikes on full display.
Yes, some people will be repelled but the right people will be drawn to you. Now, don’t get me wrong.
You don’t want a clone of yourself who thinks and believes the same way you do. You want someone who will be attracted to your authentic self.
Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
I grew up in a small storefront church in Los Angeles. Most of my family still attends this church.
My heart will always be there, but staying within this circle made my choices for a mate slim.
Once I got out and started becoming involved in leading a Bible study on campus, and eventually going overseas on short-term mission trips, the dating pool started to widen.
I started meeting different people and more people who were going in the same direction I was going. That all started with me stepping outside of my comfort zone.
Decide That You are Dating to Marry
This should be a no-brainer for Christians but oftentimes we just date people because we don’t want to be alone.
I can remember hearing a sermon about marriage and being a single Christian man. The pastor said that if we’re not going to a hostile mission field or secluding ourselves in the Amazon jungle to find a cure for cancer we need to plan to get married.
That basically put me on blast and I started actively seeking to find the wife God had for me.
Be willing to let go
The last secret is this: Be willing to let go. Sometimes the person you are dating is not the right person.
Still many people go on dating someone when they know that they don’t want to be with this person for the rest of their life.
There are more red flags than a Chinese political rally yet the person still holds out hope that maybe they will change. Most of the time they will not.
It’s best to stop holding on to hope that this person will change their ways or their basic personality traits. When you do that your perspective on the situation changes.
You begin to compromise. You want the relationship to work so badly that you will do anything to make it happen.
Eventually, either you both move on after wasting time or you end up marrying them and committing to a person who is not for you.