Faith Unleavened: The Wilderness Between Trayvon Martin & George Floyd by Tamice Spencer Helms

Summary: A memoir of how Tamice Spencer Helms came to faith in Jesus, but then how she had to disentangle white culture and Jesus. 

On the front end of this, I want to say that I have all kinds of tangential connections to Tamice Spencer-Helms, but I have never met her, and I am not sure that I have previously read anything by her. Faith Unleavened is the first book by the new KFT Press, which grew out of the Emotionally Healthy Activist project by Jonathan Walton at Intervarsity. An acquaintance also used to work with Tamice, so I was aware of the work of Sub:culture, which Tamice founded, and I started following her on Twitter because of her connection with my acquaintance. But I do not know Tamice, and while I am aware of or was connected to many of the organizations and events mentioned in the book, again, there are no direct connections. I say this partially because of the fact that reviews and endorsements have been a topic of discussion lately, and I want to disclose my relationship at the front.

I am a big fan of memoirs because while one person’s story is never exactly the same as another person’s story, one of the advantages of our current world is that we can learn from people’s stories and try not to make the exact same mistakes. We will make new mistakes, but when it is possible to learn from others, we should. I have been interested in the role of trauma, and disillusionment plays in spiritual formation because I am a spiritual director and need to grapple with my own disillusionment about Christianity.

I started reading Faith Unleavened immediately after finishing All My Knotted Up Life by Beth Moore. Both have trauma and disillusionment and working out who Jesus is for them over time. But the connections matter, as well as the differences. Tamice grew up in the Black church within a healthy family. Beth grew up in a White SBC church within a dysfunctional and abusive household. Tamice was convinced by white teenage friends that her faith and family were inadequate and that she had to reject the Black church and, in some sense, her family to find a deeper faith. In contrast, Beth found a church community that supported her and helped her find a way out of her abuse. In both cases, however, there was a limit, and they needed to discover a new faith expression because of the limitations of churches that were unwilling to allow them to be whole Christians in the ways that they felt called.

I wish either of these stories were new to me, but they are not. Abuse and cultish, authoritarian, culturally inappropriate expressions of faith are common. The ongoing discussion about the social realities of sin makes no sense to readers of either of these memoirs. Sin is rarely only harmful to an individual. And sin frequently impacts people even if there were good intentions.

Tamice, as a teen, went to a Hell House gospel presentation where she was confronted with images of hell and sin and manipulated into praying for salvation. The (white) youth pastor literally was dressed up as Jesus to save her at the end of the “play.” And for well over a decade after that night as a teen, she grappled with how white culture was confused with Christianity. She was all in following the White Jesus that she was told was necessary for her to be saved. In a podcast interview with KFT Press she summarized that the Hell House used fear to manipulate her. And then, once she was saved, fear became a driving force in manipulating her to do the next thing: drop out of college to work in a prayer ministry, vote in a particular way, live a particular lifestyle, etc.

I am paraphrasing here, but in the podcast, she said, “I was made to see that Jesus was a white man and that I was a Black woman. I could not be a white man, so there was no way to come to Jesus because I could not live up to the requirements.” This echoes the point of Willie James Jennings’ book After Whiteness on theological education. If we theologically shape people to be white men, then we are distorting people into a shape that God did not create them to be. (This, again, is part of the reality of the problems of that article at The Gospel Coalition this week, where the gospel becomes distorted by creating hierarchies where some people are more like Christ than others.) When we create requirements for people first to change before they can come to Christ, we are fundamentally distorting the message of Christianity, which is that all may come to Christ.

I do not want to make this post more about other things and not about Faith Unleavened, but Faith Unleavened was clarifying for me because it so clearly lays out the reality of why it matters that we explore the cultural constraints of our faith. It is a requirement that Christians, especially Christian leaders, expose themselves to cross-cultural Christianity so that they can see at least some of the ways that our cultural expressions of Christianity distort Christianity and how that directly harms them. In the case of Tamice, part of white Jesus was also gender hierarchy, which directly impacted her because she thought that submitting to her husband included submitting to his abuse. It directly impacted her when she turned to alcohol and drugs to dull pain because she could not contort herself to become a white man.

Toward the front of the book, she tells the story of how she would regularly come to a church that left out the communion elements and take communion by herself after the service. She was often still hung over or sometimes took a drink to get up to courage to go to church for communion.

Sitting there alone on that creaky, wooden pew, my heart felt frozen as if I were witnessing a tragedy but I couldn’t even tell which way was up, let alone save myself. I went back and forth between missing Jesus and resenting him. I loved him and I doubted his existence. I identified as an atheist at least twice a week and still resorted to certain worship musicians when days were particularly dark. I had no idea where I was when it came to Christianity, but for some reason I never stopped taking communion. It was special to me. It was what I remembered most from my earliest days in church. I was drawn and driven to the mystery and tenderness of it. It felt like home in a way. It held space for me. Every week was the same as I wept and whispered some variation of the phrases: I think I still believe. I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what happened. I still love you. I can’t do this. Please don’t make me go back.

The central metaphor of the book is leaven. In the Exodus story, God asks the people to give up Leaven in their bread as part of what became the Passover. God didn’t ask them to give up bread, just the leaven.

Unleavened bread symbolized the delineation between the people of Yahweh and the Empires all around them. Jacob and his family went to Egypt in search of bread and ended up in bondage. It was the same for me. My experience in white evangelicalism started with a spiritual hunger that the yeast of whiteness almost ruined over time. As I began recognizing and extracting the poisonous and putrid ideologies and belief systems that animated the Jesus I met there, I got free. Freedom happened for me the same as it did for the Hebrews: with a call to unleaven the bread of life.

In the metaphor, the leaven is Whiteness. She defines that as, “Whiteness is an ideology that normalizes the practices, beliefs, perspectives, and culture of white people so that they are the unspoken standard by which everything else is measured. In other words, it is the normalizing of white supremacy.” By Whiteness, she does not mean white skin. She does not need to leave all white people to find faith. She has to leave the cultural belief of white superiority, where Jesus was culturally white, and where the white cultural choices were normative so that all need to become culturally white to become Christian.

The book is well written. And I think many will find help to see the problems of hierarchical Christianity. At the same time, I know many will reject parts of the book because they will reject some of her choices. The problem is that, as she demonstrates, Christians often have problems because they reject people instead of ideas. When Tamice divorced her abusive husband, many of her (white) Christian friends rejected her because they saw continuing to be in a relationship with her as a denial of their understanding of Christianity. The abuse was less important than upholding the cultural ideal of marriage. Or in other words, the health and safety of Tamice as a person was less important than the theoretical ideal represented by marriage, even if the particular marriage that Tamice was in did not live up to that ideal.

I have a few more quotes on my Goodreads page. Faith Unleavened is short. Only about 150 pages, but it is a helpfully clarifying book. I recommend it.

Faith Unleavened: The Wilderness Between Trayvon Martin & George Floyd by Tamice Spencer Helms Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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