To the Lord.
“My faith is the difference between living a God-destined life compared to just surviving,” she said. “It makes me learn something about myself ... it further establishes me in who I am as a person. God has seen me through every situation in life and I know (God) will always be there. Without that faith ... I don’t know.”
Mays, an associate pastor at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Muncie, an historically black church in the city, identifies herself as a Christian, a Baptist, if you want to be more precise.
For her, religion is not a Sunday-only affair. It is not about getting dressed up and heading to the large building on Macedonia Avenue, although that fellowship is part of her celebration.
Religion is an every day experience for Mays. And she’s not alone.
Black women reported as most religious group
Many Americans cope with their stresses and joys by relying on their faith. But black women have a different experience.
This summer, the Kaiser Family Foundation along with the Washington Post released its annual report on religion in America, describing black women in the nation as the most religious population.
Nearly 75 percent of black women said “living a religious life” — however they defined this — is very important to them, compared to 57 percent of white women.
Women across all racial and ethnic categories answered the question in higher numbers than men in the same racial or ethnic category, a pattern that has existed for decades.
During “tough times” — daily stressful occurrences, life-threatening events, overwhelming experiences — black women are more likely to rely on their faith to get through these periods.
Nearly nine out of 10 black women — 87 percent — said their faith was even more essential to them during times of turmoil.
Arguably one of the most famous black women in America — Oprah Winfrey — echoed this same sentiment during her visit to Muncie last month.
“The only way I knew how to handle it (beatings as a child), the only way I survived it, is knowing that Jesus loved me. That there was a power greater than myself that loved me,” she said during the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture series at Ball State University. “I don’t believe you go through adversity without believing in a power greater than yourself.”
There are presently no studies on religion in Delaware County that address race and ethnicity, but many black women in the area agreed with the study’s findings, pointing out their own connection with their faith.
“I’m a black woman in the Bible Belt ... yes, my religion is important to me,” said Carol Smith, laughing. Smith is a self-proclaimed devout Methodist. “I know we’re all a little more religious here than the rest of the country, except the South, but I just think church has meant more socially and civically to black Americans than other people. I think this report is right on.”
Feeling esteemed at church
This connection between black Americans and religion dates back to slavery, with the relationship gaining more strength during racially tense times in the United States.
The post-Reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras — when black Americans were treated as second-class citizens legally and socially — forced former slaves and their descendents to seek refuge in the church.
“If you were a maid in someone’s home, where were you going to go to be a leader? Church,” said Monique Armstrong, a self-identified Baptist. “I think that’s true for black women especially through American history. Being black and a woman meant you were being hit with double discrimination so where would you go to be where you feel supported? Where people would listen to you? Church.”
The church has primarily been Christian for black women, although Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist black women also have stronger connections to their organized religion of choice compared to other groups, according to the study.
Local black women — who are overwhelmingly Christian — have noted the church has been where they gained many of their leadership skills, whether it be public speaking, organizational techniques and more.
“We have to remember that Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and of course, many other incredible black women gained their foundation in the church,” said Maria Williams Hawkins, a member of the AME Church, the first African-American denomination in the United States. “Church has been a place for us to learn these skills, even today.
“The belief that there has to be something bigger and better than what is around us currently ... we have to have faith. We have faith that we can and will do better.”
Black women as leader of the religious journey
Mays always knew she was supposed to be a minister. She just wasn’t always interested in following that path.
Eventually, she listened to God’s call and became a licensed minister.
Once that choice was available to her.
“I was one of the first women at my church to become a licensed minister and I am very proud of that,” she said. “God calls and you answer. And now I see many more women preaching and ministering ... I’m very excited about that.”
Other Christian denominations have opened up their altars to women, allowing them to preach on Sundays, baptize those new to the faith and anointed the newly betrothed.
The pastor of Union Missionary Baptist Church, W.J. Jackson, recalls years back when he interpreted Scripture as not being welcome to female leadership, but those times have past.
“I can now see that, in my opinion, the interpretations my father, who was also a pastor, and his generation of pastors viewed may not have been completely correct,” he said. “I read it to be that men and women can preach the word. I’ve seen women do an amazing job many, many times and I’m glad we’ve welcomed women to follow God’s call.”
Jackson, having pastored for decades, has long noticed more women filling the pews of his church compared to their male peers. He agrees with the Kaiser study; he believes black women have especially strong relationships with their religions.
But he also thinks there is room for men to learn from these women.
“Women are more open about their feelings and build strong relationships that are supportive and encouraging ... the church has benefited so much from that strength,” he said. “I think if we, as church leaders, encouraged men to do the same and to let them know they are welcome at the church, we would see more men come to worship. We’re already seeing a change at Union.”
'Things will always get better'
At a time when the Pew Research study has shown more Americans stepping away from organized religion and choosing a more spiritual path, black women have become closer to their churches, temples, mosques and other houses of worship.
As Mays stated, church is not a one-day-a-week event for many. It is a daily “vitamin” that supports the body and soul.
The church has also been a spiritual outlet for black women who, having to deal with racism and sexism, have found a “home” to be themselves and celebrate their faith.
“The scriptures shape my expectations ... they remind me that there’s more to life than this,” Hawkins said. “Especially as a black woman. My faith reminds and probably many black women and many people in general that things will always get better. They have to. And it’s a blessing to understand that when you deal with the oppressions of the day.”