(RNS) — Christena Cleveland refuses to be placed in a box. Having built a career as a social psychologist and public theologian on the faculty of Duke Divinity School and with a busy speaking schedule, in 2019, Cleveland left her position and her talks on racial reconciliation behind to found the Center for Justice + Renewal to “stimulate people’s spiritual imaginations” through social activism.
She won’t box God in, either. Cleveland’s new book, “God Is a Black Woman,” disdains the image she renders as “whitemalegod,” embracing instead “Sacred Black Feminine.” The book, her third, is based on her 2018 pilgrimage through central France to see for herself an enduring manifestation of the feminine Black divine: the Black Madonna.
There are more than 450 statues around the globe of dark-skinned Madonnas, most more than 1,000 years old and many of them connected to miracles. Their origins are obscure, but it is suspected that far back in Europe’s past they are fused with goddesses of Egyptian or Greek culture. They contrast sharply with the gilt-framed portrait of white Jesus that Cleveland remembered seeing in the Black Pentecostal church that her grandfather pastored when she was a child.
Her non-white, nonexclusive sense of the divine is a key to freeing herself and others, she said, especially Black women, to worship as they wish and start healing from past trauma and stereotypes. The writer, who lives in Boston, views her new work as in line with the enslaved women of the 19th century who met in secret “hush harbor” religious gatherings, combining Christian and ancestral African traditions, and with the womanist theologians of today who focus on Black women’s experiences.
Cleveland, 41, said that her explorations have made her “more of a theist than I ever have been. But my understanding of God is not what most people would say is orthodox Christianity.”
The woman who said her Church of God in Christ roots taught her to expect “God to show up” says she now sees God in everything, not just in the corporate worship she observes with different online communities:
“In a breath, in a smile, in a leaf on a tree and so I think the more that I connect with the Sacred Black Feminine, the more I do understand that the entire cosmos is her body and I find her more and more in people, and in faces and in nature and in questions,” she said. “Any time I’m intentionally turned toward her, I would call that worship.”
Cleveland, 41, talked to Religion News Service about how she has reshaped her theology, why Black Madonnas are like Marvel superheroes, and whether she thinks God can be viewed as a trans Black woman.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to be interested in the Black Madonna?
In 2016, in the wake of President Trump’s election, I started looking for images of God that were not of a white man, specifically were of a Black woman. My first encounter (with a Black Madonna) was that my questions and my longings about God were real. Here’s an image of God that can relate to these questions. And it was kind of an instant kinship.
People might assume that Black Madonnas are solely embraced by Catholics. How would you describe who seeks them and why?
Historically, people have sought out the Black Madonna on pilgrimage because they needed something: because they were sick, they were about to go to war and were afraid, their village had been ransacked. More often than not, people would come to pray to them and with them for help. In a way I think that’s still true, in the sense that most of the people, at least from my research, who seek out the Black Madonna are refugees in some way, sometimes from spiritual communities.
You describe the Black Madonna as God who is for and with Black women. Why do you see her as God, rather than the mother of Jesus?
There’s some research that suggests that Mary was given the name Mother of God as sort of a patriarchal concession because people actually believed that she was the goddess. So for example, many of the Black Madonnas, their churches and their sacred sites are built on top of existing pagan sites that were devoted to Cybele or Isis or Demeter.
Of the Black Madonnas you visited, which meant the most to you?
It’s like asking a parent which one is their favorite kid. Of the ones in my book, I keep returning to the Black Madonna of Vichy, who’s called Our Lady of the Sick. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I find that I need her message more often than the others: “It’s OK to breathe, Christena. It’s OK to make a mistake, Christena. It’s OK to be human. It’s OK to just say ‘I can’t.’ It’s actually your mess that you’re offering to me.” It unraveled everything about the strong Black woman in me, that this society says you have to be strong, you have to be like a fortress. And she’s that fortress for me.
Part of what drove you in this spiritual direction was the killing of unarmed Black people by police. You looked for ways to feel safe and have hope. Traveling through the French landscape, looking for Black Madonnas, did you feel safe?
To me, solitude is not scary. The unknown is not scary. The wilderness is not scary. To me, anti-Black, anti-woman structures are scary. Any time I rubbed up against one of those, like when I wanted to touch the Black Madonna and the alarms went off, that’s when I was scared. But just being in the unknown, and not knowing, “Hey, exactly how am I going get home tonight from this journey?” — that’s not really scary to me.
You compare Black Madonnas to Marvel superheroes because they are known for specific powers. What are a couple of examples of those?
Miracles are attributed to these Black Madonnas. There are examples (where) the plague is coming towards a village and they put the Black Madonna at the village gates and the plague passes their village. Nobody gets sick.
You gravitated to what you call the “Sacred Black Feminine.” How does that differ from the picture of a white Jesus in your grandfather’s Church of God in Christ congregation that, in retrospect, caused you concern?
As a child, I would sit in my grandfather’s church, a fairly large church. And the image of Jesus would not only be a white male, but it would also be distant for me, up there on the altar away from me. And if I’m good enough to have a reason to be up on that altar, then I can be close to him. The immanence of the Sacred Black Feminine sort of reverses that whole idea, and she comes to me. There’s nothing I need to do to belong on that altar. There’s no altar between us. I am an altar.
Some of your visits to Black Madonnas were in pouring rain or other stormy weather. Did that make the pilgrimage harder or more meaningful?
Both. The practice of pilgrimage has taught me to let go of what the outcome is going to be. I think all the rainy days, I think the setbacks, I think showing up at churches and it being locked and not being able to get in — those were all themes that helped me to let go and to realize it really isn’t the destination. At the end of the day, I have to just be OK with what happened.
Near the end of your book you write: “For if God is a Black woman, then She’s a Black trans woman. Obviously.” How did you come to that conclusion?
Recognizing the intersectionality of “whitemalegod” really helped me to recognize the intersectionality of Black female God. We can’t compartmentalize the divine. Looking at the intersectionality, the Blackness and the femaleness of the “Sacred Black Feminine” invited me to look at the other intersections that could be at play, that maybe I don’t personally relate to, but are part of the human story, and the human story in our relationship with God. It’s not just women. Anybody can embody this feminine. Obviously, nonbinary and trans people are included.