Remember a couple weeks ago when I saw “For Colored Girls…” as a play, for the first time? (If not, click here.) There was this moment in the “green room” (which was not green, just a conference room where the held the actresses/ hosts/experts, etc.) where 30-40 Black women needed to rehearse the closing song and in unison this entire room of Black grown women with these big, trained voices start wailing, “I saw God in myself” over and over and over.
Ok. So that’s what pops in my head when we—Me + Alex, Javier, and Dash (all American-born Panamanians who moved back to Panama)—pull up to Iglesia San Felipe, the Portobelo church where “El Cristo Negro” aka “El Nazareno” aka the Black Christ is housed 364 days a year. (On October 21, he’s carried around the town.) I’m nervous. And I’m not sure why. It’s like I’m going to meet someone and it’s a big deal, not like I’m going to see a statue.
The group I’m with has seen the statue before, several times. It’s not that they’re unimpressed, it’s that the novelty isn’t there anymore. That and they’ve seen the annual celebration El Cristo Negro, which means they’ve watched people crawl to Black Christ while someone else poured hot wax on their back for penance. After that, just seeing the statue of Black Jesus behind a glass, no less, doesn’t have the same “umph!”
But me? Look it, Linda, listen, I didn’t know about Black Christ in Panama, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter (this isn’t the only one). And I did my research on Panama. I Googled ish, and I read travel blogs, and I bought a book about Panama and I brushed up on my Spanish (not enough), and I asked Panamanians where to go and what to do and nothing I read and no one I talked to mentioned Black Jesus.
A commenter on Instagram (@jenniferrosenyc) is actually the one who put me on when I started posting #abelleinpanama pics. She mentioned the statue and I was like, “Huh? WHAT?!” and looked it up and then totally –excuse the phrasing, but it sums up my thoughts so accurately— lost my entire sh—. I was up until 2 AM reading up on Black Jesus. Then I re-arranged my whole trip to see it, or, er, them. There are two.
Lemme explain. My grandfather was a Pastor and his wife was the First Lady and the choir director and the organist. I spent every summer with them, these super religious people, until I was 12. They were the type of Old Christians that didn’t allow R&B played in their house—my grandmother confiscated by Babyface cassette because of the lyrics to “Whip Appeal”— and didn’t allow women to wear pants to church, even for choir rehearsal.
On my grandmother’s bedroom wall, the ONLY picture hanging was of white Jesus—blonde-haired, blue eyed Jesus— in prayer. The Jesus? I got it because she was very religious. But White Jesus? It just never made sense to me. I mean, we’s Black. Shouldn’t our Jesus look like us?
And I didn’t know why I thought that until much, much later when I was taught to think critically and over analyze everything so you can catch other folks with the okey-doke, but not get caught yourself: I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” when I was “too” young. That whole NOI bit about white folk being made in labs and their theft stuck with me (less so the lab part). The idea that criminal-minded Black men learned about a God in their image and had a come to Jesus, or er, Allah moment and turned their lives around enough to put on suits and bow ties to stand in the hot ass sun selling newspapers and bean pies meant there was something to the idea of a God who looked like you. I mean Malcolm X was a white-woman humping, borderline devil-pimp and look what he became after he was introduced to the idea of God in his own image? There’s something to it. It’s why every race of people—except Black folk—have it and promote it. When you see God in yourself, you act different. You act better. You think better of yourself. You don’t accept being treated as inferior.
I made that connection as a kid even if I couldn't articulate it well. But I did enough to convince my folks— the ones who bought the Malcolm X book and put it on the shelf, so it wasn’t really far-fetched— to buy one of those “Last Supper” paintings with Black Jesus as the host, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey as disciples and put it on the wall in the living room. But my mama still got up every Sunday and went to a church with a Black minister and an entirely Black congregation in an nearly all Black city that had Big White Jesus, arms out stretched and welcoming you at the entrance in the middle of the hood, ie, where Black people lived. My Dad, raised in the church, didn’t “do” church anymore by then. “Well, Daddy doesn’t go” wasn’t ever a good enough excuse to get me out of going, but when I said, “I’m not going to a church with a white Jesus on the wall” my mother didn’t have a comeback and relented, so I slept in after that.
The Bible I grew up on describes Jesus with hair like wool and feet like brass and this must mean Jesus is Black, or the very least brown. This is my pet topic, has been for years. It pisses people off. Folks, Black folks, hit me back with, “I know, but…” and then talk about how Jesus’s color doesn’t matter. (A woman hit me with it yesterday when I started posting Black Jesus pics on Instagram). But it does matter. That’s why the reigning image of Jesus wherever white folks dominate the culture looks like them and not at all how He’s described in the Holy Bible. You can’t recognize Jesus – and by default God and his mama—as Black, and then be A-OK with treating Black people like sh---while Christopher Columbus-ing all their labor/land/resources.
Black Jesus matters. And I thought for a really long time that maybe I was kinda off for making such a big deal about it. There's that, and maybe I’m not the right messenger. Like, I know I talk about relationships and dating a lot, and I’m on a reality TV show, an occupation which like no one I respect actually respects, and I occasionally write about utter drivel (that gets hits). I realize many people think I’m fluff. And sometimes I am. But I’m also borderline Nas on “No Introduction”:
I just act like I'm civilized Really what's in my mind is organizing a billion Black motherf--uckers To take over JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs And teach the world facts and give Saudi they oil back
Black Jesus in Portebelo and the Black folk in Panama who have been acknowledging his awesomeness for 350+ years is the sign I’m not crazy, or some Black revolutionary without a real cause. El Cristo Negro is an affirmation of my sanity. And that's why I'm nervous. It's like you believe something your whole life and there's no proof (ie, faith), everyone you know says you're nuts for harping on it, and then one day you get validation. You're not the only one. I also feel relieved.
So I go in to the church and I walk up to the candles in front of Black Jesus, and look up. And then I walk around them, and walk right up to the bottom of the stairs. He’s at the top, and He’s looking out and I’m still looking up and I take a bunch of pictures from different angles because I know I’m putting this on Instagram and I want all the new follows who thought they were just going to look at the clothes and big hair of some random chick on reality TV who talks and curses and rolls her eyes at dumb sh-- “too much”, to actually get something out of paying attention to me, something that actually matters. A God in their image matters.
In case you were wondering why I do it, reality TV is my "motherf--er."
Dash asks me if I want to take a picture with Jesus. It would require me to go up the steps and stand close to him, at the same level. I don’t want to.
It’s partly because… well, I’ve spent several days going in and out of Panamanian churches on my trek around Casco Viejo and I’ve noticed something. American and European depictions of Jesus make him look sad, but stoic, a level-head when everyone around him is losing theirs. Jesus is nailed to the cross with a crown of thorns, but there’s no blood. And Jesus looks he’s accepting his fate, taking his crucifixion like a G. In Panama though? He looks tortured and miserable and suffering. There’s blood gushing down his face. And many of the Jesus—it’s plural like “deer” and “fish”, right?— I see are life-size. So not, 3 foot carved statue of Jesus where you can be like, "oh, a figurine of Jesus", but like 6-foot- plus Jesus who looks too-human, in pain, bloody and with weave/wig hair. He didn’t just die for our sins; He was cut down to the white meat and drawn-out tortured for us can’t act right, insufferable a--holes so we better be REALLY thankful for Him. So nah, I’m good on getting close to suffering, real-person looking Jesus who looks like he could reach out and smite someone.
There’s that and, I don’t want to be equal with Jesus, even in pictures. We’re not the same, not on the same level. Today, in this moment, despite being raised in the church, I feel like I just met Jesus for the first time. I actually feel connected to God. I like looking up. I like respecting something, someone bigger than myself. I've been walking around since I saw the statue feeling like Jesus walks with me, and it's not some guy who looks like someone I would like never hang out with (I don't have any white male friends); this Jesus actually looks like one my homeboys. No, really. I've joked for years that one of my best friends looks like "Black Jesus". I was on to something.
So yeah, I ain’t setting foot in a Black church with a White Jesus again.
And I’m also not saying I’m completely changed person.
After we left Portobelo, we headed to Isla Grande, a little island, a five minute ride off the mainland. We convinced the “driver” of the boat to take us to the beach by the other Black Jesus. Yes there are two, because this group of Black folk in Colon apparently love themselves some God in their own image. The Other Jesus is crucified, strung up on a cross in the middle of the ocean. I went into the water and took a bunch of pictures of him while humming Marvin Sapp songs and sipping from a red cup.
I’m a work in progress.