Yesterday was the homegoing celebration of the Queen of Soul- Aretha Franklin. As to be expected, it was a star-studded event with celebrities coming out to celebrate the life of one of the greatest voices this world has ever known. Singer, Ariana Grande, took the stage to sing a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s hit song, Natural Woman, dressed in a black mini dress and stilettos. After her performance, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III made an off-color joke because according to him when he saw Ariana’s name on the program he, “Thought that was a new something at Taco Bell.” As if that comment was not rude enough, as he is saying this, his hand is around Ariana’s upper back with his fingertips caressing the side of Ariana’s breast.
I watched the video of their interaction repeatedly. I almost couldn’t believe a bishop would fondle a woman at a funeral that was being broadcast around the world for a woman who sung a hit song about respecting women and giving women their proper dues. And here at Aretha’s funeral, Ariana awkwardly stood on stage as a man mocked her name and fondled her.
— arianauptades (@bibledrugs) August 31, 2018
The negative reaction on social media was swift, and Bishop Ellis III issued an apology stating, “It would never be my intention to touch any woman’s breast. I don’t know I guess I put my arm around her. Maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar but again, I apologize. I hug all the female artists and the male artists. Everybody that was up, I shook their hands and hugged them. That’s what we are all about in the church. We are all about love.”
All about love. That’s what it always is, isn’t it? Unwanted advances disguised as good old fashion Godly love.
I thought about my own experiences in church as a member and as an employee of a church for almost 20 years. I remember it was an older woman that took me aside in an empty sanctuary and taught me about the “church hug” – a hug where a woman embraces a man in such a way to prevent her body from pressing up against the man’s body; it is often enacted by the woman to stop a man from inappropriately touching her. Sometimes the woman will turn her body slightly during the embrace to make sure her lower body never comes into contact with the man’s body. I remember this woman standing up in the sanctuary demonstrating the church hug with me. I was in my 20’s and I was being educated on how to hug a man in church. When I think about it now, it almost doesn’t seem believable. At the time it seemed over the top for something as mundane as a hug to cause issues, but I understood it was her way of protecting me.
It was a way of survival in a space that was dominated by men.
It was a way of survival in a space where women fought to have agency over their bodies.
It was a way of survival in a space where women were shamed for wearing a dress above the knees.
It was a way of survival in space where women learned their bodies were something they should feel ashamed of if their hips were too full, asses too round and their breasts too big.
It was a way of survival in a space where many women were first sexually assaulted.
This was years before the #MeToo Movement, so this was her way of making me aware that men would attempt to touch me inappropriately all in the name of Christian love. It was her way and perhaps the only way she knew at the time, to protect me from what she knew would be coming. Maybe at her age, she had seen it all before. She had heard the unwelcomed advances. She saw the eyes darting down to her cleavage. She felt the hands roaming over her body in the name of Godly fellowship. She understood how it felt when an embrace lasted too long. She understood kisses on the cheek that came dangerously close to the lips. And she was trying to keep me from going through that by showing me a way to shield my body from unwanted advances that were cloaked in the guise of friendly fellowship or passing the love.
I spent years performing the church hug as if I was to blame for men wanting to touch my body. Somehow it became my responsibility to figure out how to keep men from groping me. Church was one of the first places I learned to be self-conscious about the way my body looked and fit into clothes. In church, I discovered it was my fault if men found me sexual. One day I wondered why was I carrying all that around? I realized that it wasn’t unchristian to own my space and my body even in the church. If I didn’t want to hug someone, I didn’t have to. It didn’t make me Judas to refuse to allow people to touch me. It took me years, but finally I realized that is was okay for me to speak up when I felt uncomfortable. I do not want your lap shawl to cover my kneecaps so that men won’t have inappropriate thoughts. It didn’t make me less of a Christian to not allow men to feel me up during a hug. I have the right to say who is in my space and how my body is treated in that space. It took me far too long to realize that and took me even longer to realize the church has a responsibility to stop this behavior.
It is time for a shift.
The time is long overdue for the church to admit its complicity in the sexual abuse, harrassment and assault of women. It is time for the church to admit how its dated doctrine has vilified women and labeled us as too sexual, too grown, too shapely, too fast. It is time for the church to realize its teachings have made women keep deep secrets all in the name of “protecting the man of God” and the church. It is time for the church to recognize that “passing the love” opens up the door for unwanted touching. It is time for the church to stop using scripture to justify silencing women when we are dying to shout.
While at the time I appreciated the older woman pulling me to the side to teach me the “church hug,” now I wonder how different it could be if we taught men not to use the church as a feeding ground for groping women? What if the church took the time to teach men how not to prey? It’s time to stop using dated doctrine to shame women for the way our bodies are shaped. Maybe it is time to do away with “passing the love” and understand that everyone is not comfortable being touched. It is time for pastors to stop using their positions for predatory behavior. Keep your church hug-giving women our propers will do just fine. In the church, it is time to give women what Aretha Franklin would have demanded Bishop Ellis III, and all pastors give Ariana Grande and all women- some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.