Hollering in the Sanctuary: Can You Hear Me?

by Sevonna M. Brown

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

I Corinthians 6:15

From the pulpit to the kitchen table, it was a saying and a sacred text. It compelled my hands to rise and fall in polarity as a young girlone pulling up my blouse over underdeveloped eleven year old cleavage, and the other, simultaneously, yanking stretchy skirts down my legs beyond wide blooming hips and fat knees. I found myself contorting to fit into clothes that did not fit around the holiness required of me. I was forced to constantly fix, and pull, and adjust my presentation. Holiness was like a giant bubble that I couldn’t wrap my arms around, and it refused to hug me back.

On a regular basis I would hear “your body is a temple” move from my grandmother’s lips, especially on Sunday afternoons after a sermon’s altar call brought young women deemed prostitutes and jezebels to the front of the church for prayer and repentance. The way I interpreted it, my temple was holy, and it was the part of my life where I was, and ought to be, one with God.

As I was one with God, a member of God’s body, my body was a sanctuary. It was one ordained to live and also walk in the Spirit realm. I was also expected to penetrate the world with the unsung gospels of His grace and mercyall of this simultaneously. This required me to flee from immoral sins and sexuality; to acknowledge the God who created me and therefore indwells me, and to honor God with and through my body.

The temple, this sanctuary, was to be humble, meek, and mildvoid of sin and anointed so that the Holy Spirit might reside in me. My grandmother preached this scripture until she was blue in the face, breaking out into hymns and getting up on her feet as testimony that even with pain her body was the temple of Christ. In her eldership, her purity was understood. Even if she didn’t desire to, she sat—and sits—on a pedestal of matriarchy at the church. As a young girl, my purity or innocence was to be assumed, but more importantly preserved.

I learned to receive the Word, and this scripture in particular, in every aspect of my life.  These theologies came at me from all sides: my mother’s sisters affirmed this message, silently pulling up white, opaque pantyhose over my legs just before church; Sunday school teachers generated juvenile adaptations of the message so that it would not fall on deaf ears but instead be interpreted abundantly by church-going-children; my Father’s persistent criticism of my clothing choices abrasively delivered the memory of body shame I experienced as a little girl through adolescence. I humbly and quietly received this message and internalized it into my temple, my sanctuary. The holiness bubble enshrouded me, yet I did not seem to fit inside.

And what my grandmotherand any other Homileticians of this particular Worddid not know, is that I was actually hollering in the sanctuary.

As an infant and toddler, I was repeatedly sexually abused within my childhood home. Much of this trauma left me feeling disembodied, disallowing the resonance of the scripture’s message to settle with me completely. Although I received this Word quietly,  my insides were screaming for a merciful reply to aid my understanding; if this is my temple, how can another violate it so unannounced, repeatedly, and relentlessly?

I wanted to hear from God. Did He hear me? Beneath the chambered walls and the foggy stained glass windows of violence partnered with intimacy, I was hollering. Numb atrocities burdened themselves on my innocent joints and brought aches I could not articulate.  I sought to jump from the top floor and break loose from the invisible chains of fear, shame, and unholiness.

My small thumbs crawled between cushions in the living room sofa where cries and screams muffled against a backdrop of abusive yet memorable sunsets like repentances find their way between pews on Sundays during evening service. Even after each episode was over I sat there frozen, and lifeless. I waited there, countless times, for someone to hear me hollerin’ in the sanctuary.

At a young age my temple was betrayed before my agency was even introduced. My harm-doer informs me that the violences began at the age of two. The abuse went on for years and each day I was fearful. Those stolen years are still hard to get back.

I am now 22 years old and yet the terror of infant thighs against manly eyes jolts me awake at night.

Now years beyond the opening chapters of this violation, I pour out a call for recognition and affirmation, screams behind the organ’s chords of my body’s temple vibrate a continued hollerin’ in the sanctuary.

It is said by my family members that as a baby I used to cry tirelessly and nothing would quiet me down. No bottle, no diaper change, nor soft hands could soothe. My sanctuary was on fire but there were no fire trucks on the way to tame the flames or wash the smoke out.

Can’t you see the billows from a mile away? My infant spirit would weep in a silent holler from inside the temple.  Isn’t the fire of God, that Holy Ghost that we all know, supposed the cleanse this temple, this holy place? Instead, I was left feeling dirty, like damaged goods that needed fixin’.

When I look at photographs from my infancy I can identify this hollering. I know just what it looks like: the tears and irritated rosy cheeks were diagnosed as an allergy to milk (which I magically no longer have). I was drowning in tears, but during my adolescent years I would choke the tears with laughter. I learned how to sing and how to read well; anything to twist the memories backwards into a rope that could cover my eyes and ears until I couldn’t hear my own spiritual hollers and screams anymore.

What were my other symptoms? Did anyone attempt to read me? Were my chubby little fingers pruned from suckling and self-soothing? Was my rosy rash a manifestation of stress and trauma sending flashing lights and red flags to my mother that she could never decipher? Did my legs bow or did my frame shatter open; presenting a portrait of my trauma that surpassed special occasions or the attention of any concerned auntie or discerning grandmother?

How was there so much hollering in the sanctuarythe temple bred to be so sweet and pure upon the confession of faiththat no one could hear all the noise? Where were you? I beg.

Most recently I have attempted to listen to the sirens of my own heartto remember, to wallow, and to wade in my own baptism of my truth. Bruised melodies sing to me as I look back upon pictures from my childhood; fat round lips that could not speak, but a spirit broken into a wail that could not be heard. Even God saw Jonah in the belly. Where was my God when my sanctuary was swallowed up into a beast that I could not give my mind consent to take down?

There are not many photos of me as a baby or a small childmaybe 4 or 5 that I have seen. Where was I? Did anybody know? Sometimes I feel like a motherless childa long, long way from the temple that they praise.

If only you could hear the soundtrack in my sanctuarythe inaudible, immobilizing fear locked between those early years that I could never earn back. In the belly of the whale I lost many images of myself and I still, bravely, go diving for thempersistently seeking to gain back my ceremony of recognition and reconciliation.

Today, I don’t imagine this as something that “happened” to me years ago. I realize that it is something I am surviving, living and enduring even now.

Unfortunately, my story is not unlike many others. Black communities trudge through deeply-entrenched cycles of generational traumas, histories, herstories, and complexities. From the back pews of our churches to the living rooms in our homes, we carry the trauma of the lineages that soaked the paths before us. On a daily basis, we suffer the cellular memory of our pasts in our DNA, our genealogical passageways, and our family trees. Our branches are full of fruits that our foremothers chose to bear, and we watch as the seeds fall near the roots that ground them so spiritually, socially, culturally, and politically.

Anne Elaine Brown Crawford’s Hope In the Holler: A Womanist Theology, breaks the deafening silence of child sexual abuse in her chapters describing incest in Black communities. The testimonies of Black women like Maya Angelou and Melba Wilson relay the messages underwritten in the prayers of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Crawford writes “The Holler is the cry to right wrongs, to rectify injustices, and to gain respect for the disrespected bodies. The Holler is the refusal to be silenced, ignored or dismissed.” There are times, evidenced across history for Black folks, when the holler is all we have.

Across the generations lies a burden of silence that remains unbrokenspecifically in instances of sexual violence, incest, intra-communal shame, and familial trepidation. It is easy for us to call out the oppressors outside of our communities, but difficult to address the harm-doers that bring years of silence, shame, vulnerability, and bondage to our families and community space.

In reading Black women truth-tellers, I’ve come to find my own space for sacred theologies of the body and safe houses for healing. While many chapters in Morrison’s latest novel God Help The Child re-traumatized me, many also saved my life. The book is arguably about adult survivors of sexual abuse finding justice in their lives through new habits, joy-filled tasks, and confessions of their testimonies.

I believe the book is deeply invested in the justice and truth that is held in the memory of one’s own experiences. In other words, Morrison makes room for the survivors to take back their body parts through flashbacks and traces of re-memory where the characters, and Black folks reading, are the agents of their own recovery from sorrow, discovery of joy, or journey for self-love. Justice is sought, and met, between the turning of each page. Only through this peaceful, yet tedious journey, did I find salvation in my own truth.

I’m led to think of the powerfully unearthing documentary Holler if You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church where our people expressed anguish and exposed untold truths around the violences experienced in the Black church since their youth. Their stories are not unlike my own in the ways family members, pastors, and community members embodied the hatred of the oppressor in their lives. Our bodies continue to be riddled with judgement, pain, and shame as we fight to tell our truths and seek justice in the most intimate parts of the community.

This is a call to action for a womanist ethic of love that looks trauma in the face and refuses silence. A womanist ethic of love that functions on the basic tenants of community accountability and responsibility, a culturally specific calling out culture, and intra-communal efforts to dismantle the silence that continues to bind our hearts, minds, and spirits through the continued violences we accept.

This ethic requires a willingness to reckon with the scars that our siblings, loved ones, spouses, partners, and even ourselves bear in our bodies as a result of the violences done to us within the communities from which we identify. At this time we must reconcile the sexual violences that occurred in our sacred and spiritual spaces, our sanctuaries, and our temples. We must also call the Black church to action and the church must protect our children. We can no longer allow miseducation, barriers of silence, and negligence to kill our Black babies.

Concretely, this ethic of care  looks like creating more spaces, convenings and community organizations that focus on Black sexual violence within the community; Black people across the gender spectrum partnering in community conversations to discuss the repercussions of rape and heal from harm-doing; openly discussing sexual violence in Church meetings and delivering preventative messages from the pulpit; providing holistic sex education within the church for Black children and Black youth so that they can articulate their experiences and hardships; training clergy on bystander intervention and modalities for addressing sexual violence within Black spaces; providing materials to the community and making resources adequately accessible.

We must also look into our own lives and see the harm-doers there. We should all seek to understand the ways we’ve actively perpetuated violence, or willfully remain complicit in the harm of others. Our silence is where the hurt is, and we must speak up and confess our truths to ourselves.

This truth-telling requires no public shaming, but necessitates the inner-work of healing cyphers, writing circles, community holding community, truth supporting truth.

What will we do to confront the domestic wars and evils that live in our bedrooms and wrestle us down to our living room sofas? It is beyond the hour that we must acknowledge the ways child sexual abuse lives with us. We must take the demons of our generational burdens to spiritual trial and lift the chains of destructive internalized oppression from our shoulders, wrists, and ankles.

In this moment we call forth truth-telling, honest recognition, painful confession, and the beginnings of reconciliation.  The time is now for us to reclaim our bodies, our spiritual homes, and the sacred temples we choose to love in spite of trauma and violence.

Sevonna Brown

Sevonna Brown is a survivor, an avid womanist thinker, a full spectrum birth doula, and a staff member at Black Women’s Blueprint in Brooklyn,New York. She is a Alice Walker loving, Zora Neale Hurston reading, Toni Morrison honoring activist who believes in the centering of Black women’s stories. 

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