On Friday, August 30, the homegoing of legendary singer and activist Aretha Franklin aired on Black Entertainment Television.
I managed to avoid the five-hour long service (I rarely harbor the spoons to watch anything involving someone’s passing for that long). I instead scrolled through Blackbook for updates about the homegoing, entertained by the humorous, yet respectful statuses and captions typed beneath photos of the #ArethaFranklinHomegoing tweets that softened the blow of her death. But the plethora of world-famous politicians, celebrities, and recording artists paying their respects to the Queen Mother of Soul and Radical Blackness were eclipsed by the controversy surrounding Pop artist Ariana Grande—at least online anyway. While some Black women noticed how former President Bill Clinton and Reverend Jesse Jackson fixated on the young woman performing “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman),” others who didn’t even know who she was now bent their fingers over their laptop keyboards to measure the length of her dress with their respectability politics.
But the incident that ignited the fury throughout the interwebs featured a pastor groping the pop artist at the pulpit. Grande attempted to pull herself away from him, feigning politeness with a strained smile to contain her discomfort. But this only encouraged the pastor to draw her closer without rousing suspicion, tossing a joke about Grande’s name while pressing two digits against the side her breast. The congregation and Black female bodied individuals watching BET witnessed this sexual violation. Within minutes, think pieces appeared in my newsfeed about how sexual abuse is sewn into the history of Black churches. Black women came forward with their own accounts of being victimized by church leaders and how it was swept under the pews. How they were blamed. As I read these testimonies, I was reminded of my own encounters with a church leader named Pastor Rogers.
Pastor Rogers was a traveling church leader from Mississippi who occasionally trundled into Springfield, Illinois to preach the Good Word at yet another church my mother migrated us to. When I saw him on the pulpit for the first time, I noticed that he was different from the other Sunday pastors. While their voices trembled and boomed through the bodies of their congregants, his exuded with strength interwoven with serenity and conviction. He rarely leapt into the air, stomped, or cued the organist to play an affirming note, but paced back and forth, holding the mic in one hand while the other was tucked away in the pocket of his ironed trousers. His sepia shaded skin was devoid of imperfections and he seemed content with his round body; his thin, gold rimmed glasses shielded eyes the color of a starless night.
As a teen who resented the Religious Industrial Complex, I found myself admiring Pastor Rogers. To me, he was a human manifestation of a quiet thunderstorm that was long overdue, his charismatic energy washing away my misgivings regarding Christianity. Even my mother (who rarely extended her trust to others) admired him to some extent—so much so that she made it a point to announce his arrival to me and my brother Sherman (aka Choo). In return, he extended genuine warmth towards us, embracing me with long hugs, smiles, and “I’m so glad to see you.” His attentiveness was a breath of fresh air, temporarily filling the emptiness conceived by my own father’s absence.
I recalled the excitement I felt when Mom informed me that Pastor Rogers wanted to spend his spare time with me and Choo. She allowed him to take us to McDonald’s for dinner—something that was unheard of and few and far in between. Though I was at least fifteen at the time, the five-year-old in me was more honored by the fact that someone wanted to spend time with me—of all people.
I remember the three of us occupying a booth in the McDonald’s on South Grand Avenue, surrounded by junk food and our own chatter. While I enjoyed my cheeseburger and small order of fries, I noticed Pastor Rogers watching me from the corner of my eye. I ate in silence, wondering why he was staring at me. Was I eating too fast? Did I do something to make myself look nasty like I always did? Entire theories regarding my conduct swirled around in my mind and I found myself conducting an internal investigation.
My thoughts were put on pause when the church leader suddenly slipped my hand into his. I automatically turned my eyes onto him, not understanding what even encouraged this random gesture.
“How are you doing?” he asked, kindness coating his every word.
“I’m ok,” I replied calmly, still confused as to why he was holding my hand.
“That’s good. Your mom said you wanted a new pair of shoes. What kind of shoes would you like?” His stare rarely left me as he spoke.
I never recalled having a discussion with my mom about needing new shoes, so I figured this was one had between her and Pastor Rogers. Still I felt obligated to give him some type of response. “Converse sneakers.”
Pastor Rogers shook his bald head, his tongue sucking on his teeth. “See? You gonna make me mad.” He then smiled warmly while his grip on my hand tightened slightly. “Cold hands with a warm heart. I have Shermeekas everywhere I go.”
I continued to lock eyes with him, the confusion now transformed into a discomfort crawling up my throat. At this point, I’ve been exposed to sex enough to know what he meant: He “collected” young female bodied children like me—the ones who are fatherless, semi-fatherless, lonely. Outcasts sculpted with breasts and vaginas admired by men like him, our vulnerabilities manipulated just so they will prove how “special” we are. And all we had to do was get past a small dinner at McDonald’s. And promise not to tell anyone.
My soul yearned to withdraw from this imminent danger imprisoning my hand and ascend towards, through the ceiling. To float above the restaurant and move among the clouds illuminated by stars and air pollution until I finally reached home. But I couldn’t leave Choo, who sat innocently across from me eating the food that was packed in his Happy Meal.
When we were dropped off, I wanted to scrub my whole entire spirit clean of that man’s ill intentions. My misinterpretation of his compassion. I wanted to tell my mother about what occurred but didn’t possess the vocabulary necessary to describe the severity of the violation. In fact, I questioned whether the encounter was even real; for all I knew, the nature of our exchange was a figment of my own imagination. But it had to be real because the vignette between me and Pastor Rogers clung onto the corners of my mind like a fly trapped in a spider web. The energy from his hand was imprinted onto mine for quite some time before I mentally scrubbed it clean.
A year dropped and flown before Pastor Rogers visited Springfield again. By this time, I was sixteen and experimenting with makeup because I figured that that was all female bodied people did at my age. I remember my face being distorted with foundation and eye shadow, a smooth mahogany hue decorating my lips. My body itched to peel off the black skirt and silk green blouse that draped over my body, but I wanted to look “presentable.”
What I didn’t realize was that my costume caught the attention of Pastor Rogers, who was sitting in one of the break rooms. When I quietly approached the threshold of the door, his head hung down as if he were contemplating his life decisions. But he somehow heard me and looked up, his gaze frozen onto me.
A soft, knowing grin stretched his lips. “If I were just a few decades older,” he said, the unadulterated lust smearing the words rolling from his mouth, complemented with a gaze that backed me away from the threshold.
I returned to the front of the church, the sensation of being molested with a sentence drenching my skin. All I wanted to do was rush home, tear the flesh off my bones, and step into another vessel before I threw my old one in the dumpster standing in the back alley. I was tired. Tired of being the target of someone else’s sexual gratification. Of someone else’s selfishness. Of Pastor Rogers’s selfishness. I wanted him to leave and wipe me from his very memory so he wouldn’t think to come searching for me. When he returned as an overcast, I’d be safe under my blankets as he showered the earth with raindrops that stung like wasps.
A week after I mentally registered Pastor Rogers as a sex offender, Mom told me that he invited me and my brother to stay at his home in Mississippi for the entire summer. I swiftly declined, disappointingly aware that his objectives were far from innocent. By the grace of Spirit, Mom didn’t push the issue and I was able to shove the invitation deep into the closet of my mind. Years later, I confessed to my mom why I wanted nothing to do with the church leader that occasionally visited the Midwest to bless us with the Good Word. She listened while I told her about his behavior towards the sixteen-year-old me, never pointing fingers or interrogating me with unnecessary questions about my conduct. She believed me, which I am grateful for.
I don’t know what came of Pastor Rogers. I only heard through the grapevine that he was banned from the church at which I initially met him—the reason remaining unknown to me. I won’t allow myself to feed into any of my own suspicions, but it wouldn’t surprise me if his chickens finally came home to roost. And for the sake of the young female bodied teens who crossed paths with his cruel intentions, I truly hope so.