4th place (tie): People of color essay contest — Nickaela Steele

Nickaela Steele

I am my own refuge

FFRF awarded Nickaela $2,000.

By Nickaela Steele

A stained-glass door opens and I am hastily ushered down the altar. All the church ladies stare back as if to say, “You’re late! How dare you!” The silence of their stares is more deafening than crashing drums. Amid what my 5-year-old mind perceived as chaos was a tall man in a long robe overpoweringly repeating the phrase, “Lord, you are my refuge.” Over and over he repeated the phrase, as if it were glazed in honey as it fell from his lips and he wanted to savor every letter.

I often replay this memory in my mind and also remember the faces of the people next to me as their minds, with relief, accepted this idea as truth. But I never truly knew what he meant by this, until, one day, I thought about the people behind the phrase. I thought about the pastor who is from a small village in Jamaica and the many people standing in the congregation who come from similar places, where their religion was all they had. This was the only way they knew how to cope with the everyday lows.

I often thought, “If only these people knew they were their own refuge.” It was an “aha” moment for me when I realized that this is true for many Black people across the world. When it feels the world is against them, Black people rely upon their God to release the hurt and grant them back their humanity, which has been battered so frequently.

For Black people, religion is woven into our identities and we are made to believe that everything we need is outside of ourselves. Looking for forgiveness? Get it from God. Looking for love? Ask God.

But what happens when our desires are not delivered to us by God? Must we simply give up on ourselves? I could not help but wonder: What if we were just to simply ask for these things from ourselves? To love ourselves and humankind unconditionally and to forgive others while we learn to forgive ourselves?

So, I put it to the test. I put down the bible and gave myself all the love and support I was taught to give to God. Instead of looking outward for refuge when I felt emotionally low or mentally weak, I looked inside myself and worked actively to find these answers. And, to no surprise, I have seen a positive shift in my emotional and mental health due to actually working through these feelings and understanding them instead of suppressing them and looking to God to make them stop. This has created a blissful awareness of myself and others: Now I can fix my own problems, I can take my own responsibility for my own emotions, I can be my own refuge.

Even regarding the recent tragic outcry caused by deaths in the Black community, my first thought is, “What can I do to help my people?” and I work actively to be the change I want to see.

In order for the secular community to become more inclusive to people of color, it is imperative that the impact religion has had on us be understood through a historic and humane lens. It must also be understood that because of our background our perspective of how we maneuver our secular identity may differ from our white counterparts, and, most importantly, we should affirm together we can thrive without religion: We are our own refuge.

Nickaela, 18, attends Howard University and is interested in screenwriting and acting.