Honorable mention: People of color essay contest — Grace Okafor

Grace Okafor

My fall from Grace

By Grace Okafor    

At a young age, I came to the realization that I was a spiritual person and stood strongly against organized religion. This journey began with my curiosity about Halloween, as my mother vehemently opposed what she referred to as the “Devil’s birthday.” This piqued my interest in two things: understanding the true nature of the holiday, and, as a rebellious child, finding a reason to prove my mother wrong. Little did I know this would catalyze much of my research and exploration of other world religions and indigenous spiritual practices. After reading up on various world religions over the course of my primary and secondary education, I determined that the basis on which religions are founded are both unstable and transitory.

During my junior year of college, I met a person that I connected with on every level except religion. Although I never felt that our differences in spirituality would present a problem in our relationship, they believed it was cause enough for us not to date and terminated our friendship completely. That moment came as a shock to me as I never experienced a drastic action being taken for the sake of one’s religion. Additionally, the grief I experienced at the loss of that relationship made me question why I believed what I did. It forced me to look inward and have a conversation with myself as to what my fundamental beliefs were and why. After several conversations with a cousin and a friend, I finally came to terms with my attitudes on religion. Much of my antagonism toward religion stems from the fact that religion is both subjective and a social construct that limits our understanding and realities of the world.

In my community as an African-American, something I believe presents a large problem is our attachment to religion in making sense of the world, especially in times of trauma and prejudice. Although I don’t discourage folks from using religion as a coping mechanism, it goes far beyond comfort and can greatly limit an individual’s ability to understand the world beyond their preferred dogma. On a philosophical level, the damage is just as pronounced, particularly in Abrahamic religions, where altruism is never done for altruism’s sake, but as a transactional habit rewarding good deeds by absolving wrongdoings in the eyes of God. Through observation, I’ve seen that motivator as being both conditional and highly individualistic.

Although there exist various philanthropic pursuits in the name of religion, these communities are often tone deaf in their mission and method of assistance. Being without religion and looking at various spaces and cultures for spiritual guidance reaffirms my belief that I don’t need God to motivate my behaviors; I need myself. This attitude helps me see the world more objectively and unbiased. Additionally, it allows me to incorporate my understanding of the world and other people’s realities without condescension. I understand that I don’t know everything and that “leaving things up to God” or giving thoughts and prayers and other forms of spiritual bypassing are not enough to assist folks in need and trivialize the pain of our human experiences. If more religious communities were open to diversity in religious and spiritual thought, even in the absence of the existence of a higher power altogether, we open our minds and hearts to looking at both global and community issues in a more intersectional and inclusive lens.

Grace, 21, attends the University of Maryland, College Park, and will be graduating in the spring with a degree in behavior and community health. “In the fall, I will be completing an independent student lead research study on how racial and gender roles impact help-seeking behaviors in female African-American college students,” Grace writes.