Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: In my early 20s, I think I was kind of insufferable. I was constantly preaching to people about getting closer to God. I was quoting scripture, and boasting about how I was trying my very best to live up to a holy standard and other people should too.
Saidu: And it was actually the perfect cover, because almost all the time religion made me feel inadequate. I never felt like I was devoted enough. I always felt sinful, and I definitely didn't feel like I was worthy of any kind of grace from God. I had hella doubts and questions about what I was reading in scripture and what I was hearing at service. But I couldn't bring that up with anyone, because you just don't do that.
Saidu: It's like, in religion, there's some holy line you can't cross—and that's asking questions. Because if you do, you risk opening yourself up to the possibility of losing faith entirely. And other people don't want to hear about your doubts, because they don't want to get dragged down into that dilemma—that hell—with you. So everyone's just silent about the whole thing. And for me, when I felt like I was suffering in that silence, I thought performing my faith loudly and sometimes obnoxiously was the way to climb out of it. I was loud about God because I was trying to convince myself that I really did believe, that I was worthy, that I was enough.
Saidu: The story you're about to hear today is loaded with a whole lot of that baggage, but it finally opens it up. It asks questions, it shows other, more freeing sides to religion that we may not have allowed ourselves to see before. And even if you don't believe in a higher power, this story taught me a lot about my own power.
Saidu: All right, I've said way too much already. After this short break, the homie, Mack.
Salifu Sesay Mack: Every Sunday for 18 years, my parents took me to Cedar Grove Baptist Church. The thing that I loved most about it was the music. I loved gospel songs and loved the people in the church that would sing them; this whole cast of characters who would come to church on Sunday and bring all their troubles of the week and spill them out into their songs.
Mack: Everybody in this cast had a song that they were known for, like Miss Jodie. I always thought about her like a warrior. She's this tall, Black woman with strong shoulders and loud hands. She used to direct the junior choir and the adult choir with force and conviction. When she clapped, the sound reverberated all around the church. And when she sung, I would just sit there in my too-tight church clothes, and watch how her voice would send the holy ghost ripping through the sanctuary.
Mack: Cedar Grove is where my mom learned to pray. And before that, her mom, and going back to my grandma's mom as well. But Cedar Grove is more than just a place to pray, it's where people can get Sunday supper after church. It's where my people have raised money for families who lost their homes to fires, or for people's cancer treatments. It's where my grandma runs a food bank. It's where we would hang out every summer for vacation bible school—the only real entertainment you get in the summer when you're a kid living in the middle of the woods.
Mack: But as much as I liked the music and the potato salad at vacation bible school, the actual message, the sermons, it all really freaked me out. It was too many rules, too much judgment and a lot of scary stuff about hell. I used to be afraid for the pastor to even look at me, because I had this irrational fear that he could see all my shameful secrets by just peering into my eyes. And I couldn't square all this fear with this all-knowing God who was supposed to be all about unconditional love. ANd so I gave up on church.
Mack: Then last summer, I met a couple who flipped everything I thought I knew about Christianity on its head. Their names are Jacquie and Abdus Luqman, and they're on a mission to spread a different gospel. A gospel that says the church is actually a perfect place for sowing the seeds of liberation. A gospel that made the little boy in the too-tight church clothes in me think maybe I could go back.
Mack: I'm Mack and this is Resistance, a show about refusing to accept things as they are, from the streets to the synagogue, and from the pulpit to the pew.
Mack: Jacquie Luqman spent a lot of time when she was a kid down South with her grandma. And like me, that meant spending a lot of time in a church that did not make sense to her.
Jacquie Luqman: I was very inquisitive as a kid, so I would read these Bible stories. And I would read them myself because I just loved to read. And I would have questions because some of them didn't quite make sense. Like, I remember the first question I asked was, "You know, where did all the people come from if the only people on the Earth were Adam and Eve and their children?" And I remember, like, being told in Sunday school, you know, you don't question God. That this is just the Bible, and this is just what it says. And nobody ever really gave me an answer to that, and that really frustrated me at a young age that the answer was, "Don't ask questions." And I did not like that.
Mack: Jacquie hated that her grandma's church didn't allow her to be curious. And the things she saw there left a bad taste in her mouth.
Jacquie Luqman: You know, my experiences in that church were very negative. You know, seeing the hypocrisies and the contradictions of the people, and having these people not address the scriptures in the Bible that are really crappy about how to treat your slaves. And again, the same answer was: well, we don't question the Bible.
Mack: But when she'd come home from her grandma's, she got a different message from her mom.
Jacquie Luqman: My mom just went off of the common sense of: if God is the same God who was so on the side of the oppressed people, of the Hebrews, that he freed them from slavery after 400 years, and did so in the way that he did in the Bible, explain to me how any of this pro-slavery bullshit in the Bible makes any sense. It doesn't.
Mack: Jacquie remembers when her mom came home one day with a new Bible, one that felt so much more relevant to their lives, and how they felt about their relationship with God. It was called the Original African Heritage Study Bible. It came out in the '90s, and it was a really big deal at the time. It's a study bible with areas highlighted in gray that provide in-depth scholarly annotations in the footnotes. As you flip through it, you see colorful maps and recreated pictures, like Mary and Elizabeth as beautiful, dark-skinned women with headwraps, not the lily-white images that you usually see. It was marketed at the time as, "The Bible no African-American Christian should be without."
Jacquie Luqman: It centered the African presence in the Bible, which had been, you know, pretty much erased. So it had maps, and pictures of Black people as all of the people in the Bible. So we would—my mom and I would sit down and read through the Bible and, you know, point out, look, these people are African, and this happened in Africa, and, you know, this is an African story and that kind of stuff.
Mack: The African Heritage Bible points to modern-day Egypt and Ethiopia as crucial parts of the story of Black Africa, and points to figures from the Bible like the Queen of Sheba as bona fide Africans. And it uses 26 pages just to preface why African people must reject European interpretations of the Bible. On page 15, there's this section titled "A New Freedom." The very last paragraph of the section reads: "In the name of religion, grave injustices have been perpetuated upon the entire world. These injustices have caused insurmountable suffering and pain. It is the collective consensus of the translators and the interpreters of this version of the Bible that this cycle of darkness must be broken. For the truth is the light, and with the truth all captives shall be set free."
Mack: This is the kind of stuff that Jacquie was sitting down and reading with her mom. But her mom wasn't just sitting home reading, she was really out here living it too. Jacquie's mom had a little sister who got pregnant as a teenager with no husband in sight. At the church they went to, that was something you were supposed to be ashamed of.
Jacquie Luqman: The tradition was that, if a girl got pregnant in the church, she had to go in front of the church and apologize. But the boy who got her pregnant didn't have to. And as my aunt is standing there about to apologize, my mom went up to the church, went to the front of the church, grabbed my aunt's arm and said to these folks in the church that she grew up in, "You know, this is ridiculous." Nobody ...
Mack: I know that's right, Mama.
Jacquie Luqman: You know, nobody's gonna stand here and apologize to you for something that y'all didn't have anything to do with that is not hurting you. And why would you shame her this way? And then she said she told these people. "And what about, you know, the father? Where is he? Have—are y'all getting him to come up here?"
Mack: The example that her mom set was a pretty high bar to clear, and Jacquie couldn't really find this kind of faith in practice anywhere—but especially inside the church. So in her 20s, she kind of just stopped going.
Mack: But when she was 28, her mom suddenly passed away. She left Jacquie her copy of the African Heritage Bible, and as we talked, I could see the two Bibles side by side on the shelf behind her.
Mack: With her mom's death, Jacquie had lost her best friend, her anchor and her strongest connection to her faith. So much loss that Jacquie felt like she didn't really have a lot to hold onto.
Jacquie Luqman: So I went through a period at 28 of—you know, I pretty much drank myself into a three-year blackout from depression, and so I struggled with that. And then I recommitted myself to my Christian faith. And I was ...
Jacquie Luqman: I think because of that grief. Like, I needed somewhere, an outlet for that grief. And I felt, like, unmoored, and like I was floating through life. And I was directionless. And I was really, like, terrified about, like, what do I do now? Like, what do I do now? Who am I now? What even is life now? And Christianity just kind of—it was a comfort, right? It was comforting. So that was one reason. And my mom had laid that kind of foundation for me in finding kind of some answers to life's uncertain questions through Christianity, you know? So that was kind of natural. Like, I need to go back to some kind of roots, and these are the roots she gave me, right?
Mack: Jacquie found a new church and tried to bring her mama's energy in there with her as a youth minister. But that energy eventually got her in trouble. There was this day during one of her classes that she was supposed to teach a scripture. She's looking at the scripture and feeling uneasy because the scripture is condemning homosexuality. She's looking out at her students, knowing that one of them is gay.
Jacquie Luqman: And I saw how much it hurt one of the kids for somebody they looked up to to say that there was something wrong with them. And I—like, the next week, I apologized in front of my class. Like, "Yo, I know this is what they tell us that is, you know, what we're supposed to believe, but I can't believe that God creates people in a way that is just automatically oppositional to who he is, and just creates people so that they can be condemned by us. So, you know, I apologize for teaching that message, because I don't believe it's true."
Jacquie Luqman: And so somebody else and one of the other kids who were clearly holier than me went back and told one of the administrators, you know, "Oh, Miss Jacquie said that she doesn't believe the scriptures about homosexuality." And they, you know, had a little sit down with me. And, "You know, if you don't teach this—this is the gospel, and if you don't teach it, we're gonna sit you down." And I was like, "Well, sit me down then, because I'm not gonna teach that again. Sit me down!"
Mack: Damn, I wish I had somebody like you growing up in church.
Jacquie Luqman: Like, "All right, sit me down!"
Mack: I think about how it would have been to have someone Jacquie when I was in church, listening to my pastor yell about sissies, and boys who wear earrings and gay people going to hell. I'm 28 now, and still trying to work through some of the self-hate that caused. 18 years of constantly being forced to think of myself as unclean was enough to keep me from ever joining a church again.
Mack: But Jacquie wasn't ready to give up on church. She left that one and started hitting up local churches like people hit pubs during a bar crawl. She's church hopping, hoping she can find a church that will make her feel what she felt with her mom. She doesn't find that feeling in any of those churches though, and she sure doesn't think she's gonna find it when her friend hits her up one day asking if she wants to come to a singles church camp with her.
Mack: Jacquie is single, but she doesn't want to go because the idea of a singles church camp sounded corny as hell. She goes anyway. She wants to be a good friend, and she's thinking there might still be something out there in this whole Christian world for her. And as it turns out, there was something out there—or really, somebody.
Mack: She pulls up at the camp. Every day they'd sit in this dining hall with big windows that overlook this lake, and round tables where you're supposed to Christian mingle with people you don't know.
Jacquie Luqman: So every day we go into the dining room. There is a table, like, right in front of the door, you know, tables all over the place, but there's one table right in front of the door, like a few feet in front of the door. And every day I go into the room, there's this Black guy sitting there.
Mack: He had a clean shave and a fresh haircut and beautiful teeth. And he was, in her words, "Beefy, just like I like 'em." But what really drew her in was his eyes—very soulful and very intense. And every day he's in the same spot right at the front when she walks into the dining hall, staring at her with those eyes.
Jacquie Luqman: Every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, he's sitting there and he's looking at me. I'm walking in, he looks at me, he smiles at me. And I was like, "Wow, he's really cute, but he's also kind of creeping me out because he just keeps smiling at me." [laughs] So I'm just, like, over—because a couple of people tried to, you know, come on to me or whatnot in that weird Christian-y kind of way, and it's like ...
Mack: Mm-hmm. "Sister!"
Jacquie Luqman: Yes! It's just like, "Oh, sister, you're so lovely." And I'm like, "Bruh, get away from me. Just no."
Abdus Luqman: I was sitting there because I wanted to be the first one there for when she came in.
Mack: This is Abdus, but I call him "Baba." He's the guy that's been staring at Jacquie, causing her both confusion and delight.
Mack: Well I heard from a little bird that you did a lot of staring. [laughs]
Abdus Luqman: Oh, man, did I! And I was a little self-conscious about that. Because, you know, you get the creepy tag and all this other kind of stuff.
Mack: Abdus says that the first time he saw Jacquie, he was in awe. He couldn't stop looking.
So Jacquie sits down in the dining hall, and Abdus keeps looking over at her and smiling.
Abdus Luqman: I kept looking over there. I eat, then I look back, you know? And then I knew that I was doing it too much, so I tried this—I put a timer on it, you know what I mean? Count from a hundred down to one.
Mack: And then turn around, and ...
Abdus Luqman: Right, right, right, right!
Mack: If you've ever seen Christians flirt, you know the vibe. It's very direct, in your face and holy in all the wrong ways. Like awkward hands placed on the small of your back while they talk about the service that you're trying to leave. But Abdus wasn't doing any of that. In fact, he wasn't doing anything. And little by little, she actually started to get curious about him.
Jacquie Luqman: So I had endured another whole day of this man smiling at me as I'm walking into the cafeteria, so I'm like, all right, let me see if I can throw him some.
Mack: And so Jacquie decides to make the first move. That night, Jacquie and her friends go to the rec room at the retreat to play pool, and Abdus is there with his friends.
Jacquie Luqman: I see him. I'm like, okay, I'm gonna flirt with him. And I never flirt with people. Never, ever. I just don't. But I'm like, all right, I'm here, so I might as well.
Mack: They introduce themselves to each other for the first time, and get into a heated game of pool. Jacquie's talking trash and teasing him about his game. She's pulling out all her charm, but Abdus is not picking up her vibe.
Jacquie Luqman: I'm just like, what the hell? I am giving you my best Christian flirt right now. [laughs] I am doing everything a good Christian woman should do other than, like, show you my boobs. What the hell? I mean, I expected some, you know, "Hey, can we go somewhere and talk?" You know, I wasn't expecting anything to happen, but, you know, "Hey, can we go somewhere and talk," or, you know, something. But no, he's like, "No. Okay, well, good night. I'm going to my room." I'm like, "Good night? What the fuck?"
Mack: I'm trying not to cry right now, this is so funny.
Jacquie Luqman: We go to breakfast the next day. There he is at the table looking at me, smiling at me. And I didn't—I just walked on by him. Just didn't—you know, like, dude, forget you.
Mack: At this point, Abdus is low key worse to Jacquie than the brother at church putting his hand on your back. Like, she's over it. But on the last day, as she's about to pack her things and leave the retreat, she sees Abdus hovering in the hallway.
Jacquie Luqman: He's standing there, visibly nervous.
Abdus Luqman: It's now or never. And then I stopped her, and with my golly-gee-oh-shucks way, you know, I was like, "You know ..."
Jacquie Luqman: His voice was so quiet, and he barely even looked at me. He's shifting from foot to foot, he's got his hands in his pocket, you know, like a little kid. He's looking down at the ground and he says, "Um, Jacquie ..."
Abdus Luqman: Look, you know, I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to really, you know, holler at you or talk to you, but I would like to talk to you later on.
Jacquie Luqman: "I'd really like to get to know you. So, you know, I'll give you my number, and if you could give me your number, then, you know, I would really like to call you." And the whole time, he's just, like, nervous and not really looking at me. And my heart is kind of melting. So I'm not mad anymore because he's so cute!
Mack: You think it's cute!
Jacquie Luqman: It was just so cute.
Mack: So Jacquie says yes and gives him her number. And this is the start of something big. Jacquie goes home to DC, and Abdus goes home to Jersey, but they keep in touch.
Jacquie Luqman: We talked every single day for nearly a year, almost a year.
Jacquie Luqman: Yeah, every single day.
Mack: And every day, they get to know each other a little better. Jacquie told Abdus about growing up in the church, and how she didn't fit in because she asked too many questions. And Abdus could relate. He told her about growing up in Camden, New Jersey, during the height of the crack era. He told Jacquie how this one time, before crack had completely destroyed his neighborhood, he went to his pastor to see how the church could help the community. He got a meeting with the pastor and a bunch of deacons, and he was like, "Look ..."
Abdus Luqman: We need to go out in the streets and talk to these guys on the corner.
Mack: And this is you as a young person?
Abdus Luqman: Yeah, this is me at 20 years old. Like, we need to go out here and talk to these guys on the corner. Because I went to school with these guys. You know, I know these guys, these guys that's out here selling. I know them. They're not bad guys. I mean, we all played together. It's just that they're just taking advantage of an economic opportunity, that's all, because there's no jobs in Camden, there's nothing around. And I was told from the deacons and them, man, like, you know, that's not our concern. Like, you know, no, we're not—you know, that's what the police are for. That's not our concern.
Mack: Jacquie's listening to this story and inside she's like, "Yes!" Because she's slowly realizing that Abdus is the same kind of Christian as her: a Christian that believed Jesus would have wanted to help those guys on the street, the way Jesus would have accepted the kids in her youth ministry, a Jesus that wasn't interested in judgment, but service.
Abdus Luqman: The fact that the churches refused to take the leadership positions on this really upset me. And I was looking at older people, you know, like my age now, who were retired from Campbell's Soup, because Campbell's Soup was a big employer in my city. They retired from Campbell's Soup, they retired from the shipyard. Some of them had these good jobs. They were like middle-class Blacks, man, who were just satisfied to come to church on Sunday, getting their little praise on, having their little Bible study ...
Mack: That class dynamic.
Abdus Luqman: Yeah, yeah. And just roll up the window when they ride through the hood.
Mack: Over the phone, Abdus tells Jacquie about how after that meeting with the pastors and deacons, he fell victim to the crack epidemic himself. He tells her about selling drugs, robbing convenience stores and battling addiction. He tells her about being in prison for five years. He tells her about the journey he's been on to get his life back together: his ex-wife, his kids, and how even though all those years ago the church had really disappointed him, everything he had been through hadn't driven him from faith completely.
Mack: And Jacquie tells him things too. She tells him about her mom and that Bible. She also tells him about growing up in DC and being a metalhead. How she was immersed in the DC punk scene as a young Black woman because she had been dating a prominent guitarist back in the day. She tells him about how she feels like she's wasted her life working for a corporate lobbying group, and how that experience introduced her first hand to the corruption of US politics.
Mack: While Jacquie's talking about her desire to defeat that corruption, he's telling her about how he became a Black nationalist and follower of the Garveyite movement at one point. They'd both already lived pretty full lives, and still had this burning desire to change the world.
Abdus Luqman: It was a beautiful thing because then, you know, the relationship developed to the point where we were just like teenagers. You know, we would always talk to each other before we go to bed. And it was like, "No, you hang up. No, you hang up. No, you hang up. No, you hang up. All right. Okay, on the count of three." You know, that kind of stuff.
Mack: After three or four months of talking on the phone, they decide to meet up. It's their first time getting together since they met at the retreat. They get dinner, the vibes are great, but then out of nowhere, Abdus gets serious.
Jacquie Luqman: So we finish eating, and he folds up his—you know, wipes his mouth, folds up his napkin and he says, "You know, well, I really, really, really enjoyed myself. And I feel like if we continue going the way we have, I don't see why we shouldn't be married in a few months." And I'm like, "Dude, everything was going so well. What? Where is this coming from now?" [laughs]
Mack: Oh my God! Oh my God!
Jacquie Luqman: What the hell is this?
Abdus Luqman: Well, Jacquie's always been cool, so it freaked her out a lot. So I could see the look on her face where when I said it, it was this look like, "Oh, this n**** done lost his mind now," you know? I read that on her face.
Mack: Jacquie is thrown off because this is their first real date. At this point, Jacquie doesn't know if he's a loud snorer, or if he leaves his dishes in the sink. She hasn't met his mom. They've never even kissed. But at the end of the date ...
Jacquie Luqman: We stand up, and he goes to help put my sweater back on. And he snuck kissed me. And I swear to you, it's like nothing else existed.
Abdus Luqman: That kiss ranked on the top one of all of the women and girls I done kissed in my lifetime. And trust me, there were quite a few. I have not received electric volts like I did with this one.
Jacquie Luqman: To this day, I remember how I felt. And it was like I was somewhere else, and it was the only people there were me and him.
Abdus Luqman: Like, for some reason, man, this is right. Like, I feel it, like, in my heart, you know? And like, man, you know, this can't be wrong, you know? I was like, "Hot damn!" I said, "Damn!" I said, "Man!"
Jacquie Luqman: And at that moment, I think I knew that what he had said in the restaurant, he was dead serious. And it wasn't such a crazy idea.
Mack: After that weekend, Abdus went back to Jersey, but the bond had been cemented.
Jacquie Luqman: On the phone I asked him. I said, "Are you really serious about that? About getting married?" He said, "Girl, I don't say shit I don't mean." And on August 10, 2013, we got married.
Mack: In each other, Abdus and Jacquie find spiritual confidants and political comrades. And it's not long before they decide they can no longer sit in the pews of the church in silence. After the break, Jacquie and Abdus flip the tables of the temple.
Mack: Welcome back. While I never found a lot of use in any of the sermons or scriptures I heard growing up in church, later in my life I did find words and books and speeches and ideologies that have given me my own sense of religion. They came from the pens and mouths of people like Toni Morrison, Walter Rodney, Assata Shakur, Kwame N'Krumah, Che Guevera and Alice Walker. I found my own bibles in books like Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Class Struggle in Africa. I found my own sermons in speeches like "The Ballot or the Bullet," and Kwame Ture lectures on Pan-Africanism. And these were bibles and sermons I didn't believe could ever exist or be accepted in the church because they were too radical. Not the kind of "Pray and find your reward in heaven" stuff I'd get on Sunday. I was convinced that the ability to change the world was in the hands of the people, not the gods we hoped to meet one day.
Mack: But when I met Jacquie and Abdus, they were this couple who seemed to have figured out the marriage between praying and fighting. They lived by that saying, "Faith without work is dead," and their work was in the streets with the people.
Mack: After the killing of Freddie Gray, they went out protesting. And they wanted more people to come out with them, so they approached their pastor, thinking he could encourage the folks from the church to get out there too. But when the pastor said he wasn't interested, it gave Abdus flashbacks to the way his church responded to the crack epidemic.
Abdus Luqman: There was no way we could go back to a church like that and just, you know, "God is good all the time," and "I'm blessed and highly favored," and all this stuff. That just wasn't it no more for us.
Mack: But Jacquie and Abdus did go back. In fact, they went back many more Sundays. And every Sunday, their relationship with the church grew more antagonistic. The final straw came one Sunday. They're sitting in church, and their pastor makes a nasty joke during the sermon. He says:
Jacquie Luqman: If he had his way, women would wear dresses according to—the hue of their dress would be according to how pure they are. Like ...
Mack: With white being the purest.
Jacquie Luqman: With white being the purest. So if they had a bunch of partners, they would be in a gray or a black dress. And he said that in his sermon. And I'm sitting there like, that's real shitty. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? That's real shitty. Christ doesn't even judge me like that. Christ didn't judge the woman who was caught in adultery. What's your problem? You know, so I'm like, I'm pissed off when I hear him say it. But Abdus is sitting there. We had been married maybe two months. He's just—I can see in his face that he is just enraged.
Abdus Luqman: And I just thought it was the most ridiculous thing, you know? Mind you now, he's not requiring that of men, you know what I mean? Only women have to be tagged with this color of their sexual activity, which is all that was. So, you know—and I just was like, man, this guy's a clown, you know what I mean?
Jacquie Luqman: And before the sermon was even over, he leaned over to me and he said, "I can't stay in this church."
Abdus Luqman: You know, we're better than this.
Jacquie Luqman: And I'm like, "You know what? I agree with you. I can't stay in this church either."
Mack: When I left the church, I didn't just say, "Forget Cedar Grove," I also said, "Forget the church as an institution." And before I realized it, I hadn't just abandoned the church, I had abandoned the people in it, like Miss Jodie, with the loud hands. And as I began to come into my own radicalization, I grew comfortable throwing up my hands and saying stuff like, "The revolution won't be for everybody. We can't take everyone with us. Some of y'all gotta get left behind."
Mack: Jacquie and Abdus were almost ready to say the same. But one day, Jacquie's introduced to an ideology that would both affirm and change their lives forever. She's at home, just watching TV, and she comes across this debate.
Jacquie Luqman: There's a debate between this Black guy with a bow tie, gray beard, and this white guy. And the Black guy with the gray beard and the bow tie is cussing this Republican dude out, without actually cussing. And he's telling him, "You don't even have enough respect for me and my experiences as a Black man in this country to call it what it is."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Reverend Graylan Hagler: Now see, my mama—let me just say this real quick. My mama, and hopefully your mama taught you to be respectful of people. And if she taught you to be respectful of people, then that is political correctness.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dan Joseph: Well, the last thing the Black Lives Matter movement is doing is being respectful.]
Jacquie Luqman: Da da da, he's pointing at the guy, he's sweating, he's angry.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dan Joseph: They're marching in the streets, they're rioting in Baltimore, they're shutting down baseball stadiums. The other day they took over a Minnesota airport.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Reverend Graylan Hagler: Good!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dan Joseph: This is not—well yeah, you love it, I'm sure. But this is not constructive.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Reverend Graylan Hagler: Good! And took over the mall!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dan Joseph: You think this is a constructive way to make your point, and it's not.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Reverend Graylan Hagler: Dan, you have to make the whole country deal with it. That's why you're tweeting out the nastiest things you can tweet out about the Black Lives Matter movement.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dan Joseph: Because the Black Lives Matter movement ...]
Jacquie Luqman: And when the interview was over, the man, the interviewer says, "Well, you know, I want to thank you," you know, whatever the white guy's name is. "And I want to thank you, Reverend Graylan Hagler, for being our guest." I'm like, "Reverend? That dude's a reverend? I got to know what church he belongs to."
Mack: Jacquie looks up the reverend and finds out he's the pastor at a church called Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. And she cannot wait for Abdus to get home.
Jacquie Luqman: Abdus comes home. I'm all excited. So I show him this video, and he's like, "Yo, who is that dude?" And I'm like, "It's this guy. He's a pastor at this church." So Abdus said, "Let's go check this church out." So I was like, "All right, cool."
Abdus Luqman: And so we started visiting that church, visiting that church, And, you know, we were liking the overall philosophy of the church. We liked the way that the congregation was with it, too. That was the thing that really got us, was that this—like, you had all of these older folks in the congregation, man, that was just as radicalized.
Mack: This church practiced a philosophy called Liberation Theology. It put into practice all the things that Jacquie and Abdus always believed about church, but didn't know existed.
Mack: Liberation theology grows out of the decolonial struggles of Africa, Latin America and Asia during a time where the global south was attempting to break free from its colonial shackles. They recognized that there was a concerted effort on behalf of dominating European powers like the Vatican, to de-radicalize the teachings of Jesus Christ. Dom Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian archbishop who was fundamental in developing liberation theology summed it up when he said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
Mack: This was an ideology that embraced the things that Jacquie's mom had taught her all those years ago in her African Heritage Bible, and an ideology that would have backed Abdus up when he tried to convince the pastor to get out in the streets.
Jacquie Luqman: So liberation theology is—the idea is the spiritual framework of Christianity, where the idea that Jesus was not some European kind of creation, and that Christianity itself was not a European creation to oppress the African masses, but that Christianity has roots in Africa, that it has roots in the idea of a God being on the side of oppressed people. And basically that Jesus Christ himself comes from among the oppressed people, the Hebrews, or later on called the Jews, of being Palestinian, being oppressed by the Roman Empire in particular. And he was an enemy of the state.
Mack: The first time I heard Jacquie say this, I remember jumping out of my seat because, like, yes, Jesus was an enemy of the state. And he was an organizer—a man who traveled all throughout the land, learning what people's issues were, and finding solutions to those problems. Empowering the most downtrodden and outcast among his society.
Mack: So many people that I know are taught to think of God as someone who is selfish and angry. And the politics of many churches over the years have evolved into what has come to be described as "prosperity gospel," this idea that you give to God, a.k.a. the church, as much as you can, and he will bless you in return with cars and houses and vacations around the world, not with freedom or justice or liberation. The only time you hear about any of those things is usually when they're talking about peace in the afterlife. No need to agitate too much while you're alive when you can get your mansion in the sky when you die.
Mack: So when I first heard Jacquie and Abdus break down this interpretation of the Bible, I got overwhelmed. I can recall so many sermons that emphasized being meek and this idea of long suffering. The apolitical nature of so many churches actually encourages people of faith to accept the status quo. But understanding liberation theology had me looking at Jesus like Assata, like Fred, like Huey, like Fannie, like Ella. Jesus was a radical.
Jacquie Luqman: Exactly. He challenged every ideological framework that had existed in his time that created the societal stratification that we continue to emulate today: patriarchy, classism, you know, the marginalization of others, of prostitutes, of the disabled, and that kind of thing. He challenged all of that. And he intentionally met with these people not where they were, but he just met them as human beings.
Mack: These are the kinds of things that Jacquie and Abdus started to learn in the halls of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. And this was a church where the work was just as important as the faith. They became leaders on the church's board of social action, where they got to do things like organize members of the church to attend protests, lead mutual aid efforts in the community and create educational programming that challenges not just the members of their church, but members of any surrounding church as well.
Mack: Back in March, the two of them held an event called Faith Communities Discuss The Need for Solidarity with Palestine. I pulled up, not really sure what to expect. Religious circles tend to blow me when the topic of Palestine is on the table. But what I encountered wasn't quite what I expected. Baba and Jacquie had organized their pastor, an imam and a rabbi together in one seminar where they dissected the history of Palestine, the history of Zionism and advocated for freedom for the Palestinian people and their land. They didn't water down the history or play both sides, they took a firm stance for justice. And the main people I saw there were older folks—people my parents' and grandparents' age. People, I think a lot of us that scream about "revolution" have given up on trying to radicalize.
Abdus Luqman: Those are the people that mean the most to us, because it's easy to preach to the choir. That's what we do a lot. We preach to the choir. But when we can—when somebody else hears our song and starts to tap their feet and buy our record, then yeah, that's a joy.
Mack: When I moved back home with all my new bibles and books and speeches, I wanted nothing more than to make them the gospel of my parents too. Sort of like they did me. But my religion didn't take well to them. I was too dogmatic, too impatient. A little too in the weeds. I didn't know how to meet them where they were. Like, when I tried to talk to them about the issue of policing, using words like "defund" and "abolish," my words weren't really connecting with them. But a few weeks after their program on Palestine, Jacquie and Abdus did a live stream where they advocated for community as an alternative to policing.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jacquie Luqman: Greetings. Greetings, everyone. This is Jacquie Luqman.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abdus Luqman: And I am Uncle Baba Luqman.]
Mack: And to push this idea that strong communities can take care of themselves, Jacquie and Abdus started by just reminiscing on all the different ways our communities took care of each other without the police back in the day.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abdus Luqman: We were actually the first generation of latchkey kids.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jacquie Luqman: Yes, we—I think we were.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abdus Luqman: Yeah, we were. So that's where the term came from.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jacquie Luqman: Yeah, so we had the Boys and Girls Club like four blocks from where we lived. But mostly on nice days, Mrs. Thomas up the street, older lady, sat on her front porch and watched all the neighborhood kids play in the park.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abdus Luqman: And you know what? Where I—the neighborhood where I grew up on, the old ladies used to come out and sit on the step when the sun went down. And they—my great grandmother, she was like I guess the Don Corleone of the old ladies. "Y'all come on down here so we can keep an eye on you." Right? So this added a level of protection.]
Mack: And they talked about what it might look like for us to get back to that place right now.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abdus Luqman: All of this, "I'm blessed and highly favored" talk that we do, but don't nobody extend themselves to their neighbor. We'll talk about the kids we see walking the street at night.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jacquie Luqman: Right, but you won't help them.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abdus Luqman: But don't nobody go to them kids and say, "Where do you live?" You know what I mean? "Why are you out here?" So we got to the point where we allowed these things to fester so much in our community that we can't even go to those kids anymore because the kids don't know us. The reason why the young kids at the corner came to my grandma's house? Because part of having the community is everybody knows who you are.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jacquie Luqman: That's right. That's right.]
Mack: And out the corner of my eye, I could see my mom's eyes locked on the screen. And soon I could start to hear her "Mm-hmm" in agreement. I could tell their words were helping her see herself in the struggle. My mom, the woman who visits elderly members of Cedar Grove's sick and shut-in, the woman who reads the announcements, and served on the usher board, and puts together those little letters you see that spell out whatever message gets written on the church sign at the head of the road. For the first time, my mom was seeing these things she'd always been doing as political.
Mack: And I was shook! This thing I had spent months trying to sell my mom on, they did in less than an hour. Abdus tells me that it's easy to create revolutionary echo chambers where everyone agrees, while neglecting the hard work that is winning people who sit outside the revolution. And so for him and Jacquie, preaching to the choir takes on a whole new meaning.
Abdus Luqman: Whether you say that either your religion is believing in some God in the sky, or whether your religion is Karl Marx and you have to believe everything he says or Lenin says, you know, and all those other things, I don't see the difference. You know what I mean? Dogma doesn't work anywhere. Dogma doesn't work in religion, in the religious circles, and dogma never worked in the secular circles. You know, it doesn't work. The best way for success is that you always have to allow for people to grow. If you can't allow people to grow, your movement is gonna calcify, as we see a lot of times. And it's gonna be static, you know? And it's not gonna be helpful to anyone, because what's gonna happen is that those same people that you reject, and they're gonna be the ones that's gonna wind up fighting against you, you know? So there's a true thing when it means winning the hearts and minds of people. That's a real strategy.
Mack: Many of my bibles have taught me that: from Cuba, to Guinea Basau, to Mozambique, to Haiti. It's impossible for a revolution to truly succeed when you haven't organized every sector of the society around a common goal: the women, the workers, the homeless, the parents, the elderly. And Jacquie and Abdus' Bibles tell them the same. Whether that's street soldiers or soldiers in God's army, Abdus says we gotta win them all.
Mack: The songs we used to sing at Cedar Grove are burned into my memory—especially the ones Miss Jodie used to lead. There would be some Sundays where she would throw her head back and start to sing this one song real low. It's a song that I still listen to from time to time. She'd sing, "There's a leak in this old building, and my soul has got to move." And at the end of the first stanza it says, "I've got another building not made by man's hand."
Mack: There's a few different ways to interpret this song, but I think it's a song that acknowledges that something ain't quite right with this world, and we need to build a new one. We need to move. That was a message I was getting my entire childhood right in Cedar Grove Baptist Church. And now, I think back on that and realize, maybe the seeds of liberation were always there. Maybe I was wrong about that place.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, LaShun Pace: [singing] There's a leak in this old building, and my soul has got to move. My soul has got to move. Ooh, my soul has got to move. There's a leak in this old building, y'all, and my soul has got to move. I've got another building. A building not made by man's hands.]
Saidu: That was Mack. Thank you so much for listening. This episode of Resistance was reported by Salifu Sesay Mack.
Saidu: Our show is produced by Mack, Bethel Habte and Aaron Randle, and hosted by me, Saidu Tejan Thomas Jr.
Saidu: Our production assistant is Navani Otero. Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh. We're edited by Lynn Levy, Lydia Polgreen and Brendan Klinkenberg.
Saidu: Mixing, scoring, and magic by Catherine Anderson. Thank you, Catherine. Additional scoring and theme by Bobby Lord. Our music supervisor is Liz Fulton. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer and Teiji Mack.
Saidu: Fact checking is by Rosemarie Ho. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants. Credits music, what you're listening to right now is "There's A Leak In This Old Building," by LaShun Pace. Classic gospel.
Saidu: Special thanks to Dr. Samuel "Kip" Elolia.
Saidu: Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. All right. See y'all in two weeks.