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October 2003

Cheryl Stevens From Tradition to Truth

by Cheryl STEVENS

My youth was played out to the rhythms of the church. My mother’s father was a thunderous Pentecostal preacher who migrated north from Georgia in the ‘30s. His and my mother’s convictions subjected me to the amenities of being raised in a Pentecostal household: no dancing, dating, or movies. This wasn’t oppressive for me, because I loved to read, and I found solace from the pain of my parents’ divorce in the life of the church. I enjoyed growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, where I was born the oldest of six children. The neighborhood I came from was culturally diverse. I went to South Catholic High School where my friends were of Polish, Irish, Italian, and other backgrounds, and I socialized with them without compunction or guilt. However, my racial equanimity and my religious heritage were to be severely tested when I went to college in the Midwest.

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Cheryls’ father Alonzo Fitzgerald Smith, mother Clarabelle and Cheryl Ann, 1955. Cheryl’s mom on Aunt Mary’s front porch with brother
Mark (in middle) and cousins Randy (left) and Jimmy (right).
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Cheryl’s maternal grandfather
Rev. Allen Jackson.
Cheryl’s maternal grandmother
Rosalie Jackson.

I arrived at college a quintessential freshman, excited to be away from home but also frightened. As a consequence, I was quickly absorbed by a group of new friends. Like my experience in high school, they came from many different places in the country, but this time they were all the same color . . . black. And they had some different cultural ideas that they were not reticent to share: “You sound white, girl.” It didn’t matter to them that proper grammar and appropriate articulation had always been stressed at home and in school - but that was 2,000 miles, and a lifetime away. It was easy to put away what was considered “white clothes” and “white language” in this enclave of blackness, especially because of my romance with a particular black student. This liaison caused something else from my upbringing to fall by the wayside, my moral code. It became crystal clear that my religious values were never really mine. They were my mother’s thing, my grandfather’s thing . . . some cultural thing that had never truly penetrated my heart. Ironically, now I found myself adhering to a new cultural mandate: black pride. Anything that had any connection to white culture was an anathema. We were not to trust white people or even fraternize with them, especially white boys. Soon I was part of a hit team that went around foisting this dogma on other vulnerable black students, trying to make them feel as I was made to feel, not black enough. I left college confused and empty, and with my religious values trashed.

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Cheryl at age 3. John at age 3.
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Cheryl attended South Catholic High School where she graduated in 1973. Cheryl attended college at Concordia College in
Moorehead, Minnesota.

Consequently, when I returned to Hartford, I began to reconsider the faith of my ancestors. Then one morning at church, in a miracle of God’s grace, all that I thought I knew about life crumbled before the presence of Jesus. Why had I never seen him before? Hadn’t I been dutifully baptized when I was 12? Didn’t I faithfully go to church for all those years? After I stood up and testified about my encounter with Jesus, my aunt reproved me. “Don’t say that, you’ve been a Christian since you were a little girl.” I guess miracles are hard to understand sometimes, especially when they conflict with cultural traditions.
Providence landed me in Buffalo in 1976 where I started attending an African Methodist Episcopal church on the East Side. My newfound sense of being black resonated there. The pastor had been a missionary to Africa, and he and his wife wore African clothes and named their children with African names. Then one day I was having a discussion with Beverly, a black girlfriend of mine who was not a Christian. “I don’t know,” she said. “People say they are all Christians, but blacks all go to black churches, whites all go to white churches, and Chinese all go to Chinese churches.” For some reason, that statement cut me to the heart. Coincidentally around that time a lady who I worked with invited me to her church . . . in the suburbs. I went a couple times and kind of liked it, except I was the only black person there! Yet something deep inside me was pulling me to go there regularly. But what about my Afrocentrism, my music, my African clothes? And then there loomed the possibility that if I stayed there for long I might have to marry . . . a white man!

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Cheryl and Beverly, 1976. Noreen Ritchie became a friend of Cheryl’s after inviting her to attend her church.
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Cheryl’s beloved in-laws Fred and
Marie Stevens.

Well, that was over 25 years ago, and I still attend that church. I see that God’s invisible hand has guided me, “through many dangers, toils and trials,” to quote an old hymn. Until I arrived, most of the people in that church never had a black friend. They had never been to a black person’s home, nor had they had a black person to theirs. I know I have been used in breaking down walls and undermining stereotypes. (I have even been credited with infusing some soul into their music.) Oh, and I came to see that I had developed some stereotypes of my own, back in college with the brothers. It took some time working with my pastor to see that I had bought into a racist spirit myself. I have come to see that racism is a sick human condition that infects all people. Now once again I have Polish, Irish, and Italian friends. To spice it up I even have some Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Korean friends. I’m convinced that God wants us to enjoy and to learn from all cultures, and that cultural exclusivity is another term for segregation. Martin Luther King led the people of my parents’ generation to tear down the walls of segregation in this country. He was dismayed that “Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America.” Without realizing it, my girlfriend Beverly spoke in the same spirit when she challenged me about the ethnic exclusivity of Christians. Perhaps my pilgrimage is an answer to Dr. King’s prayers.
The most important thing I have learned is about God. Formerly I related to God through my upbringing and my cultural experience. Now I have a personal relationship with him. It is intimate, and it transcends any cultural idiom.
And about those white boys . . . they can be kind of cute. I even married one of them.

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Cheryl and her husband John Andrew Stevens.

For the past 18 years Cheryl has been employed with Womanfocus a department of reventionfocus. Under these auspices she has developed and implemented educational prevention groups for women throughout Erie County. Cheryls life experiences enable her to resonate with the life challenges of women as diverse in circumstance as suburban moms to incarcerated women. She seeks to help them make more wholesome choices in their lives. Cheryl currently volunteers as a Board Member for TRY( Teaching and Restoring Youth), a shelter for adolescent girls , with international Students Incorporated and at the Clarence Library.

Cheryl is thankful to her creator and Savior for the opportunity to escape the oppressive fear and bitterness that keep people from engaging with other people. Cheryl endeavours through service she gives or has given to others to honor God.

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