Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
As CEO of GG Creative and founder of Empowered in Color, Kriselle Gabriel believes in helping communities of color thrive. Growing up in a Christian neighborhood and family, Kriselle is passionate about her faith. However, throughout her experiences, Kriselle has gradually unlearned popular Christian ideas that she believes have been harmful to marginalized communities. In this fireside chat, Kriselle talks about how she has reclaimed her faith while engaging in social justice work.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
While engaging with different communities, Kriselle explores how we can navigate complex belief systems.
How did religion play a role in your life before you entered the social justice space?
For me, I grew up in your typical Filipino family who described themselves as born-again Christians after visiting a Baptist church in the late 90s. I’m from Carson, CA, a place with a large community of color, so I was surrounded by several Filipino churches. I was always the type of kid who loved Sunday school, and earning about Jesus and the Bible.
As I grew older, I was able to decide for myself how I wanted to approach my beliefs. I chose to stay Chrisitan, go to church, and be involved. Even though it did a lot for me spiritually, it turned out to be an extremely toxic place. I acknowledge how Christianity has played such an oppressive role in society throughout history.
My relationship with my faith began to change when I started college at a private Christian University in Orange County called Vanguard University. It was the first time in my life where I was truly in a Christian environment with a predominantly white community. It was a huge culture shock for me and I started to encounter a lot of micro aggressions. Encountering white Evangelical Christianity in action for the first time in my life isolated me. I found solace with my school’s diversity programming and began to feel conflicted with some of my original beliefs.
It’s difficult to begin questioning your beliefs because I grew up in an environment where the culture is to respect your elders and not question anything. Even though my college was very problematic, it expanded my views of Christianity in different ways. I was influenced by my Black peers, and learned how they approached different situations and beliefs. Through figures such as Dr. King and Raphael Warnock, who’s considered to be a progressive politician in Congress, I began to see how the beliefs we grew up with surrounding Christianity are rooted in white supremacy—beliefs that (I believe) do not align with what Jesus stood for.
Now my faith is rooted in social justice and everything Jesus would talk about—caring for outcasts and communities who are in need.
How do you hold space for a religion that has different types of believers?
The history of Christianity is truly colonialism. I read a book called White Jesus: The Architecture of Racism in Education and Religion. It talks about how Christianity is portrayed in terms of white supremacy. It goes back to the times of enslaved people and how Southern Christian churches would make rules and preach wrongful beliefs about Black and Indigenous folks. It festered this culture of hate we see today.
I previously spoke at a conference called the Student Congress on Racial Reconciliation, which is a conference for Christian colleges and universities in the US to talk about race. When I attended, I felt so validated. I was able to speak there myself and talk about how Jesus’ ministry prioritizes marginalized folks.
I make space by holding discussions and trying to understand different people’s point of views. We’re so used to having people in the community criticize each other and call each other out when they’re offended.
I understand that Christianity is a privilege because you don’t have to deal with the persecution that other religious communities like Jewish and Muslim people experience. I do view my interpretation of Christianity to be radical and aligned with a lot of people in social justice work.
I’ve also been asked how I reconcile with being part of the colonizer’s religion. For me, my answer to that is that Jesus did everything opposite of what is portrayed in popular depictions of Christianity. I believe Jesus was not a white man, and it’s my way of decolonizing my identity and the beliefs I grew up with.
How do your beliefs impact your social justice work?
I’ve always been passionate about social justice and I feel it’s embedded into who I am. As I started thinking more critically about systemic racism, our history, and my faith, I realized that social justice is rooted in Christianity.
There’s a passage in the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 31:8-9) that talks about defending the rights of marginalized groups: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
There’s also a common story about the woman at the well. She was divorced, sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband, and part of an ethnic group that was looked down upon. Jesus met her at this well and he revealed himself to be the Messiah to her, even though he wasn’t supposed to be talking to her. This story is significant because she’s marginalized in every single way and is considered an outcast to society. It affirmed how I view my faith and how we should be approaching social justice from an angle of radical empathy.
We need to have consideration for other people. There’s a lot of religious people from various groups who are reclaiming their faith and rejecting the inaccurate teachings of their respective faith that encourage hate.
How do you learn the root of your religions and begin to understand beyond the popular depictions of Christianity?
I started learning through my Black peers at Vanguard and from Dr. King’s writing. He talked about white moderate Christian America, which discussed beliefs we weren’t taught in church. When he died, he was the most hated man in America and he was a pastor. White Christians who claimed they loved God labeled Dr. King as a domestic terrorist because he was Black.
I acknowledge that this is a privilege and not everyone has access. But for people who have access to a faith community, look for people in that community who are doing social justice work. There are chances there are people who are talking to marginalized groups. Especially if you are marginalized in some way, it doesn't matter if it’s based on sexual identity, socioeconomic background, etc—listen to how they approach their beliefs.
I can’t speak for other faith backgrounds, but if you have the opportunity, find online communities or Googling progressive teachings related to your faith background. I promise you they exist. I’ve even found some communities on Reddit.
How do we speak openly about religion without judgment?
I hope people come from a place of grace, patience, and humility when having these conversations. As we begin to have more of these conversations, people need to be more willing to be honest and stray away from having shallow observations. Remember that we’re not the first people and we’re definitely not the last. We need to recognize those people who resisted before us, and how they played a role in allowing us to be able to do what we’re doing today.
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