Christian Conversion Stories of African American Women: A Qualitative Analysis

Article excerpt

This qualitative study examines the Christian conversion experiences of African American women. Content analysis of the narratives of a sample of African American Christian women Cn=IS) reveal a set of seven descriptive themes, which represent how these women understand Christian conversion. Findings suggest that for African American Christian women, conversion (a) is understood as a change, transformation or turnaround; (b) is a uniquely personal experience; (c) is a process rather than an event; (d) begins inwardly; (e) is expressed through one's behavior; (J) is distinct from salvation; and (g) is facilitated by religious upbringing or experiences. Results indicate that cultural influences of race and gender are significant to the conversion experience.

For more than a century, researchers have examined the phenomenon of Christian conversion from various theological, historical, sociological and psychological perspectives (Greil & Rudy, 1984; Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 1996; Kilbourne & Richardson, 1989; Rambo, 1982; Richardson, 1985). These explorations include narratives and autobiographical accounts of converts from the Apostle Paul to CS. Lewis to Pat Robertson. Historically, conversion has been investigated and represented as an event characterized by spiritual awakening and immediate transformation (Hood et al., 1996; James, 1982; Rambo, 1982). However, researchers are finding that this depiction may not adequately represent most conversion experiences. Conversion is an event for some, but for others, it has been described as a lifelong, complex process; a gradual or religious change; a continual turning; an intellectual or moral shift; or a spiritual journey (Hood et al., 1996; Ken, 1999; Kerr & Mulder, 1983; Kox, Meeus, & Hart, 1991; Rambo, 1993; Segal, 1990; Smith, 2001).

Furthermore, most investigations of conversion as experienced by Americans are conducted from predominantly European American and/or male perspectives (Davidman & Greil, 1993). However, theorists assert that conversion is an individual phenomenon which must be examined within the context of societal and cultural factors and influences (Holte, 1992; Hood et al., 1996; Kerr & Mulder, 1983; Kox et al., 1991; Paloutzian, Richardson, & Rambo, 1999; Peace, 1999; Rambo, 1982; Rambo, 1993; Smith, 2001; Wallis, 1981; Zinnbauer & Pargament, 1998). From biblical to modern day experiences, theorists assert that conversion never happens in a vacuum, but is always manifested in the lives of people and shaped by psychological, social and cultural influences (Smith, 2001; Wallis, 1981). Therefore, factors such as race, religion, and gender should be considered when studying conversion.

In an effort to further this research, this qualitative study examines the Christian conversion experiences of African American women. All of the respondents, as well as most African American women, self-identify as Christians. The purpose of the study is to not only broaden understanding of Christian conversion, but to also diminish the marginalization of women, particularly African American women, in Christian thought and influence, (Baer, 1993; Brereton, 1991; Fiorenza, 1983; Grant, 1993; Hoover, 1993; Mattis, 2002; McKenzie, 1996; Riggs, 1997; Snorton, 1996). A protracted and in depth examination of African American women in the Christian Church is beyond the scope of this study. Rather, this project is intended to establish a record of the lived experience of Christian conversion among 21st century African American women. These findings should not only inform the Christian community of today, but should also help to ensure that future generations will be less ignorant of the presence and experience of African American Christian women.

To this end, I offer a brief presentation of the Biblical understanding of conversion. I then explain how the phenomenon is typically examined and why generally accepted conclusions may not extend to African American women. …