Their Own Promised Land: Halle Hill on Good Women and the Spirituality of Girlhood
"Faith gave the women around me strengths and simultaneous burdens."
I saw God in everything. The spirituality of my girlhood was ripe with mysticism. As a born and raised East Tennessean and as the granddaughter of a Seventh-Day Aventist pastor, both nature and nurture pointed me towards faith. Surrounded by purple mountain majesties, the natural world felt alive and thinly veiled. As a child it moved me to the point of discomfort. I saw the divine: in the white tail, the Sugar Maple. The harvest moon. I heard the still small voice in the perfect red of a Grainger country heirloom, in the winding, emerald Kudzu filling every ravine around me. I could touch God. Like Plath said, I too, “felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.” In the heart of my heart, I’ve always wanted to worship.
Faith is a central theme in my collection, Good Women. All the women in the book wrestle with their sense of personal ethics. Some women are devout, assured, and impervious, others are questioning, doubtful, and impressionable. All are imperfect and seeking. Their moralities run the spectrum. Their beliefs tell the story of themselves.
I set out to write about Black religious experiences in the book carefully. I wanted to give voice to the way I observed them and felt them as a child, young woman, and adult. Naturally, “Black religious experience” is nuanced. I saw this first hand. Faith gave the women around me strengths and simultaneous burdens.
I come from a lineage deeply rooted in Seventh-day Adventism (SDA), a religious tradition that shaped my family’s identity for generations. Fate brought me into a SDA family. The tradition preserved us. My great grandfather was an orphan in Chattanooga and was found and taken in by Adventist educator and philanthropist, Almira S. Steele, at the Steele Home for Needy Children, the South’s first orphanage for Black children. His son, my grandfather, became a prominent adventist Pastor in the South, even building his congregation in Knoxville by hand. My parents met at an adventist HBCU and made a family.
It’s hard to know your origin story when your history’s been erased. Faith filled in the gap for my kin. It offered an explanation. The promise of eternity offered a respite from suffering. He made a way! elders constantly said. As the US becomes more secular, it’s common to dismiss religion as archaic. But this reductive, elitist thinking misses the nuance of these deeply personal experiences.Each religious experience lends into a deeper, universal story of origin.
Good Women needed to give power back to the legitimacy of the experiences, honoring the wisdom and contractions within belief itself. Each religious experience lends into a deeper, universal story of origin. Everyone in the history of forever has been asking the same thing. Why are we here? What’s the story of us?
Before I became a writer, I planned to become a minister. I studied religion in college, sang in the gospel choir, and held internships with various churches, preparing me for the call. Once, when working one summer, shadowing pastors at a Presbyterian church in the deep south, I stopped by the sanctuary to pause after my work day and admire the Neo-Gothic architecture. Jeweled stained glass glittered in the afternoon sun. In each vibrant pane, a million white faces sat frozen in the immaculate cobalt glow. A funny feeling washed over me. Doubt.
My skin was shedding. I’d been having a nagging feeling that I wasn’t ready for a life of ministry. What wisdom did I have to offer anyone at 23? I had questions, a lot of them, harm to dismantle and lingering belief I couldn’t rid myself of so easily. I needed distance. The best thing that came from that summer was community. The stories folks shared with me and the frustrations and joys that came from doing everyday life with others. I thought of my family often. And I’d been writing every day, taking inventory of a time I knew was changing me.
Once, when getting lunch after service with my host dad, he asked me where I planned to apply for divinity school. I joked that I wanted to get an MFA. “Poetry or fiction. Maybe.” We laughed and kept eating, but I’d been making a list of schools I planned to apply to if I got the courage. I knew I had spoken the truth. I enrolled in a program in Savannah the following fall, and promised myself I’d find a way to write about my people.
I learned the stories on the Sabbath. As all good adventist families do, we took the fourth commandment, remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, pretty literal. After church on the Sabbath, we didn’t do much—we couldn’t. No TV, no music, no radio. This left us with either silence or talking to one another. To pass the time, tall tales filled the space. My ancestors sounded, coincidentally, straight out of biblical antiquity.
Family members moonlighted as Cain and Ables, Solomons, Davids, Bathsheba, and Mary Magdalenes. We joked about the women among us—are you a Mary (lazy, selfish, impulsive, creative) or a Martha (diligent, self-righteous, dense, tidy)? These tales depicted larger-than-life transformations. We ran the gamut: orphans, chemists, soothsayers, poets, and more, always accompanied by miracles. While emotions clashed with logic as I grew, I cherished my family’s unwavering faith in God during my childhood. Even in my growing disbelief, I vowed to nurture, study, and protect it.
The older I got, the more I could see the whole of these stories, and their shadows. Like all myths, they spoke to our deeper human conditions: Complex traumas, PTSD, horrid racism, abandonment, war, brutality, and poverty. While I wondered about the literal truth behind them, I mostly wished I could have seen my ancestors and felt them in my present life. I missed people I never met. Learning the Exodus story of the Israelites’ plight in Sabbath school made me think of my lineage resilience. I imagined my family following the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, wandering through the wilderness to their own promised land. Where were they now? Did they ever make it? Their journey was worth knowing.
Good Women by Halle Hill is available from Hub City Press.