What comes to mind when you think of a standard church lady? An innocent, naive woman with eyes closed and hands raised in prayer? A modest woman with a conservative dress, who makes sure not a hair is out of place, never speaks out of line, and does all the right Godly things? In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Wilkinsburg author Deesha Philyaw shows the unseen side of church-going Black women as the real, flawed humans they are — not the uppity stereotype so many make them out to be.
Broken up into nine short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies gives readers a peek into the lives of multiple women over four generations. There’s Lyra, who, at 42-years-old, realizes the discomfort she feels about how her body is holding her back from love and standing in the way of a healthy relationship with a partner. 14-year-old Jael has a crush on the pastor’s wife, and her grandmother has found her journal detailing all those feelings. And in what I found to be the most robust story of them all, teenage Oliva watches as her single mother has an affair with a man she believes to be God, who turns out to actually be their pastor, who loves her mother’s peach cobbler.
While the collection of stories follows a slew of different religious Black women and girls, the one thing they all have in common is their deeply relatable struggle and yearning to express their individuality while trying to find themselves in the discipline of their beliefs. It’s incredibly moving. Even if one doesn’t personally practice a religion, readers will find a piece of themselves in one of the characters. We can all connect with the feeling of trying to fit, or break out of, a mold created by our society or upbringing.
In the small amount of time spent with each character, Philyaw crafts strong, distinct women that I wish I could better know. She shows these women, these Black women, in spaces they aren’t usually seen — having sex in a parking lot, in same-sex relationships, going to therapy, as a person filled with longing and desire. There are no immaculate beings in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Just all-out, passionate, vulnerable, voluptuous women who are learning to love their perfectly imperfect selves.