Ruth loves God and goes to church every Sunday. The whole family likes the pastor, Rev. Owens, but he barely ranks on her list of favorite ministers. These include her late husband Andrew Dennis McBride, among others who, James notes, are all black and “quite dead.” Ruth likes old-fashioned preachers, who talk of God and genuinely care about their community. She doesn’t like churches that bring in negativity or politics.
Ruth finds comfort and clarity in religion. The preachers she likes the best are the ones that bring her to what she sees as the proper spiritual place — one where she can forget the troubles of her past and present, and feel as though she is a part of something great.
During his childhood, James is grateful that his mother never “gets the spirit” and loses control at church, and he doesn’t understand those who do. He can see the power of faith secondhand, because church is the only thing that made Ruth cry for joy, but as an adult, James says, he personally understands the power of God.
Religion is something that comes to James late in life, and helps him better connect with his mother. Although he could see how her faith helped her through difficult times, it wasn’t until faith helped him through difficult times that he truly understood Ruth’s experiences with God.
When James watches his mother cry in church he assumes it’s because she wants to be black, like the other parishioners.
James assumes his mother’s tears are race-related because so much of his own stress comes from wishing his racial identity were simpler.
James asks Ruth if God is black or white. Ruth explains God is neither black nor white, and he doesn’t like one race more than the others. She explains that God is “the color of water.”
This is where the title of the book comes from. Ruth wants James to understand that he is loved, valued, and important regardless of his skin tone, and so explains that God has no color preferences, as God himself is the color of water, and therefore all colors. James, as both black and white, could thus be said to be the color of water himself.
All of Ruth’s children deal with race-related identity crises at various points in their lives. Richie, James’s older brother, imagines he’s green like the Incredible Hulk, and not black or white. In Sunday school one morning, Richie asks Rev. Owens what color Jesus is, because he’s always depicted as white in paintings. Rev. Owens explains that Jesus is all colors, but is unable to argue when Richie then says that if Jesus is all colors he should be painted grey, not white. After this, Richie, although he still believes in God, stops going to church.
Because they are mixed-race and have no framework through which to investigate their own identities, James and his siblings use the tools available to them to explore their identities, be it religion or comic books. They desperately need mixed-race icons, and the failure of Rev. Owens to adequately explain Jesus’s coloring is representative of larger societal issues around the mainstream acceptance and portrayal of mixed-race children.
James remembers reciting Bible stories and playing instruments in front of the congregation each Easter. One year, his brother Billy forgets his verse. After struggling to recall it again and again, the Deacon suggests he just recite any Bible verse he knows. Billy recites the shortest verse, which is, in full, “Jesus wept,” and sits down. Ruth is angry and embarrassed, and punishes him when they get home.
Going to church and participating in the services is a large part of the McBride-Jordan children’s upbringing. Ruth, who allows a fair amount of chaos into her house, disciplines her children only when she fears for them academically or spiritually, and this is one of those times.