When President Obama sang the first few notes of “Amazing Grace” on Friday at the memorial service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other 8 victims of the Charleston massacre, the mourners inside the church weren’t the only ones who rose to their feet and joined him. In that moment, much of America stood to her feet as well, supported by the smooth notes of the organ; united, comforted and hopeful.
It’s safe to say that for that brief moment, America went to black church.
And it isn’t the first time. Every so often – when tragedy strikes or when politicians perform – the nation gets a peek into the pews of a place that has for centuries uplifted spirits and soothed broken hearts, even those broken by hatred and evil. At times like this, even in the rich tapestry of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial, religiously pluralistic society, there remains a distinct appreciation for the colorful, thick threads of the black church. It is, in this way, among many others, an authentically American institution.
But outside of these galvanizing, transcendent events, it’s an institution that gets very little love and even less respect.
The mainstream narratives about the black church range from civil rights era relic to a manipulative made-for-tv mega-church. In TV and movies, on Twitter and Vine, it is a hilarious punchline full of shouting, dancing and excessive displays of emotion. In either case, it is rarely more than a caricature, one that either comforts, humors or repels.
As a pastor’s daughter, church leader and passionate, card-carrying lifetime member of the big, diverse community we call the black church, I know how deeply sad this reduction is. To see people misunderstand an institution that taught me my history, grounded me in my identity and gave me the tools to grow into a woman as well as a civic and moral being, is to see millions of people misunderstand the most valuable gift I have ever been given – and miss out on so much more.
So if, after turning off the TV you’d like to take some souvenirs home from the space that our ancestors spent years building and that today many (myself included) still fiercely love and find sacred, here are five that mean a bit more than just an organ and a drumbeat:
1. How to build community. Born at a time where there were few other places for African Americans demonstrate their full humanity with one another, today, the black church is where the hard work of building beloved community never stops. Where people show up for one another and have hard conversations. Where people offer money, food, emotional care, physical presence and touch. In an era when support often means no more than a tweet or a text, the black church is one of the few places where people still regularly come together to nurture one another, grow together and meet each other’s needs. It is where people share stories, wrestle with ideas, fight, forgive, break bread, and,literally and figuratively, wash one another’s feet. Where tears flow freely and accountability matters. The American community could learn so very much from this model and how wonderful would it be if our human community did the same?
2. How to honor the young and the old. This one seems oddly specific, I know, but in a society that often patronizes the young and isolates the old, the church is one of the few spaces that brings both together and holds each up on a pedestal of preciousness. How many other public spaces in America would have found a 26 year old out with his 87 year old aunt on a Wednesday night as was the case with Charleston victims Tywanza Sanders and Susie Jackson? Where else in America facilitates regular intergenerational dialogue and lift up the voices of both in the process? In the black church, each generation is appreciated for its unique wisdom and insight. Both the very young and the very old typically have seats reserved for them, are encouraged to take on roles of leadership and esteem. And most importantly, their happiness and engagement are seen as key measurements for the health of the community as a whole. Would that society at large operate the same way.
3. How to survive. This one speaks for itself. In the face of bombings, fires, shootings and attacks of all kinds, the people remain. Many black churches, still today meet in basements, movie theaters, schools, warehouses and storefronts. They push through obstacles and hardships to come together and commit to never letting go of their faith, their community, and most importantly, the act of living. This doesn’t just “happen”. It isn’t some superhuman, magical force that allows black churches to bounce back and hold on. They practice the deliberate, strategic art of survival every single day.
4. The nobility of faithfulness. How easy it is for us to abandon the hard things today. Work, relationships, causes that don’t yield immediate results – all can be discarded and replaced with the click of an email. But from the black church we learn the importance of commitment and faithfulness. The practice of showing up Sunday after Sunday, Wednesday after Wednesday, week after week and year after year, come rain or come shine builds the character necessary to stick with the fights that our livelihood and democracy depend on.
5. How to fight a righteous fight. I am not sure when or where the narrative of the “prayerful and passive” church mother came from, but I’m convinced it was created by the same kind of people who created the pernicious welfare queen stereotype (Don’t quote me on that. It’s my own personal conspiracy theory.) The idea of the black church only bowing on our knees in times of hardship, is not only a historical and theologically inaccurate, but it flies in the face of those who, like Rev. Clementa Pinckney did, work every day to combat injustice armed with faith and sharp, strategic action. From time immemorial, the black church has known how to fight and has been inherently activist and political, even in its very formation. It is that same history that has always made the church such a beacon for those who have wanted to engage large swaths of black America in campaigns – and also for those who want to stop it’s powerful civic organizing through efforts as subtle as voting rights restrictions and as extreme as shocking acts of violence. It is this history that makes me hopeful about those within the church who lift up their voices against sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression that still exist.
These lessons are certainly not unique to the black church or to religious institutions in general for that matter. But they are central to the identity of a place that is often only acknowledged for it’s music and jubilee with no regard for the experiences and practices that root said joy.
All of this is of course, when the church is at its best. The black church is, like most American institutions, deeply flawed. For as many for whom it represents freedom and love, it also represents pain and shame. Anyone who has been hurt by abuses of power and dangerous religious interpretations that shackle and bind instead of liberate has also learned lessons worth sharing. That history too, must be reckoned with. But even for those who longer call it home, the church will always be more than a caricature. It will always be more than something to watch and admire for it’s “soul”. If you dare look a little closer, you will find a well of joy that most only briefly drank from last Friday. Underneath the surface you will find that the black church in America is so, so much more than just a funeral and a song.
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