(Art by Emmanuel Pratt-Clarke: emmanuelaopc)
The Deafening Silence of The Church
I’ve been walking….miles lately. In the morning. Trying to calm racing thoughts and create a place and pace for them. I listen to music — a range– while I walk. The other day – Mahalia Jackson – real old school. How I Got Over, was one of the songs. And then, the Mississippi Mass Choir – “When I Rose This Morning.”
It reminded me how much the Black church was part of the Civil Rights Movement. How much strength the Black community gained from the Black church. It was the place of organizing, for sharing covert knowledge, secrets about who was coming, how to vote, how to be radical, how to practice non-violence, how to resist police dogs, how to endure baton beatings from police. It was a place for real life hard core survival knowledge.
It wasn’t a place for “kumba yah, my lord” and a passive, surrender to the inevitable. It wasn’t about some scripture in the Bible that was going to mute and mutate us into silent submission. It was about recharging, regeneration. The Black church was the place where Martin Luther King, SNCC, and the NAACP met to strategize, to plan marches, to organize protests, and to make demands for civil rights. The church was a place of education – formal and informal. Because voting was based on literacy tests, the church became a place of adult education. It was a place where mostly Black women did all the dirty work of organizing the revolution – cooking, cleaning, strategizing, planning, organizing, coordinating, facilitating, preparing. The invisible labor that Black women still do to keep the church running and its doors open, though they cannot preach or handle the money. A social justice, a spiritual justice issue.
But, back then, it seems like the Church’s doors were open 24/7. It had life.
I know we are quarantined (well, we were; I’m not so sure what is happening now). Regardless, that shouldn’t stop the work of churches. Black people have been quarantined our entire lives, by unwritten rules that dictated when we could come out of houses, where we could go, how long we could be there, and when we had to leave to be home. We are used to that. Our lives have been defined by curfews and quarantines–sun down towns.
As a sociologist, I see the Church as a religious system (Patricia Hill Collins). It begins with the hegemonic domain – a system of thought. Christianity is that – a way of thinking, with power and energy. (Not just Christianity, but also other religions). The invisible electricity behind everything. Hegemoic ideologies exist and are embodied in the social structure of a Church (structural domain). The Church (or Mosque, or Temple), as a social structure is managed by rules and rituals that affirm and legitimate the ideology and values (the disciplinary domain). The Church is not a self-executing body. Its disciplinary domain is executed by individuals (interpersonal domain). People, ministers, deacons, pastors, priests, mothers, choirs, are actors in this system. They ultimately are the engine that runs, maintains, and/or disrupts the church.
And so, bluntly, one can see Christianity/religion as an ideology manifested and embodied in the social structure of a church, with individuals who execute the beliefs and ideologies through the system and structure of the church.
Not a problem necessarily, until we are forced to look at each element as it is being manifested. Often, Christianity has been used as a hegemonic ideology that condoned and perpetuated and sanctioned the marginalization and disenfranchisement of Black people. And the ideology is so strong, that Black people have often perpetuated and sanctioned their own silent suffering (the White Jesus image in the Black church).
This post, done last year for MLK holiday, reflects on that complexity, among others, related to the role of religion as a tool for social change.
And as much as I love the songs of the Black church, their power and the force and the rhythm of the music – an energy a powerful irreplaceable energy, with the music that is empowering and transformational, it is rare that I visit the Black church these days. It is not because of the quarantine and the pandemic, it is because at this stage of my life, I can’t sit in agony and apprehension at sermons that may minimize and marginalize me in a heteronormative hegemonic environment. I just can’t, not knowing what might be said that will hurt and not heal, not in the church.
When will it be ok in the Black church (the Baptist church) for women to preach? To stand in the pulpit and share their relationship with the One of all? When will it stop being ok for Black women who run the church – the programs, the pastor’s appreciation day, the choir day, the new member day, the Wednesday Bible study, the choir rehearsals, to not have to stand two steps lower than the all male pastors and deacons, who are DEPENDENT on the tithes, and time and talents of the mother’s of the church, but cannot allow the mother, who symbolizes the Mother all to feel equal?
When will the Black church cease to perpetuate homophobia and denigrate members within its church that identify as LGBTQ – openly or silently, or have family members who identify as LGBTQ, or are allies to the LGBTQ community?
When will the Black church fulfill its potential to supplement and address educational inequality by opening its doors every day after school to the neighborhood children and running Freedom Schools to ensure the summer lost doesn’t happen?
And, so, if the Black (Baptist) church can’t address sexism, and homophobia, how can it address the current social justice crisis of the day — race and racism? Can it? Can it really say Black Lives Matter, when women and LGBTQ people matter less in the day to day ideology and doctrine of the church?
But it isn’t only the Black church. And what a shame, that we have Black Churches and White Churches in America. But we do.
I do know that I haven’t felt comfortable in very many White churches. Our cultures are different between Black people and White people. White and Black people worship differently. I’ve seen it. At an Easter morning service in a White church, I actually had to ask myself if the parishioners really thought that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Easter morning songs were so soft and quiet, and almost mournful. And then, at the Black church, I had no doubt that they believed that Jesus rose on Easter morning. The shouting, the singing, the praising. It was lit. It was worship and praise. It was exhilarating.
I’ve only been to a few White churches, because I have a choice, and whereas often in the work place, there is no choice, but to be the only. But on Sunday morning, we can choose whether or not we are going to be the only. Since we suffer so much during the week, it seems as if we shouldn’t have to also suffer on the weekend, as the only Black friend.
I know there have been congregations from time to time, special ministers, who create meaningful relationships with the Black church or Black people. There are some denominations and congregations that are unique and exceptional. We need more of that.
I am not a scholar of the church or church history. I just study life. And right now I’m listening and looking for voices that challenge hegemony in all facets of life, take concrete and specific actions; and can lead transformational change.
And, the Church. I am just not quite hearing you right now. I just am not hearing you, seeing you as a body, not as occasional individuals, speaking out, loudly. I’m not hearing you condemn violence against Black people; I am not hearing your statements as denominations of recommitting to radical love and the radical social justice work that Christianity calls for. I’m not hearing you condemn the murder of Black men and women. I’m not hearing you. I’m not hearing you talk about ani-racism; I’m not hearing you talk about anti-Blackness. I’m not even hearing the platitudes and affirmations that others are posting, even if without much substance. If you are speaking, it is softly and you certainly are not in the forefront or even in partnership with the current social justice movement– the protests, the demonstrations, the marches. I don’t want to believe the Church is cowering in its serene and celestial bubble, unable or unwilling to have or lead these difficult conversations.
Fifty-seven years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written on April 16, 1963, said:
On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Like King, as I walk by in the mornings of what I am sure is a White church, I wonder what kind of people worship here? Where are their voices of support when bruised and weary Black people decide to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest? Where are they? Literally, virtually, figuratively? Some members, of course, (not all, and perhaps not many) might be, I hope, engaged in the work. But, the masses, even a significant minority? Are they? Do they care? I wonder, in churches, across the America, what is happening.
And King continues:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now.
Wait, What? The early Christians – disturbers of peace, outside agitators? Is that protesting? The early Christians were activists? Nah. What? Christianity wasn’t designed to be a tool brandished as a hegemonic ideology to sanction oppression and denigration. It didn’t have to do that, and in fact, the early church didn’t. It doesn’t have to do that now.
And King continues:
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
No he didn’t. Did he say, “The average community is consoled by the church’s silent sanction of things.” I’m listening and hearing silence.
If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century..
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
I don’t want to believe that organized religion cannot save our nation and the world. And by organized religion, for me, it is not just Christianity and all its denominations, it is all the world’s religions – major and minor – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoruba. Because what are these “religions” for if not to create a life now, on earth, that is grounded and guided by Love?
But at the same time, I am focusing on the “inner spiritual church,” the temple within. I’m finishing a manuscript on my own spiritual journey from Black Girlhood to Black Womanhood. It is all about that spiritual journey. And I’m trying to find an ideal press that can promote a Black womanist text. I’m still looking for presses that bridge the academic with the every-day world, the spiritual with the secular. I’m counting on the universe to send the press my way.
This bridging work is so important because for me the work of social justice is the work of spiritual justice. It is deep, deep spiritual work, for it is the work of eradicating hate, dislike, stereotypes that have become entrenched in the ethos of America, like a spiritual energy. It is a spiritual energy – hate, like Love. I believe we cannot do social justice work without a deep anchor in the roots of our souls to an energy of Love. We confused ourselves, I often think, by failing to conceptualize God as Love and to call God as such. In the absence of envisioning God as Love, it is there that we as a society err.
I’ve visited Black churches, occasionally, rarely, but in those rough moments in the work, the spiritual work, when I just needed an old Black woman, an usher, to hug me and to ask me “You doin’ alright, baby?” It has a genuineness that just makes me melt. The really good ushers know that when you get to Sunday, you need someone to call you baby and make sure you is alright. I remember when my children were younger and we were going to a Black church fairly regularly, one of the old Black woman ushers came up to my children and said, “When you get a lil olda, we gonna make you a lil usha” I laughed, they laughed. But lately, I’m been thinking about the power of ushers.
They are the first one to greet you. They set the tone. They welcome you; affirm your humanity and dignity. They hopefully give you a program that’s a guide to your experience, so you know what’s going to happen; whether you need to stand or sit, or if there is communion, or if you walk up to the front to tithe, or stay in your seat. Every place has ritual. It’s hard to feel welcome if you don’t know the ritual.
An usher can give you that comfort. They smile at you. They look you in the eye. They affirm your humanity. And If they are good, they radiate Love. At the door, at the entrance, they radiate Love and they give you Love.
If more of us had the spirit of ushers, the world would change, for the usher loves regardless, and should not interrogate or judge. Just have open arms of Love.
I wish there was more Love, radical Love. We are going to need special institutions to take the lead in the creating the alternative curriculum.
We are in the midst of an alternative curriculum. An alternative narrative is being written. Confederate statutes are coming down; Aunt Jemima is going away; Uncle Ben is being retired; “fleshtone” paint is no longer being called flesh-tone; CEOs are being forced to step down. Change is happening–now, and faster than even we could conceive. There is a movement of energy that is shfiting the universe– quickly. We need to quickly begin to understand this energy, how it works, and how it manifests, and how Love is working.
At the end of King’s letter, he says to the White moderate and his fellow clergymen to whom he wrote the letter:
I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaea Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Did he mention the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence? Of course he did, flawed as they were upon execution, they are that upon which America stands.
And so, we have to write letters to America, chastizing her and admonishing her.
And like King, who closed by saying:
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
I close by saying, What else can I do, in addition to all the hours and extra hours of work, when I am alone, in quarantine, than to write long posts, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers to Love?