Somebody say amen
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Published in The Birmingham News
Nowadays, if you say the name “the Rev. Jeremiah Wright,” you are likely to get a few eyes to rolling or a couple heads to shaking. Some people believe the fiery Chicago pastor, who called for the damnation of America, has given the “black church” a bad rap.
He’s got folks wondering what exactly goes on inside the walls of the black church. Is it a bunch of disgruntled African-Americans plotting an attack on white folks, all in the name of Jesus? Hardly.
In actuality, the black church is, and has long been, a haven for the African-American community. It has been a sacred place, where blacks who had lacked a voice in mainstream society could be accepted and given an identity like teacher, nurse, preacher, deacon and singer.
The black church began to sprout up secretly on slave plantations, as African-Americans weren’t allowed inside white churches. It continued to take form after slavery ended, but when segregation and dehumanization had not. Although free, African-Americans felt as if their country did not love them and retreated to church, where they knew, at least, Jesus cared.
Inside, they were able to relish in and preserve the heritage of their music, style of dress, speech, worship, food, politics and more. Where a mature African-American male could shed the title “boy” and take on the label “distinguished deacon.” Where a woman, who had to keep her mouth shut during the day while cleaning toilets and making beds, could stand before a packed church and belt out a heavenly tune that left the hearers covered with goose bumps.
Like a miracle from heaven, the black church has had the power to transform a person. It takes those who are considered invisible and gives them the confidence and freedom to make an indelible mark on their community.
I’ve seen a man who sweeps floors for a living transform his daily humble slouch into a CEO-type swagger when he walks inside the doors of his church. There, he is a leader, the head of the men’s ministry and a Bible scholar.
I know a woman who works at a dry cleaner during the week, standing on her feet until they ache and swell. On Sundays, however, she proudly slips into a pair of apple-green snakeskin heels that perfectly match her dress and hat of the same color. Her duty is to give the church announcements, and when she speaks, her eloquence is on the same caliber as a head of state.
Growing up, Donald Stoves of Trussville loved to read, and aspired to one day be a teacher. Life, however, with its twists and turns, led the 58-year-old along another path. He found himself working as a shipping and receiving clerk instead.
Once he joined Rebirth Christian Fellowship in Roebuck seven years ago, however, he became just that: reborn. In church, he found his purpose, he says. Now, as the Sunday school superintendent, he’s the head teacher. He coordinates classes and makes sure Sunday school runs like a well-oiled machine.
Each Sunday, he gets up at 5 a.m. to joyfully prepare for his work in the church. He prides himself in wearing dapper suits, especially the blue, four-button one with gold pinstripes. He is usually one of the first to arrive and makes sure everything is in place. Then he prepares his heart for praise and worship, thanking God for allowing him to use his gifts.
For many African-Americans, Sunday is their time to use their gifts.
Inside the black church, the pastors are treated like rock stars. Many use rhymes and catchphrases to make Bible stories come alive. Their members hang on to every word, signifying by saying, “Amen” and “Preach! Preacher!” The older women, or “mothers of the church,” reward the “Man of God” handsomely with a Sunday dinner fit for a king, usually piled high and consisting of two meats, hot cornbread and greens of some sort.
Inside the black church, the pastor and minister wives are considered royalty. They don the latest fashions and sit pretty on the front pew while others admire them for their grace and beauty.
Inside the black church, fashion shows parade beauties who sashay and strut instead of prance. It’s where unconventional beauty – rounded hips and Coca-Cola-bottle-shaped silhouettes – are appreciated.
The black church is where gospel songs stretch out for several minutes, seasoned with jazzy repetitions and musical acrobatics. It’s where people clap loud, rock their hips, shout out “hallelujah” and cry like babies.
The black church is also a place that embraces people of all races and cultures. I’ve seen African-Americans clap, stand up and welcome with open arms their white, Asian or Hispanic “sisters” and “brothers.”
The beauty of the black church is that it is not a monolith. There are those who are afrocentric, conservative evangelicals, prudes, radicals and the like. There are churches that are run so well it would make even the largest corporation envious. Many in Birmingham have multimillion-dollar budgets, award-winning television ministries and well-financed mission trips to Third World countries.
Also, let’s not forget that nearly 50 years ago, it was inside the black church where Birmingham’s civil rights movement was born. People would fill the edifices to get their marching orders and hear stories about Moses and the Children of Israel to give them the courage to face a Bull Connor.
The black church is much more than what has been portrayed in recent 60-second TV sound bites. It’s where blacks – and anyone for that matter – can go be refilled, refreshed and reminded that, although there are times when you feel forgotten or forsaken, you’re still a treasured child of God.
Can I get a witness?
Marie A. Sutton, a former reporter at The News, is a free-lance writer in Birmingham.