There is the story of a black woman from South Carolina who entered a large church in New York City where the ushers were still boutonniered and befrocked and the atmosphere was quite cold and formal. While the preacher was delivering his sermon, this lively, vibrant lady enjoyed a certain point, and yelled out in this quiet, formal church, "Amen." One of the ushers came running up and said, "Lady. are you ill?" No, man," she answered, "I got religion!" The usher then said, "My God, lady, not here!"
If this did not happen in a Unitarian Universalist church, it should have. This story suggests some very important contrasts between the traditional black church and Unitarian Universalism. The Black Church in America is an amalgam of indigenous African religions, white Christianity, Caribbean influence and the experience of slavery. Unitarian Universalist historical roots are almost exclusively European and American.
Indicative of this contrast is one of my favorite readings, James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Their inspiration came from Johnson's memory of sermons he heard growing up in the black church and one memorable night when he heard the best of the black preachers, whose voice was not an organ or a trumpet, but more like a trombone.
These sermons were definitely written for the right side of the brain. How do we as a primarily left brain people relate to them? Or are we as left brain as we think? My thesis - there I go with the left brain - black feeling spirituality is a helpful balance to Unitarian Universalist rational religion.
Toni Morrison's character, Richard Misner, illustrates the depth of black passion. Julius Lester, in Look Out Whitey!! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama!, wrote, "The black preacher tried to preach a logical sermon, going deliberately from point to point, but he just couldn't do it. He had to shout and get happy. He had to throw his arms in the air and move around; jump up and down and 'round about. He had to do what the spirit said, do it like the spirit told him to.... The lives of blacks are rooted in the concrete daily experience. When the black preacher shouts, God is a living God! Don't argue. Get ready to shake hands with the Lord Almighty....God is like a personal friend, an old buddy, whom you talk to man-to-man. The black church congregation doesn't want to be told about God, it wants to feel him, see him, and touch him. It is the preacher's responsibility to see that they do."
James Weldon Johnson tells this story of the black preacher "who after reading a rather cryptic passage took off his spectacles, closed the bible with a bang and by way of preface said, 'Brothers and sisters, this morning - I intend to explain the unexplainable - find out the undefinable - ponder over the imponderable - and unscrew the inscrutable." Let's listen.
"O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before thy throne of grace.
O Lord--this morning--
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning--
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord--open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning....
And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning--
Shadow him in the hollow of thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him, Lord--this morning--
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth--
Beating on the iron heart of sin.
Lord God, this morning--
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.
And now, O Lord....
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death--
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet--
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin' up morning--Amen."
The Black Church has been criticized as otherworldly, simply helping poor people accept the oppression of this life because the next would be better. But a closer reading suggests that the black church has been the very essence of the black liberation movement. Probably it has been both a salve on the wounds of slavery and an instrument of justice.
One black scholar parodies a focus on the spiritual more than the ethical with the story of an old black man who testified in church that he had cursed some, stolen some, drunk some whiskey, and had certaintly committed other sins during this life but, thank God, he had never lost his religion.
Religion functions closer to the survival needs of blacks than of whites. It is not just white religion in a black setting; much of its truth has been authenticated in the experience of suffering and struggle - hence its affinity with the Hebrew scriptures, describing the travail of the Jewish people, and the suffering of Christ on the cross.There was in the 19th century the "invisible church" - blacks meeting either surreptitiously or at least quietly in slave quarters. That was fine until their masters began to see something political in their religious rituals.
The Bible became a liberation document as the slaves began to internalize that prophetic supreme being who sought justice - rewarded good and punished evil. A white missionary was preaching to a congregation of slaves on Paul's Epistle to Philemon, a slave, in which he exhorted him to obey his master, and condemned the practice of running away. The missionary wrote that "one-half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves; and those who remained looked anything but satisfied with the preacher or his doctrine."
This "invisible institution" of the South and the free black churches of the North "masked a sublimated outrage, balanced with patience, cheerfulness, and a boundless confidence in the ultimate justice of God." The Book of Exodus thus is central to an understanding of black liberation theology. The deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery is the prototype of liberation.
"And God called Moses from the burning bush,
He called in a still, small voice,
And he said: Moses--Moses--
And Moses listened,
And he answered and said:
Lord, here am I.
And the voice in the bush said: Moses,
Draw not nigh, take off your shoes,
For you're standing on holy ground.
And Moses stopped where he stood,
And Moses took off his shoes,
And Moses looked at the burning bush,
And he heard the voice,
But he saw no man.
Then God again spoke to Moses,
And he spoke in a voice of thunder:
I am the Lord God Almighty,
I am the God of thy fathers,
I am the God of Abraham,
Of Isaac and of Jacob.
And Moses hid his face.
And God said to Moses:
I've seen the awful suffering
Of my people down in Egypt.
I've watched their hard oppressors,
Their overseers and drivers;
The groans of my people have filled my ears
And I can't stand it no longer;
So I'm come down to deliver them
Out of the land of Egypt,
And I will bring them out of that land
Into the land of Canaan;
Therefore, Moses, go down,
Go down into Egypt,
And tell Old Pharaoh
To let my people go.
And Moses said: Lord, who am I
To make a speech before Pharaoh?
For, Lord, you know I'm slow of tongue.
But God said: I will be thy mouth and I will be thy tongue;
Therefore, Moses, go down,
Go down yonder into Egypt land,
And tell Old Pharaoh
To let my people go."
And so Moses did as the Lord commanded - you know the story. Johnson concludes this sermon with these words:
"Now, the Children of Israel, looking back,
Saw Pharaoh's army coming.
And the rumble of the chariots was like a thunderstorm,
And the whirring of the wheels was like a rushing wind,
And the dust from the horses made a cloud that darked the day,
And the glittering of the spears was like lightnings in the night.
And the Children of Israel all lost faith,
The children of Israel all lost hope;
Deep Red Sea in front of them
And Pharaoh's host behind.
And they mumbled and grumbled among themselves:
Were there no graves in Egypt?
And they wailed aloud to Moses and said:
Slavery in Egypt was better than to come
To die here in this wilderness.
But Moses said:
Stand still! Stand still
And see the Lord's salvation.
For the Lord God of Israel
Will not forsake his people.
The Lord will break the chariots,
The Lord will break the horsemen,
He'll break great Egypt's sword and shield,
The battle bows and arrows;
This day he'll make proud Pharaoh know
Who is the God of Israel.
And Moses lifted up his rod
Over the Red Sea;
And God with a blast of his nostrils
Blew the waters apart,
And the waves rolled back and stood up in a pile,
And left a path through the middle of the sea
Dry as the sands of the desert.
And the Children of Israel all crossed over
On to the other side.
When Pharaoh saw them crossing dry,
He dashed on in behind them--
Old Pharaoh got about half way cross,
And God unlashed the waters,
And the waves rushed back together
And Pharaoh and all his army got lost,
And all his host got drownded.
And Moses sang and Miriam danced,
And the people shouted for joy,
And God led the Hebrew Children on
Till they reached the promised land.
Listen !--Listen !
All you sons of Pharaoh.
Who do you think can hold God's people
When the Lord God himself has said,
Let my people go?"
After Emancipation of the slaves in 1863 and the end of the Civil War, the black churches began to more formally institutionalize. Along with a rising tide of segregation, most especially in the churches, black churches emerged parallel to their white counterparts. Many of them lost touch with the needs of their people and storefronts emerged, particularly among those who migrated north. In this century Marcus Garvey inaugurated a back to Africa program claiming God and Jesus were black. He helped organize the African Orthodox Church - an amalgam of Episcopalian practices and his teachings.
In the black church there is less concern for doctrine than for immediate religious experience. The slaves were generally uneducated but not ignorant, and began to see a discrepancy between the all-powerful god of the whites so concerned about their eternal salvation but indifferent to the wretchedness of their condition. Reverence toward God was a joyous affirmation of his presence and providence. What appeared to be wallowing in sorrow was really a deep experience of what has been called the "nether dimensions" of their lives. One of the most poignant of Johnson's sermons is "Go Down, Death," a picture of death as a friend - a picture that cannot be accepted intellectually, but can and ought to be appreciated poetically.
"Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband--weep no more;
Grief-stricken son--weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter--weep no more;
She's only just gone home.
Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God's big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.
And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!--Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.
And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hoofs of his horse struck fire from the gold,
But they didn't make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God's command.
And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She's borne the burden and heat of the day,
She's labored long in my vineyard,
And she's tired--
She's weary ---
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.
And Death didn't say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven's pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
On Death rode,
And the foam from his horse was like a comet in the sky;
On Death rode,
Leaving the lightning's flash behind;
Straight on down he came.
While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn't see:
She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I'm going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.
And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And Death began to ride again--
Up beyond the evening star,
Out beyond the morning star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great white Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus....
Weep not--weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus."
The role of the black Christian churches in the Civil Rights movement is well known. The church became the staging area for many civil rights actions and leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his churches in Montgomery and Atlanta being only the most prominent example.
Black religion, if we can use that term, is an important corrective to our Unitarian Universalist emphasis on the rational and the logical. The spiritual power of the black church is a helpful balance to the sometimes intellectual aridity of the Unitarian Universalist faith. I do not find a contradiction between the poetry of faith and the logic of religion. Nor do I want to take poetry literally in fashioning a faith that will sustain my heart as well as my head.
But there is a feeling in this poetry that continues to move me when thought does not go far enough. James Weldon Johnson's "Creation" is one of the most inspirational poems I know. No, of course, creation didn't happen that way - the conscious design of a lonely god looking for company. Yes, of course, I find the scientific story of creation to be in many ways far more majestic than the biblical account. But here is a feeling of intimacy with creation and with life that I find most appealing. See if you agree.
"And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That's good!
Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That's good!
Then God himself stepped down--
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas--
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed--
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled--
And the waters above the earth came down--
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.
Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said- That's good!
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I'm lonely still.
Then God sat down--
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I'll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.