With the dustups involving Barack Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the recent sermon by Fr. Michael Pfleger at Obama’s old South Side church, I’ve been asking myself: Is this going to be the image of the black church for most of America?
I hope not.
These controversies with Jeremiah Wright and Fr. Pfleger are painting the wrong picture of the black church. I’ve seen black preachers say all sorts of things in the pulpit, but nothing like Rev. Wright. I’m making no judgment on the content of what he said, and we all know by now what he said. That’s just not the experience of the black church I grew up in.
Let me take you back, before the large mega-churches existed. Before YouTube and cellphone cameras-shoot, before even cellphones themselves. Some things have changed but a lot has remained the same.
There were some big churches back then in the late ’70s and early ’80s when I was kid. They looked nice with the stained-glass windows. The pulpits sometimes looked like a stage with that long row of chairs behind the podium where the elders and church leaders sat. The pastor’s chair was in the middle and was usually largest. And the choir … whew, the choir … they sounded like hundreds singing instead of the two dozen or so.
Whether the larger neighborhood churches or the storefront versions, they would almost always have that long row smack down the middle from the front entrance to the pulpit.
The deacons usually sat down front on one side. On the other side, front and center, were the “missionary sisters” (at least that’s what I remember the adults calling them, all dressed in white, looking like nurses-don’t confuse these sisters with nuns). And I always thought the ones with the red or blue head dressings and smocks were the bosses of the sisters.
And Sunday morning service? It was like getting up for school, all early in the morning at 7 or 8. And that may have been just in time for Sunday school. School on Sunday? Didn’t matter to me if it was for the Lord or my teachers-still seemed like there was no place for school on the weekends.
Then the actual service began. Who needs a mega-church? These old churches back in the day put on a show. The Upper Room Church, right off of Roosevelt and Homan, is no longer there, but that was a church my mother and one of my aunts attended. The start of service was the best part. The choir, pastors, elders, deacons, sisters, and the sisters’ bosses, all would march out. Folk in the aisle clapping and raising a fuss. That’s how you start a service.
The rest of early church business was pretty much the same regardless of the church. After the choir sang and the church secretary gave the announcements, the assistant pastor would open up for testimony. Folk growing up in the black church remember testimony. “Giving honor to God, my pastor, the first lady, the deacons and sisters, friends and family, I greet you with the word peace.”
“Peace be upon you,” everybody replied.
Then anyone else could stand up and give their testimony-how the Lord blessed them that week. And then an elder lady would stand and testify. She might get filled with the spirit and start singing. Sometimes it would be a gospel song everyone knows. Or it could be one that the Lord gave her at that moment. Those were sometimes interesting to hear.
“Mmmmmm, Mmmmmmmm…ahhhh, ahhhhhhhhhIIIIIIII, Love the Loooooord …”
Go on, sister! Sing it!
Regardless of where the church was, I remember in the summers folk would be getting fried up. Not fired up-fried up, in that hot, stuffy church. Sorry, that little fan above the window or door wasn’t doing the trick. Everybody had the little paper fans just fanning away, making folk even hotter.
Eventually, the pastor would be ready to preach, usually after the choir and at least one solo had performed already.
Now when I was kid, I judged whether or not a pastor was good by how excited he got. On TV every Sunday before we headed to our church, Rev … excuse me … Apostle R.D. Henton from the South Side was my favorite. He’d start off slow, but man, once he got going, that jacket would come off and he’d be preachin’ and sweatin’ up a storm. That’s my kind of pastor. I won’t go into why I said preachin’ rather than peachin-g, but trust me, there’s a difference.
The best pastor I saw in person was at Greater Joy Baptist Church, my brother’s and his wife’s old church. It was on the South Side. Can’t remember the pastor’s name, but when he stood on the chair during his sermon when I visited the church that one Sunday, I was done.
Then there were those times in the black churches when the whole church-I mean, the whole church-would get the Holy Ghost. Scared me the first time I ever saw that. Even my mother would get caught up. People falling out. Folk running up the aisle while other folk were chasing them. Sisters holding hands in a circle while a lady in the middle was jumping, dancing and kicking (those missionary sisters and the bosses had their routine down).
I’m there watching all this as a little kid thinking, “GET ME OUTTA HERE! I don’t want that Holy Ghost up in me!”
I don’t know if these current church controversies are diluting that history. But those are mine and others’ memories. That’s the black church I loved.