The black church is so much more than a place of worship. It is a weekly meeting where sorrows and joys are felt and shared. It is a sturdy foundation, bolstering those who choose to stand upon it. It flirts with the dichotomy that exists between politics and religion and forces them to be wed together.
Growing up, I dreaded Sunday morning church services. I did not understand the frivolous matching dresses that my mother forced my sister and me to wear. I did not understand why I had to wear itchy stockings that I would just tear off anyway. I did not understand why the music was so loud, why I could feel the beat of the bass drum replacing the beat of my heart or why the vibrations of the bass guitar rang so loudly in my ears. But most importantly, I did not understand why my father was invited to these various churches as a guest speaker.
My father is a physician, and yet he spent just as much time standing before a sea of loyal churchgoers as he did in the operating room. I could not understand why a doctor was being asked to play the part of a reverend or pastor. The more I sat in the velvet-covered pews of various churches, the more I understood that to black people, the church is much more than a place of worship loud enough to rattle the glass stained windows. Globally, the black church has been a place to mobilize over grievances, grievances that were often times unstated but mutually felt. Being physically encased all in one space meant that our suffering was shared and felt, seemingly circulated through the sanctuary by the giant fans battling the Georgia heat.
Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Cornel West. Reverend Al Sharpton. Reverend Martin Luther King Junior. Reverend Jesse Jackson. Reverend Desmond Tutu.
This listing of names isn't meant to suggest that all black activists are reverends. But it is interesting to note that some of the most praised and revered leaders of the black community were brought up in the church, continuing to use it for sustenance in a never-ending struggle and pursuit for liberation. In focusing my attention to my father's "title" of doctor, I had othered him. In my juvenile mind, he was unable to open his mouth and say anything of meaning, anything inspirational that would mobilize the congregation because he is not a reverend; he is a doctor. Now years later, where I am able to stay awake during the entire service, the music no longer a disturbance to my napping but my form of communication with those around me, my father continues to be invited to churches. Somehow, an African immigrant who grew up in a tradition of Christianity akin to what colonizers left behind, was fully embraced and welcomed into a unique and dynamic cultural phenomenon that is the black church.
The ritual of a gathering of bodies, all different yet gathering together to exist as one body, is why the black church has endured from slavery until now. Each member of the congregation, no matter how old or how small, is a tough fiber, unable to be unwoven from the church. Although time has passed, the word activist has not shed its negative connotations. It still suggests angry, troublemaker, disturber of peace, all things the greater society would condemn. As a new generation embraces the title of "activist", it will be interesting to see the role that the black church plays. Will it continue to be a breeding ground for passionate individuals, or will the sanctuary doors slam shut and join in the condemnation?