Cultural Connections: The African Roots of the African American Church
The impact of Africans on world civilizations is well documented. Africans have created and contributed to many aspects of culture, from commerce to cuisine. Religion has been at the center of these African contributions.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Africans have played an important role in the development of both ancient and contemporary Christianity. In the early centuries of Christianity, Africans, in countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia, shaped and spread the proclamation of the fledgling church. So the story of Africa's involvement with Christianity is as old as the church itself.
Yet the interaction of Africans and Christianity more relevant to this essay is rooted in the 15th, not the first, century. Beginning in the mid-15th century, various European nations expanded their economic wealth and extended their political influence through the trading of African slaves and the conquest of African lands. The colonial conquest spanned the entire African continent -- from the Sahara to South Africa. Christianity -- or a distorted version of it -- provided the religious justification for nations such as Portugal, France, Holland, England and the United States to exploit, brutalize and murder millions of Africans in the slave trade.
Amid this horrible violence, a new moral community arose in the United States -- the African American church. Over centuries, enslaved and free Africans in the United States transformed the religion they received from white Christians. These Africans removed the racist elements of white Christianity and replaced them with African practices and cultural wisdom, thereby moving Christianity in this country closer to Jesus' message of justice.
In the creative mixture of Christianity and African Traditional Religion, of biblical stories and African folklore, of Christian message and African music, the African American church was forged. The African American church sustained the liberation longings of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, of Henry McNeal Turner and Frederick Douglass. Later the African American church became the incubator for civil rights protests that persuaded the United States to embody its noble creeds through just deeds.
Furthermore, had it not been for the rhetorical, liturgical and moral imagination of the African American church, a black person would not currently be in The White House. The lyricism of President Barack Obama's language is the mother tongue of African American Christianity. If President Obama's oratory is soaring, it is because Trinity United Church of Christ, the African American congregation where he worshipped for many years, placed wings on his back. In spite of the politically-motivated vilification of President Obama's former congregation and pastor, fair-minded people cannot ignore that the United States' first African American President was shaped in and nurtured by the worship and prayers of an African American Christian congregation.
The Liturgical Calendar: The African American Quest for Freedom
Having explored the cultural roots of African American Christian worship, I now present some of that tradition's recent liturgical fruit. Under the visionary leadership of Martha Simmons, a trailblazing African American minister and scholar, The African American Lectionary debuted in December 2007. This historic resource will enrich American liturgical practice for decades to come. The Revised Common Lectionary used by many white, Christian denominations does not incorporate the theological presuppositions or liturgical particularities of African American Christianity. Consequently, Martha Simmons assembled an expansive network of African American ministers, scholars, musicians, liturgists and activists to create the first online, ecumenical preaching and worship lectionary for African American Christians (www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org). It was my privilege to serve on the lectionary creation team, a small group of scholars who supervised the project.
The African American Lectionary provides a yearly cycle of biblical readings and commentaries, cultural materials and worship resources to enhance the preaching and liturgical life of African American churches. In less than four years, more than four million people have visited the lectionary website, a compelling testimony to the importance of culturally-sensitive resources in the creative attempt to grasp, or be grasped by, the sacred in worship and prayer. The website uses the multimedia tools of the internet. Yet the roots of the lectionary are embedded in the soil of the protracted African American quest for freedom.
The lectionary's special liturgical moments present the distinctive, sweet fruit of African American worship that has fed the spirits of millions of people amid the bitterness of oppression and genocide. I highlight two distinctive liturgical moments on the African American lectionary calendar as a demonstration of how the quest for freedom impacts many aspects of African American Christian worship and prayer. The two liturgical moments are: 1) the Watch Night service and 2) the Maafa service.
1) Description of the Watch Night Service
Many Christian lectionaries begin with Advent, the month-long penitent and expectant waiting and watching for the birth of the Messiah beginning in late Nov./early Dec. While African Americans Christians have a robust, Jesus-centered piety, the African American church year does not begin with Advent, but rather with a special annual service in late December called the Watch Night service. Like ancient and contemporary Jewish communities anticipating and commemorating Passover liberation, contemporary African Americans communities recall the night of our waiting and watching for emancipation. In many African American communities, the only worship service during the year that surpasses the Watch Night service in attendance and liturgical intensity is the Easter service.
Watch Night is a jubilant African American worship service on New Year's Eve. While New Year's Day is a secular holiday, historic events have forever instilled sacred significance into the African American celebration of the New Year. On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, declaring that one hundred days later, Jan. 1, 1863, slaves would be free in those states rebelling against the Union in the Civil War. On December 31, 1862, also known as "Freedom's Eve," large groups of African Americans, along with white abolitionists, gathered in meeting halls and churches across the county to watch for news that the President had formally enacted the Emancipation Proclamation. The ink with which Lincoln penned the proclamation must have been dark. Mixed in it was the blood of countless slaves sacrificed in the United States' ironic quest for democracy. More than 140 years later, African American Christians continue to gather in churches on New Year's Eve to thank God for the blessings of the Old Year and to seek God's favor for the New Year.
2) Description of the Maafa Service
Maafa is a Kiswahili term meaning the "Great Disaster" (of 15th-19th century European, North American, South American, and Caribbean slavery). Some African American Christian congregations conduct Maafa services to honor the heroic struggle of black Africans who were violently seized from their ancestral lands and pressed into inhumane chattel slavery. These services also memorialize the millions of black Africans who died in the "Middle Passage" -- the brutal, trans-Atlantic voyage in the hulls of slave ships.
While Maafa services acknowledge this grim period in world history, they primarily accentuate the determination and resistance of those victimized by slavery. Furthermore, these services invite participants to relinquish to God the bitterness, hatred and guilt concerning these atrocities, in order to be more spiritually ready for protest against the present manifestations of "slavery" around the globe. Finally, by remembering the "Great Disaster," African American congregations challenge the tendency of countries and cultural groups to ignore or de-emphasize the tragedy and lingering effects of chattel slavery.
Both the Jewish and African American communities are connected in that each community has lived through a "Great Disaster." For Jewish people, it is the Shoah. (Shoah is a Hebrew word meaning "destruction" or "catastrophe." The word "holocaust," which is derived from the Greek word used in the Septuagint for "burnt offering," carries religious overtones. The massacre of millions of Jews and other marginalized groups such as the Romani, persons with disabilities and gay and lesbian persons during Hitler's tyranny was diabolical and irreligious. Thus, Shoah is the preferred term for many Jews.) For people of West African descent, the "Great Disaster" is the Maafa.
Each of these tragedies has its own cultural and historical particularities that should not be ignored. Furthermore, we should not encourage the futile "cultural contest" sometimes played between the Jewish and African American communities -- the game of whose suffering and losses were greater. In that game, we quickly forget that one life taken in a concentration camp in Germany or on a colonial plantation in Georgia was one life too many before God. Nevertheless, by bringing the tragedies of the Shoah and the Maafa into our liturgical life and placing them on the altar of our souls in prayer, we can channel creative, purifying spiritual energy that can ignite new commitments for justice and peace in the Jewish and African American communities, and around the globe.
Theological Commitments of African American Worship and Prayer
While the theological commitments of African American worship and prayer are numerous, two noteworthy aspects deserve comment:
1) Soul-Stirring Worship: "I Feel the Fire Burning"
African American Christian worship seeks to stir the soul. I use the term "soul" in the sense of the Hebrew word for "soul," nephesh. In the Hebrew Bible, "soul" does not mean the invisible part of a person. Soul connotes the whole person. Soul is every part of me; it's every part of you. Consequently, African American Christian worship speaks to every part of a person. It illumines the head and warms the heart.
As it brings the totality of people's humanity into a redemptive rendezvous with a righteous God, African American worship unapologetically plumbs the depths of people's emotions. It rejects the philosophical dualism between "body" and "mind" and insists that the presence of emotion does not equal the absence of intelligence. Thus, African American worship is a thoroughly-embodied, deeply-musical, highly-choreographed sacred drama -- with hands clapping, feet taping, elders humming, choirs swaying, ushers marching, preachers sweating, and congregants shouting, all for the glorification of God, the edification of the human spirit and the transformation of a troubled world. When the cognitive and emotive intensity of worship burns white-hot, some black Christians will joyfully declare, "I feel the fire burning." From a people who created the spirituals, the blues, jazz, gospel and soul music, the world would expect nothing less than soulful, or should I say soul-full, worship.
2) Soul-Cleansing Prayer: "Fix Me, Jesus, Fix Me"
African American prayer seeks to cleanse the soul from the toxins of racism, low self-esteem and unrelenting suffering. In a country supposedly offering "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," many African Americans have been killed, enslaved and chased by hostility. From the hulls of slave ships, to the branches of lynching trees, to the walls of prisons that house a disproportionate number of African Americans, the United States has insisted repeatedly, in policy and practice, that "colored" bodies are not as valuable as white bodies.
Rather than succumbing to the lie that black lives don't matter, African American Christians bow our heads and lift our hearts to a God who affirms that we are somebody. God has imprinted the divine image on every life, irrespective of color and creed. Since God cares for us, we can cast our cares upon God (1 Peter 5:7). Offering praise for blessings and lifting petitions for burdens, African American prayer is a passionate plea for Jesus to fix what it broken, to heal what is hurt and to cleanse what is tainted. The words of the spiritual convey this deep desire: "Oh, Lord, fix me; Oh, Lord, fix me, Jesus; Oh, Lord, fix me; fix me, Jesus, fix me." When I served as the Senior Pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, there was a wise deacon who often prayed, "Lord, fix the situation, but even if you don't fix the situation, fix me." In the midst of our "weary years" and "silent tears," African Americans continue to pray fervently, absolutely persuaded that our prayers touch the heart and move the hands of a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God.
Author's Note: This article also will appear in "Reclaiming the Center Volume II: Worship and Prayer in the Christian and Jewish Traditions," a resource published by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Md.