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Black Church Taught Me How To Be Black

As a black woman religious scholar, I treat the Bible as an ancient text to be read critically. As a black woman, I hold tight to the faith of my ancestors.

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The last time I went to my home church, I had flown home to celebrate Mother’s Day. We went to our family church — Greater Bethlehem African Methodist Episcopal Church in Milton, Florida — and the parishioners were ready to kill the fatted calf, as the parable goes. Girl, you look good. Gimme a kiss. You look just like your mama! I heard that you’re a big-time professor up there! I noted a few changes in church since my childhood. A woman pastor. A new sound system. Some younger families had joined.

Midway through the service, I was startled as a gnarled, arthritic hand appeared beside my shoulder. In it was a butterscotch candy! Childhood memories of church all came flooding back to me. Sitting in hard wooden pews and swinging my short little Palmer’s cocoa-buttered legs under the seat. Snuggling up to my grandmother’s juicy, old lady fat arms and twirling the trim on her old lady shawl. Trying to stay awake and having an old black woman hand me a piece of candy. In that moment, I was at home.

Across the street from my grandmother’s house, where I spent most weekends, Greater Bethlehem was a small, poor, rural congregation, and therefore undesirable to ambitious ministers who hoped to have their own church heliport one day. Pastors came and went, but it was generations of women like my grandmother who truly ran the church. No major expenditures would be approved without their say-so. No church activities would be successful without their nod and their baked goods. My grandmother sat in her seat — left side, second row, far right — and watched the world turn and endured as only black women do.

Living in service to her community was a religious and social obligation but also a privilege. And that’s partly what makes the attack on Emanuel AME so horrific: For many of us, black church is not just a worship space but part of our home and family.

Although I’ve been studying religion since 1998 when I started seminary, it was in Greater Bethlehem AME — and by the example of my grandmother and other saints — that I learned Christian faith. The Black church is not a place of merely professing faith but of doing faith. We went to church to work. My uncles cut the grass on the weekends. My cousins and I dusted and vacuumed on Saturdays. We, along with other families, served as ushers, choir members, musicians, cooks, janitors, and did whatever needed to be done. This tradition of service is not unique to the AME church, but it was instilled in us that we had an obligation to serve our community in tangible ways.

As a result of our commitment, my church family was an extension of my biological family. Anthropologists would call them fictive kin, but that makes it sound like a game of pretend. Church mothers really taught me to stand up straight, to speak into a mic, to shake hands firmly. Mrs. Rich helped me to write my youth day speech on Abigail. Mrs. Hand let me teach Sunday school because I asked so many questions. My church family taught me that black was beautiful before I learned it was a political slogan. They taught me all three beloved verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and what it meant to have a Negro national anthem. Before #BlackLivesMatter, I knew that my voice mattered. I mattered.

Nobody talked much about race because nobody was stud’in white folks. We focused on our black community. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois relays the question “How does it feel to be a problem?” At church, I never felt like a problem. Blackness was not a horrible burden. It was a gift and a legacy that you strived to be worthy of. It was part of my identity — not a deficiency or disability. At school, I was an unusually smart black girl. At home and at church, I was a smart girl. In the white world, I was not white and not blonde. At home and at church, I looked like my mama, and I was beautiful.

Black solidarity has been a part of AME as long as it has existed. In lessons to even the youngest Sunbeams — as the pre-K parishioners are called — we were taught of the founding of the AME Church by Richard and Sarah Allen and others. In 1787, after black worshipers were pulled from their knees by white congregants at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church and ordered to a segregated area, black members responded by leaving St. George’s. This led to the founding of the AME Church and the flagship Mother Bethel AME Church in 1816 in Philadelphia. The tradition of protest was part of our church history. For us, being a Christian required more than a profession of faith. It required action. As my grandmother would say, “Ev’rybody talkin 'bout heaven ain’t goin’.”

When I read of the Emanuel AME Church shooting, I knew that I had to get to an AME church. I went to a vigil at Mother Bethel AME, which is the AME home church in Philadelphia. The first song that the choir sang was “I Will Trust in the Lord.” This spiritual is insistent in its repetition. I will trust in the Lord / I will trust in the Lord / I will trust in the Lord until I die. In our little country church, it was sung usually without accompaniment. Just voices lifted in unison as a declaration of faith. Instantly, I started crying. This was the faith of my grandmother. This is the faith of black Christians. Through it all — and there is so much — I will trust.

Lord knows I no longer believe everything that I was taught in church. As a biblical scholar, I don’t treat the Bible as a guidebook for life. It's an anthology of ancient texts, which I read critically, in search of feminist and womanist interpretations. But the faith of my ancestors sustained them through many dangers, toils, and snares, and it still sustains me. I saw myself and my family in those faces at the vigil, and I saw myself and my family in the faces at Emanuel. Emanuel opened its doors this Sunday, and it will continue to do so. The black church will carry on because it’s one place where #BlackLivesMatter is lived.

In the biblical book of 2 Kings, when the prophet Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, his mantle, or ecclesiastic cape, falls to Elisha, his successor. When my grandmother died, I asked for one of her housedresses. In all of its fake Pucci print polyester glory, it is the mantle of Elijah for me. A housedress is like a caftan but sturdier. It’s for grown-ass women. After the white day is done, you take off your wig, your foundation garments, your heels, and your hose and slip into it for the second shift. You lounge in a caftan; you work in a housedress. I have a MacBook Pro in my lap instead of a bowl of snap peas, but my grandmother’s housedress reminds me of my obligation to my community and the privilege of service.

Nyasha Junior, Ph.D., is the author of An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation (Westminster John Knox, 2015).

Contact Nyasha Junior at njr@nyashajunior.com.

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