Most of you who read here regularly know that I’ve spent most of my 22 years of priesthood ministering in the African American Parishes here in Washington DC. (Here’s a picture of our choir on the right). On this holiday in which we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, I want to say that I have received rich blessing from the heritage of African Americans whose culture still retains deep roots in the sacred, and in draws richly upon biblical norms of trust, liberation from sin, justice and most importantly, the lively experience of God’s immanent presence.
I would like to share a few of the things I have learned and experienced over the years. I will focus primarily with the liturgical experience. I can only say a little about each point but hope. Even still this is a long post, perhaps the holiday will permit you more time to read it. Despite the inadequacy of my words, I hope that you will grasp the rich wisdom and sacred tradition that I have been privileged to experience. I do not claim that what I share is true of every African American Catholic, for they are not a monolith and there is appreciation of numerous liturgical traditions. But collectively, as a community, these are widely shared values.
1. Expectation – Great expectations are brought to the liturgical moment. Most of my parishioners come to Mass expecting to be moved, changed, and transformed. It is expected that God, the Holy Spirit, will show up and that He will do great and wonderful things. Prior to Mass there is an air of anticipation as the parishioners gather. Some call this “The Hum.” The expectation is palpable, and parishioners both want and expect a deep experience of God. They look forward to the songs of praise that are about to be sung, and are prayerfully expectant of a good sermon where they will “get a word” from the Lord. As we shall see, there is little anxiety about time or the need to rush and hurry. This is God’s time and He is about to go to work.
2. All about God – Gospel music is a central facet of most African American parishes. Yet, to be clear, a wide variety of music is sung in most such parishes to include: spirituals, traditional hymns, classical music, and both traditional and modern Gospel music. One of the glories of musical repertoire of the African American Parishes is that it is almost exclusively focused on God and what He is doing. We have remarked here before how much modern Catholic music is far too focused on us, who we are, and what we are doing. Not so in the gospel music tradition where God is invariably the theme. In an anthropocentric time, this is a refreshing stream from which to draw. You may have whatever feelings you have about the style of Gospel music, but the bottom line is that it is about God. One song says, God is a good God, he is great God, he can do anything but fail. Another says, God and God alone! Another songs says, God never fails! And on and on. Even when we mention ourselves it is only to remember God: We’ve come this far by faith, Leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word, He’s never failed me yet!
3. The Primacy of Joy – A serene and joyful spirit is at the heart of African American worship. The Church is a bride, not a widow and God is good! Even in difficult times we ought to praise the Lord. Psalm 34 says, I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth. An old African American says goes: Praise the Lord anyhow!
Joy is manifest in many ways in African American Worship: clapping during the singing, stepping and swaying, uplifted hands, spontaneous acclamations, even an occasional stamping of the foot!
It is a strange thing to look at some Catholic Masses see what appears to be more a funeral than a wedding. Sour faced saints and bored believers. Now, to be sure, people manifest piety in different ways. Even in the African American parishes not everyone is on their feet as the choir sings powerfully. But in the end we ought to manifest some glimmer of joy rather than to look like we’ve just sucked a lemon.
Joy is a great gift and it is present in abundance in African American worship. St. Paul says, Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say it, rejoice! Your graciousness should be known to all (Phil 4:4-5). A gospel song says, Joy, Joy, God’s great joy. Joy, joy, down in my soul. Sweet, beautiful, soul saving joy, oh, joy, joy in my soul!
4. Time – This is God’s time. Earthly time is largely suspended in the African American experience of the Mass. Masses often go substantially longer than the average Catholic parish. At the African American parishes where I have served, the “High Mass” usually goes two hours. Even the Low masses run at about an hour and fifteen minutes.
In most typical and suburban Catholic parishes there is a rule that Mass is to go 45 minutes to an hour. If things start to run long there are nervous, even angry glances at watches and the like. Sermons are to be 7 to 10 minutes. Further, many take communion and go right out the door.
Not so in the African American parishes where the notion of time is more relaxed. It may be that the Holy Spirit puts it on a soloist to take up the refrain of a song yet one more time. There’s often an expression that comes from the congregation: “Take your time,” or “sing on!” This is God’s time and He will do what He will do.
Most African American congregations are also famous for lingering after the service. Here too another expression comes to mind: Take your time leaving. In the end, Mass is one of the highlights of the week. Why rush through it? Savor the moment. A song says, We’re standing on holy ground.
5. Creativity and freedom in the Spirit: African American Catholic Worship is careful to follow the norms for Mass but exhibits an appreciation for creativity and docility to the Holy Spirit. This is especially evident in music. It is rare that a soloist sings the notes of a song exactly as written. (The exception to this would be when classical music is Sung). Rather, liberty is taken as the choir, soloists, the organist, and director are all open to what and where the Spirit leads.
There is deep appreciation for this spontaneity and it is seen as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit interacting with the gifts in the community. A gospel song says, Over my head, I hear music in the air, There must be a God somewhere! This is also a history to this which stretches back to slave times. Those who were enslaved enjoyed very little freedom. But on Sundays they would gather in hush harbors and secluded locations. They would often take up the hymns they had heard from the European tradition but adapt them. In so doing they expressed their freedom in the Lord. The spirituals too are remarkably creative, manifesting a genius of both word and song. They also admit of a wide variety of interpretations and different verses are swapped in and out at the will of the singers.
All of this creativity leads to a great pregnancy and expectation in the liturgy. Who knows what God will do? There are moments of great delight and a sense that this is all in God’s hand.
It also gives a different understanding to the presence of applause in the liturgy. Many rightly lament that, in certain settings, applause creates the notion of performance rather than worship. But in the African American setting applause is an act of praise to God, thanking him for this manifestation of the Spirit. This is made evident by the fact that the congregation most often applauds even after the songs that it sings together. This is not a self-congratulation but is an act of praise to God. The psalms say, Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy(eg Ps 47)
6. The Preaching moment – Sermons are usually longer in the African American Parishes. At the High Mass the sermon is usually one half an hour. There is great expectation on the part of the congregation in terms of the homily and a great interest in spending time with the Word of God. It is expected that the preacher will not only seek to inform the congregation but celebrate the liberating reality of the Word that is proclaimed. The word of God does not just inform, it performs and it transforms. The preacher is invited, and expected, not just to preach the “what,” but also the “so what,” and the “now what.”
These expectations have surely challenged me over the years to be powerfully aware of the majesty of God’s word and to look deeper into its meaning and experience its truthand reality in my life. Only then can I really preach with the power and authority that God’s Word deserves. In order to preach with authority, I have to know the author.
There is also, with more time, the luxury to really dig into a passage and analyze all the lines. Many of you who read this blog have read my Sunday Sermon outlines and note that I usually break open the whole text rather than just draw a thought or idea and preach that. The longer format permits the preacher to examine the stages and steps often set forth by a gospel passage and following the passage line by line. This is a great luxury for me that most of my brother priests don’t have.
And I am not alone in the preaching moment. One of the glories of the African American preaching tradition is that the congregation has a central role in the preaching moment. It begins with their expectation. I know that they are praying and supportive of me as I begin. They really want to hear a word and spend some time with it. There is very little of the tense, looking at the watch, “let’s get thing over with” attitude that is sometimes manifest in Catholic parishes. This is a moment to be savored.
Then too, those well schooled in the tradition know how engage the congregation explicitly in the preaching moment. The priest or deacon will do this by taking up the tradition of “call-response” wherein he calls forth a familiar response from the congregation and invites acclamations: Somebody say Amen… Amen! Is there a witness in this house? God is good!….All the time! The preacher might also build a litany and invite response. Perhaps he will announce: Just say “I’ll rise!” And then begin: Trials and Troubles? (I’ll rise!) Sufferings and Setbacks? (I’ll rise), dangers and difficulties (I’ll rise!). And so he builds on the theme and includes the congregation.
The congregation too takes its rightful role in crafting the homily moment through spontaneous acclamations: Amen!…Well?!….Go on preacher!….Help him Lord….Make it plain preacher! And so forth. Likewise there can be spontaneous applause and shouts as well as laughter and even some oos and ahhs.
7. Jesus is here right now – There is a profound sense in African American Catholic Worship of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in every liturgy. Most traditional Anglo-Saxon Catholics prefer to express their faith in the true presence through silent adoration, bowed heads, and folded hands. But the African American tradition, though not excluding such forms, also expresses this faith through exuberant joy in the Lord’s presence and cultivates a celebratory experience that this is holy ground, that I am in the Lord’s house and that he is here. Songs at communion include texts that acknowledge this in more experiential an immanent than theological and transcendent. Songs like, Jesus is here right now, I received the Living God and my heart is filled with joy, Now behold the Lamb, Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!, Come now and feed our weary souls.
8. Permission – it is a stereotype to think that every African American likes only gospel music, wants to shout out at homilies and get excited at Mass. There is a whole range of personalities expressed and experienced at Mass. Some are happy and expressive, others quiet and reserved. A wide variety of preferences and liturgical expressions exist. At my parish we even have a monthly Traditional Latin Mass that is well attended followed by Eucharistic Adoration.
What makes African American worship diverse and expressive is the concept of permission. Not everyone is required to clap rhythmically at songs, but there is permission to do so. Not everyone is responsive during homilies but there is permission. Not everyone gets to their feet as the choir sings powerfully, but there is permission to do so. Hence there is a wonderful balance between permission but no pressure.
In some parishes I know, if someone started to get happy in the pew, the ushers would arrive before long and give the bum’s rush. Not so in the African American Parishes where permission exists for a wide variety of expression. This also allows God the Holy Spirit to be sovereign. Surely there are some limits, but the boundaries are broader and more gracious. A song says, There’s plenty good room in my Father’s Kingdom!
9. Trust – a key theme of the African American Culture is trust in God. This has come from a long history of oppression but also the experience that God can make a way out of no way and do anything but fail. Gospel music and the spirituals are replete with calls to a trusting and confident faith. One song says, God never fails. Another song says, Blessed Assurance! Another says, Victory is mine. Another says, Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say It is well with my soul, it is well. Another says, Joy comes in the morning, troubles don’t last always. Another says, He may not come when you want him, but he’s always on time. And on and on…..
These songs of trust and assurance were very important for me in my 35th year of life when I suffered a nervous breakdown and slipped into a major depression with anxiety attacks. This parish literally help sing me back to health.
10. Sober about sin, Confident of Grace to overcome – Some of my brother priests are surprised when they hear my homilies, and say to me that they could not get away with saying some of the things I do in their parishes. This is especially with frank discussion about sin. But good, solid, biblical preaching is appreciated in the African American Tradition and it is understood that the Lord has a lot to say about sin that is plain and unambiguous.
There is also a legacy of gospel music and the Spirituals which speaks frankly but creatively about sin and its relation to redemption. One song says, I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in. Another says, I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry and from the water lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, love lifted me. A spiritual says, I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die. Another says, Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you. Another says, Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all tuned out., Another song says, Where Shall I be when the last trumpet sounds? Another says, Sign me up for the Christian jubilee, write my name on the roll. I want to be ready when Jesus comes. Another song says, I’ve got to fast and pray, stay in his narrow way, keep my life clean each and every day. I want to go with him when he comes back, I come too far and I’ll never turn back ! So sin is real but so is grace to liberate us. A song says, I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be, a wonderful change has come over me.
These are just a few lessons I have learned from my parishioners over the years. African American Catholics have important gifts to share with the wider Church as you can see. On this Birthday Observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to be sure to express my gratitude for the this gift of culture and tradition and for the gift that every parishioner has been to me. I have learned far more than I have ever preached and come to know by experience that encountering Christ does not just happen from the Priest to the faithful, but also from the faithful to the priest. Birthdays celebrate the gift of human life and the gift of the human person. I have much to celebrate.
Here are some videos from the tradition:
Here is a dramatic re-enactment of a sermon by Vernon Johns, a prophetic preacher in the black tradition from the early 1950s. Here he is trying to rouse a fearful congregation to stand up to lynching and police brutality that was taking place in Birmingham at that time. He paved the way for Dr. Martin Luther King who succeeded him as Pastor. Note in this clip how the spoken word gives way to the sung word. Preaching in the Black Church is always a shared effort.
Here’s a gospel song about trust: