Anyone who has seen "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Joice In The Hood" knows that the Wayans brothers spared no exaggeration in their portrayal of Urban Black America. A random trip to a Baptist worship service held in a public school auditorium in Cincinnati proved to me that every once in a while, there is some truth in caricature.
A good friend of mine, with whom I had played music in high school invited me to catch him at a church service this morning. Never having been to a Baptist service, and having only the aforementioned "Don't Be A Menace" scene as well as James Brown's performance "Blues Brother's" as reference points, I thought seeing the real deal would be a great idea.
I rolled into the service and found my friend jamming, but really COOKING with a drummer, keyboardist, and organist playing along with him. Not only was the music funky and upbeat, it permeated the entire service. When the Pastor started a song, the keyboard player would find the key and start playing chords, and a bar later, the bass and drums would bring the ruckus, and the whole place was clapping and singing along. When the Pastor started preaching, the keyboard and drums would accent the pauses in his phrasing with rich stabs and fills. And when the collection plate went around, a lush sound pad created an almost ethereal ambiance.
But the music aside, and it was hot, what I found really interesting was the message. Now let me be as descriptive as I can, this was a fairly small congregation in which my friend and I were the only non-African Americans. I'm definitely the only Yid in the place. The congregation seems like an economic hodge-podge (if one can truly draw those conclusions from such an encounter) but seemed to skew lower middle class and below.
The service did not require the use of any written documents and all of four lines of scripture, from Galatians, were read. I couldn't even hear them cuz the music overpowered it.
The sermon was delivered based on one line that Paul said about all things coming from Jesus and the way it was delivered made the message hard for me to grasp.
There seemed to be a few key points.
1. God provides for all of our needs, only God provides.
2. God provides for those who provide for the church and others.
3. God doesn't provide for those unwilling to provide for themselves.
Fairly standard populist religion right? But something about it irks me. I want to ask questions about Jesus and why people are being told to be content with their lot instead of seeking further education or training in order to increase their ability to provide for themselves.
At one point the Pastor made a comment about giving to the church even if it meant missing a car payment. That kinda shocked me.
On the other hand, my friend tells me that there have been numerous people who come to the church homeless and the church helps them get their lives together.
For an institution as central to the culture and community of African-America as the Church, it certainly seems like this particular congregation is preaching some of the same values as the ghettoized Eastern-European Old Jew culture.
You know. God is testing you, things will be better if you pray, its all in God's hands etc etc. Basically. . . the stuff that keeps people in their place and doesn't really encourage economic mobility.
I recognize that these are the experiences of an outsider at a specific congregation on a specific day, but what I saw was such a complex tapestry of joy and transcending pain through music, mixed with elements of mental slavery, that I'm not quite sure what conclusions to draw from the experience.
I tend to view any experience that takes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to learn and confront my ignorance as positive, and now I know where to go to get a good solid dose of great blues, funk, and gospel.