Sunday, July 27, 2008

Y? goes to a Baptist Church, likes the music, confused by the message

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience.

What's worth noting is that this old Eastern-European "weak Jew" viewpoint you describe is something we better recognize now when it is contrasted with Zionism's "strong Jew" mentality. It is this "weak Jew" that the Zionists wanted to end. Instead of looking at Masada as the story of Jewish strength, they called upon that of the Maccabees. Instead of tolerating life as God's test they resisted oppression in the name of preservation of their community and way of life.

Considering what African-Americans have faced and continue to face in this country, it is not surprising to find a passive mentality in the Church. I also suspect that there are black churches with a more resistance-based philosophy. When blacks resisted both violently and non-violently, they were dealt with brutally. Even though Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement stressed nonviolence and largely prevailed, this passive mentality comes from a time before the Movement.

Putting full faith in God is what may have sustained African Americans in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, and today's more subtle yet still alive racism. The same may be true of the "passive" Jew; have faith in God, keep the Torah, and God will provide for you.

Although this passive view seems very foreign to many Americans, with our idea that we make our own destiny, we must look at such a view within its context. In a world where it seems as though you have little ability to change the world around you, where injustice and poverty seem unchangeable in your lifetime, faith in God can provide meaning in an otherwise meaningless world.

Anonymous said...

i'm glad you blogged about your experience visiting this church... as a black girl who's been going to baptist churches my whole life, it's interesting (and eye-opening) to see the service through fresh eyes.

i love your description of the music - exactly how i feel about it, the way the music guides and permeates everything done in the church. i'm now in a new town and visiting churches, and i'm not even ashamed to say i check out the choir first and foremost! can't worship if i'm wondering why the altos are off, why nobody tuned the piano.... you feel me.

As for the ghettoized values you compared to the "weak Jew" mentality, I certainly see that in some black churches today - the thing is, like your previous commenter noted, many people, especially those who are most affected by poverty and with the fewest resources for getting out of that situation, find great strength in putting all their faith in God, in believing he will provide whether or not they can see the evidence of this in their lives. And, luckily, there are churches that preach with an emphasis on economic uplift - churches with youth groups that help young people get through high school and apply to college, that help young adults find jobs, and that assist older people find affordable healthcare and keep their homes, etc. Like the economic hodgepodge you saw in that congregation, the black churches of urban America, at least in my experience, try to strike a balance that can address everyday realities while bolstering against those realities with a dependence on the Word.

Born2Di said...

Whattup wit it homie?!?!?! Long time no see! Interesting post. FYI, we definitely gotta catch up sometime soon. You know my debut album will be dropping within the next couple months right? Feel free to check out some of my older trax

Anyway, enough of that. As for the culture of historically Black churches, it is definitely rich, whether Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal, etc. I definitely feel like the culture of Black churches has been deeply shaped by the Black experience here in America. The suffering, the spirituals (to escape slavery), etc.

As for the message, it should not be shaped by the experience because the gospel is for every people group, every nationality, economic status, occupation, etc. The gospel is not only for lower class Blacks. It is the Faith begun by a poor Jew, buried by a rich Jew, who then rose and went on to create a legacy of followers of every people demographic.

I think the issue though is that we, as people, tend to be very autonomous and self-centered, two characteristics that are completely contrary to the gospel, thus we are not able to understand the virtue of the gospel. The gospel in not be hopeless and destitute. It does entail an insurmountable gulf which Christ brings every believer across. In light of that, our goal is to do everything and only things that please Him.

There is so much more that I'd love to share in order to clarify the gospel and ways that it may not be accurately represented by imperfect people/churches but I don't want to use your blog for something other than you intended it for. Feel free to hit me up on myspace or facebook though and maybe we can continue this dialogue.