Wake Up, Everybody! Black Christian Experience in (and out) of Church

When I’m asked to respond to a scholar-practitioner of black church life, my first inclination is to sit down, shut up, listen carefully, and to ask:  What is it that I need to learn, as a white Christian?  What do I need to see, to hear, to change, as someone who strives to be in solidarity with black folks in a time of resurgence of anti-black violence? (Of course, recent violence is not exceptional: it’s been the norm in United States history). I am a white Christian whose segregated churches schooled me to be racist, in Sunday School classrooms, at church conferences, and during Sunday morning sermons. No matter the occasional sweet talk I heard about racial “reconciliation,” the churches of my youth suckled me on anti-black racism, and I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime, with the help of Jesus and so many others, confronting and undoing that legacy.

Black Christians in the U.S. have followed Jesus not in any kind of uniform way, as Farris Blount reminds us, but in complex and diverse pathways that constitute what is often called “the black church tradition.”  Blount’s insights come as a much-needed reminder that what many of us outsiders see as sameness is not at all monolithic.  Context is crucial, and demonstrates, Blount insists, the reality of diversity within black Christian experience.

I deeply appreciate the way Blount emphasizes the dynamic of other-worldly versus this-worldly, a way of understanding black Christian experience that he picks up from the distinguished scholars Lincoln and Mamiya and recognized by many other participant-observers. This dialectic is woven into the fabric of black church life.  I’m a white minister on the pastoral team of an all-black church, and my experience of this dynamic is not as an either-or thing but as a productive, creative both-and tension, at work within the very same congregation. Most folks at church love singing the standards that have brought comfort and strength to their ancestors – When We All Get to Heaven, or We’ll Understand It Better, By and By – but within the same service they’ll hear a sermon about concrete expressions of Jesus and justice in this world.

What I’ve notice is that so many of the young folks at church are increasingly impatient with the dynamic and have decided to put the thumb on the scale of this-worldly action, for quite understandable reasons. Is this a trend? In an age of Black Lives Matter, how widespread is this insistence on following Jesus primarily not in the sweet by and by, but right here, right now?  Does this reality represent a sea change in black church life, or a recent eruption of ongoing currents?

Black Christian experiences of following Jesus are not just confined to historically black churches and denominations, a reality too often overlooked. As Blount reminds us, black folks have made significant contributions to every single tradition we’ve explored in this set of sacred conversations. The influence of people of African descent may have been strongest in Methodist and Baptist spheres – after all, most black people in U.S. contexts have been Methodist or Baptist or Pentecostal, or as we say tongue-in-cheek at the church where I serve, Methobapticostal – but there have been prominent black presences within Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, Pietist, and every other Christian tradition we’ve examined, and even in those we haven’t (e.g., the Christian wings of Unitarian-Universalism).

My litany of black saints is long and growing, as I’ve become more attentive and attuned to the contributions of black folks in just about every U.S. Christian tradition. The litany includes names such as the Lutheran Rosa Young, the Reformed preacher Lemuel Haynes, the Episcopal Church’s Pauli Murray, Albert Raboteau of the Orthodox Church in America, Roman Catholic Sister Thea Bowman, and countless others from every generation whose names might be lost to us but are certainly known to God.

A question for me is whether, how, and to what extent these persons, and so many more black folks like them, brought ethical concerns, theologies, and experiences of black church life with them into predominantly white spaces, whether they were raised within those traditions or joined by conversion?  And what difference has it made? What have they taught, by thought, word and deed, about what it means to follow Jesus?  Was their witness received by white Christians?  Ignored? Misunderstood?  Sidelined? Such complicated questions can’t be answered in the abstract, of course, but only with the kind of keen attention to context that Blount urges.

A related question for me involves how our understanding of predominantly Euro-American churches would change if we foregrounded the experience of black folks as we narrativize those traditions, in considering what it means to follow Jesus within those structures. Not as an add-on exercise – It’s Black History Month, let’s learn about black Lutherans! – but as an integral rethinking of Christian witness considering the experience of black people within these traditions.

Finally, I’m curious about the scope of black expressions of Christian faith, which leads me to ask to wonder how the theology, ethics, and experience of black Christians have made their mark on the wider world, even outside of churches themselves.  Do we underestimate the influence of black Christian experience when we focus on religious institutions alone?  To explain what I mean, let me first come out as a lover of R & B and every kind of soul music, from doo wap to disco to deep house, including that old-school anthem, Wake Up Everybody.  First recorded in 1977 by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, it’s one of the most beloved hits of the genre, a familiar oldie covered by countless artists over the years, its uplifting socially conscious lyrics a balm for brittle, cynical times then as well as now.

Admittedly, this isn’t the place to explore the complicated web of connections I’m gesturing toward, but in short . . . like so much of black popular music, Wake Up Everybody has its roots in the experience and witness of people raised within and/or influenced by black Christianity.  Its sound – listen to that rhythm, the tambourines, the organ, the soaring vocals! – as well as its message of resilience, possibility, solidarity, and hope amplify countless performances of music and the preached word, particularly in Methobapticostal contexts.  Sure, many black preachers called out the blues, funk, disco, and other “secular” music as the Devil’s work – did they see Saturday night in competition with Sunday morning? – yet the gatekeepers never stopped the endless, creative back-and-forth flow.

John Legend’s cover of Wake Up is especially powerful in highlighting the black church roots I’m talking about.  On that cover, Melanie Fiona’s hip hop riffs draw out even more explicitly the original’s theological visions of lament, accountability, hope, praise, possibility, and co-creation with God.  Is Wake Up an example of what Prof. Josef Sorett calls “spirit in the dark,” a subterranean cultural current that runs between the spiritual practice of black churches and so-called “secular” cultural productions? Who knows how many who hear music like this in so-called “secular” spaces understand or receive the Gospel they’re given?  But that’s not the point. The power and presence of black ideas and practices nurtured in what we call “the black church” extends far beyond the church’s four walls, witnessing to the power of resilience, moving through suffering, experiencing joy, calling on the possibilities of justice and love, even in a society as brittle and fragile as ours.

So, Wake Up, Everybody!

The pathways of following Jesus don’t just run through the churches, black or otherwise, but often hide in plain sight, outside the places we call “church,” waiting to bless those with ears to hear, calling us closer toward the kin-dom that was the heart of Jesus’ message.