In Which I Go to a Black Church
So this Sunday was an experience. This Sunday, I went to an African-American church called the Door of Hope along with the thirteen other kids in my scholarship group and our advisor, Dr. Demarco. Among us, we had a total of 13 white kids, a black kid, 1.5 jewish kids, and a white doctor. I could tell that this would be an interesting experience for all of us.
Perhaps let me start this post by apologizing that I don’t have any pictures from inside of the service. I wasn’t sure if it would be impolite, rude, or inconsiderate to take pictures of folks, and by the time I realized that it probably would’ve been okay, the liveliest portion of the service was over. So all I have are these dinky photos of the church building and sign:
We entered the church, and immediately I was full of conflicting feelings. It turned out that the entire service would leave me conflicted at every moment. When we walked in at eleven o’clock, the service was already lively with the sound of gospel music, which I loved. So in a way, I felt immediately at home. I love singing loud, harmonious, spirited gospel, and I can sing it right along with the rest of them. But in another way, I felt so painfully distant from what was going on because of who I was with. One can only feel so immersed in a community when one is surrounded by other outsiders. I would start dancing and singing, and I would start to get into it, but then I would look around and see that most of my classmates who were at the service weren’t, which made me feel weird, which made me want to stop dancing and singing and getting into it. Essentially, there were two choices; I could be awkward in the eyes of the congregation by not participating, or I could be awkward in the eyes of my fellow students because I was participating. So I struck some sort of unsatisfactory middle ground, on the brink of enthusiastically–but not quite enthusiastically–dancing and singing.
The singing continued and began increasing in intensity until it reached a fever pitch. People were weeping, and a young woman in the row in front of us was out in the aisle dancing so vigorously that she had to be covered with a blue cloth to stop her underwear from showing as her pants began to fall down. Four rows ahead of us to the front, an older woman was crooning, “YES! YEEES! YEE-EEE-ESSS!” at the top of her lungs as the announcements began, and she continued to do so for a minute or two.
Again, this left me pretty conflicted. On the one hand, I saw the young woman dancing and crying in front of me and I wondered what was troubling her so deeply that she needed this kind of weekly release. I’m not certain, but it is my suspicion that that kind of spiritually intense experience is derived from some sort of pain, loss, or suffering in life, and I couldn’t help but think about what it might have been that was making her feel that way. I was, however, immensely thankful that she had an outlet to express that kind of pain and to feel the love that she surely felt in that service; it was her refuge, and it was a refuge that I’m glad she has. But on the other hand, I couldn’t help but be perturbed by that same phenomenon. While religious experiences that intense can be life changing, they can also be extremely manipulative. It is that same feeling of spiritual high that allows people to be financially exploited by heartless television evangelists selling “Miracle Water for just a small donation of $20;” it is that same feeling of spiritual ecstasy that brings people to accept another person’s spiritual framework without question, regardless of how judgmental and unethical it may be; and it is that same intense religious experience that can oftentimes make people lose their ability to think rationally and critically. I’m not saying that any of those things were happening to this young woman; I’m only saying that they may have the potential to somewhere down the line.
When Bishop Michael Blue began his sermon, I had similar feelings. He began at an even tone, but quickly escalated to a booming, raspy yell that lasted for an hour and a half. He would holler some, pause, wipe the profuse sweat from his brow, and yell some more. At certain points, he was downright screaming, and it made me very uncomfortable in many ways, again because his rhetoric—really the entire experience of worship at Door of Hope—was centered almost entirely around pathos. It focused its efforts almost exclusively on raw emotional appeal, not as much on an intellectual or logical sentimentality. That would be how I would best describe Bishop Blue’s sermon; all pathos and ethos, not much logos. Accordingly, he could got away with some slight historical mischaracterizations, theological inconsistency, and contradictory rhetoric. It was strange, watching our group listen to his sermon. I watched the two Jewish people in our group listen as he talked about how those of “the old covenant” don’t have God with them always, but those of “the new covenant” do. I watched the doctor and aspiring medical students in our group listen as he preached that God can heal you beyond what medicine can do. I watched the history majors bite their tongues as he over-simplistically stated that the protestant reformation caused the invention of the printing press and the enlightenment. I felt myself, a former-Methodist-turned-typical-college-agnostic-humanist, squirming as he condemned agnostics and atheists because Jesus is the only way to salvation.
It was around that time that the thought hit me, and I regret it because it shows a huge lack of cultural respect and a vastly privileged life, but I have to divulge it in the hopes of honestly reflecting on the experience. When looking around at all of the children who were in the service, I wondered what would happen if, instead of spending five hours in church every Sunday, the children in this service were made to spend an hour or two at church, and the other three or four hours reading or dancing or drawing or something else stimulating? How would the world change?
Also, because I feel that I may have gotten overly-critical, I should make a note that Door of Hope was nothing less than completely warm and welcoming to our group of fourteen privileged Duke students. They let Dr. DeMarco get up and speak about us, they made us stand up in order to recognize us, they applauded what we were doing in the community, and they hugged us one by one when the time to welcome visitors came.
All in all, it was a very conflicted experience, but one that perhaps I will be able to digest with time.