Everyone prays with their eyes closed. Except me. I watch brown faces, grimaced in earnest prayer, pleading to God for deliverance from hardships: unemployment or unhappiness or overdue bills. It’s the First Sunday of the month, Communion Sunday, and we’re all dressed in snow white or muted ivory or shy alabaster. It is what my church does. It is tradition from as long as I can remember. So I don’t question. I do it.
Etched on the front of a wood table are the words “Do this in remembrance of me.” On top lay two fake brass plates topped with crosses. Inside of the plates are crackers and grape juice. We use grape juice because no one drinks alcohol or rather no one is supposed to drink alcohol at this church. I can’t speak for the church less than fifty feet from us or the one across the street less than two blocks away.
A few scriptures are plastered on old pockmarked walls. Next to them are purple banners with gold lettering displaying the sacred names of the Lord, the Jehovah names. Misshapen brown water stains mar the ceiling. And I wait for God (whatever I believe Him or Her or Them to look like) or Jesus (I know what He looks like), but no one appears. Everyone opens their eyes and we eat the crackers and grape juice. Maybe God prefers cookies and milk like Santa Claus.
We are surrounded by unanswered prayers, but still come through those doors day after day, week after week, year after year. Every prayer meeting, bible study and choir rehearsal we pilgrimage from our houses to Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, where our church sits, amidst blocks saturated in sunshine and slaughter. We sometimes hear occasional gunshots during Friday Night Praise Service, but still worship, still leave the doors unlocked and hope whoever comes through them means us no harm.
“God a keeper, baby. He provides for us,” says Evangelist Carolyn. “He always does.”
I don’t wonder how I got to this small storefront church. My father arrived in his early 20s. He said he found something missing his whole life: people who believed he was a better person than he actually was. He and my mom were married, and he brought her. And they stayed. My brother and I learned there are 66 books in the bible. We learned about the Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Noah and his Ark. Fishes and loaves and Crucifixion. We learned about Salvation as children. My parents put it off until they were adults.
My ancestors came to America already built with a belief system:, some were Muslim, some worshipped other ancient gods, and I don’t know these African gods’ names because they were lost to time and atrocity; they were dismissed by slave owners as base and crude superstition.
Slaves were subjected to not just whips and chains and subjugation in its most horrific mental and physical forms, but spiritual as well. They were forced to have the very words of a religion weaponized against them.
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” Ephesians 6:5–9
Slave masters believed that through God they could keep a people as their own. It was their right. God said so. It was in the pages of the bible. Salvation was meant for them. Slavery was meant for us.
This new world and this new god were thrust upon us. We had little choice. Yet we discovered how to claim our freedom in other ways, through Spirituals we signaled when others could escape plantations and follow the North Star. We imbued Christianity with our color, with new rituals and traditions, with bold convictions and hope this god would deliver us from horrific tribulations.
Then we realized God isn’t going to completely save us so we must do our part to save ourselves. In churches, we held meetings about injustice and planned how to defeat it. We preached and marched and sang and prayed. We came together. In some ways, we won. In many ways we continue to fight. The enemies are no longer the backs of buses and separate water fountains, water cannons and burning crosses. Our very lives and worth remain at stake among the lack of opportunity and politicians and rage and bullets.
We eat at Red Lobster after church. The cheddar bay biscuits flow. As we leave, Dad runs into a friend and they discuss a few coworkers who’ve recently passed away from cancer or diabetes or a heart attack. I can’t exactly remember what every cause of death is. Dad runs into people like this all the time and they talk about dead people. I guess that’s what some older black people do. Reaffirm their lives by obsessing about death.
“You know [Tommy] passed. Heard it was sudden. The homegoing is Saturday morning.”
Dad shook his head, “Nobody knows the time nor the hour, Brother.”
“Oh it’s deacon now, Minister Gerald.”
My father’s eyes go wide, and he smiles, “Oh congrats Bro-, excuse me Deacon.” And he laughs and they embrace.
Minister. Pastor. Apostle. Prophet. Titles also hold such an importance in how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to others. Titles don’t come at a specific time or a specific order. There are no tests. Different people have different titles depending on the church, denomination and so on. While many of the people I love — my father, aunts, uncles and others — would say titles aren’t important, they use them like armor protecting their self-worth, proudly addressing themselves by Elder, Deacon, Evangelist, etc. They’ll correct someone when they fail to use a specific designation.
Why do we cling to titles? Some revere an elevated sense of self. We can ascribe a spiritual value in a world cruelly and consistently overlooking us. We’re then a little more able to deal with a country devaluing African Americans, our lives and our contributions.
For some of us, titles are where meaning is discovered, where worth is unearthed and determined, where we find an acceptance, but most importantly power, even if it’s only within the four walls of a church. We need it. It’s how some of us survive.
There’s a man and he walks through the doors on late Sunday morning. The bottoms of his jeans are frayed at the edges, a small hole ornaments the left pocket of his red and black plaid shirt. He sits near the back of the church. Normally Elder Jefferson sits there, but she’s visiting family in Atlanta. If she was here, she’d bestow the most cutting side-eye and in that long gaze basically let the visitor know he needs to move his behind to another seat. The rest of the congregation know to never sit there, but Elder Jefferson isn’t here so we won’t say anything. It’s our little secret.
The visitor listens to the weekly announcements about upcoming services and meetings. He falls asleep about five minutes after announcements end. He doesn’t snore, his chest rises and falls. His head is bent as if in prayer.
We leave him be. “He’s not hurtin’ no one,” says Sister Henrietta. And service continues.
Hands clap on beat. Tambourines and the drum keep tempo. Hymnals stay tucked in the backs of my pews for these songs aren’t ones written down. These are the songs passed down from the elders and from their elders before them. The organ and piano find their root in the melodies of old spirituals, words whose origin isn’t always clear, but the undertone of suffering is, and in this there is something sacred and ancient and timeless. A people, especially ones whose trajectory is set and reset by those in power, a people trying to break patterns of injustice through votes and protests, through marches and sit-ins, a people like this knows about suffering. Blacks in America are the modern-day Children of Israel. They walk through a seemingly endless desert where the sun beats down at its highest point in the sky.
The man in the back still sleeps.
We put our money in the offering.
Pastor rises to deliver the Word, so we all rise until he says, “You may be seated.” Pastor preaches about faith, about how we can’t always see a blessing even when it’s in front of us. We listen. Mmm-hmms and Amens are bandied about. Multi-hued brown hands raise in agreement or deliverance.
Pastor ends his message and we pray and dismiss. Pastor goes to the back of the church and gently wakes the stranger. And in those deep brown eyes, the visitor smiles and says he enjoyed the service.
“What’s your name brother?” asks Pastor.
“Can I pray for you?”
“Sure. Sure, yeah. I’d like that,” agrees Montell. “Sorry ‘bout fallin’ asleep like that. Just haven’t felt good enough to rest in a while. Just felt safe is all.”
Pastor prays for Montell and he leaves. He hasn’t been back for the last two Sundays, but Pastor prays we’ll see him again.
We never told Elder Jefferson Montell sat in her seat.
No one can barbecue like Brother Bill. Ribs, burgers and hotdogs sizzle under the black umbrella-shaped top of the grill. Sister Nanette brought her upside pineapple cake. I keep my eye on it because I’m getting a corner piece come hell or highwater. Three people made potato salad for the annual church picnic, but I’m only eating Sister Maggie’s.
August’s heat doesn’t oppressively press down on us, doesn’t make our skin slick with sweat. Minister Timothy brought his speakers and plays DJ. The Temptations’ “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” baptizes the air of the park and some of the Elders sing along. A few songs later Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” comes on and I start singing along. Elder Jefferson looks like she bit into something sour. I sing the song a little louder.
We listen to mostly secular music during the picnic though Minister Timothy manages to work in a gospel song here and there.
Brother Bill smiles a smile. It means the food is ready. We let the Elders go first, out of respect and just good upbringing, but after them, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.
We heap food onto paper plates. I scoop up some of Sister Maggie’s potato salad. I get my corner piece of Sister Nanette’s pineapple upside down cake. Today, I pretend I’m free of the bonds of what’s saved and not saved, what is considered righteous or vulgar. I sit in the park and revel in the calm breeze. Whatever normal is or wherever God is, I pretend I am and that He’s fine with good food and Bruno Mars.
We keep the supplies in large cardboard boxes underneath a long table. Normally, the lot on the left side of the church is filled with gravel and odd bits of litter, but not today. We hand out bookbags to the neighborhood children full of notebooks, folders, pens and pencils. One of them particularly excited to snag the last Avengers bookbag.
“What do you say, Marcus?” says the woman next to the boy.
“Thank you,” a shy smile crawling across his mouth.
No one talks about God. No one cares at this moment about which denomination someone is or isn’t. The title they hold. We want the children in this neighborhood to succeed and we want to feel like the good people we hold ourselves out to be every Sunday morning.
There is love in this church, in these walls, no matter how fractured or faulty, and I believe that is enough. We have to live with our choices and hopes and regrets. We have people around us struggling with the same thing.
I believe this is the presence of God, but even if it isn’t. It’s close enough for me.