Don't forget the bridge

As it has in the past, worship still serves African-American Christians as the bridge that traverses troubled waters.

Craig A. Dossman pastors the Brooklyn Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brooklyn, New York.

No one needs to be struck by lightning to recognize that Christian worship in African-American churches is inherently different than in Euro-American churches. It's not that one is necessarily superior to the other; they just differ.

This difference grows out of the peculiar social history of African-Americans. For nearly 250 years Black people were subjected to the most brutal and obscene human bondage. They had to deal with three dynamic, and often traumatic, cultural transformations. The first resulted from their capture and sale--when they were used to being free and productive in their own environment.

The second major transformation came when they were "freed." While they were free in theory, they were still politically powerless, economically exploited, and socially degraded and dis enfranchised. Blacks had to start the protracted process of trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they had no boots to wear and little means with which to acquire any.

The final transformation involved the mass movement of Black people out of the South to the North. They left an agricultural, personal, informal, slower-paced environment and entered an industrial, impersonal, formal, faster-paced society.

In all three instances Black people had their social institutions disrupted, either deliberately or through force of circumstances.

How has the Black community been able to weather the continuous assault on their personhood inflicted by the systematic racism of American society? The answer, undoubtedly, is the Black church. For many Black people, the church is the only institution they belong to that is decidedly and exclusively theirs. And for many, the church service is the one moment in their lives when they can be open, free, relaxed--themselves. The church service permits them the opportunity to shout if they feel so moved, to let their full emotions show.

I believe that Black worship comprises three dynamic support systems--preaching, praying, and praising God. These are not the only ingredients of Black worship, but certainly they are the most essential. And these three elements are closely tied into each other.

The preached Word

Without question, in the Black church preaching is the central feature of worship. And if preaching is central to the Black religious experience, it follows then that the preacher is the central figure.

Black preachers' contribution to African-Americans in particular and to Americans in general can never be adequately appraised. The substance of their role has changed little since slavery: to provide a sense of hope in a hopeless situation. The painful predicament of Black people remains constant; only the time and places have changed.

In African culture, knowledge, attitudes, ideas, and notions are traditionally transmitted orally not, as in the Western world, through the written word. Naturally, then, among Black people leaders tend to be those with exceptional oratorical skills. So in the Black religious tradition, the successful preacher is an expert orator. The African- American preacher is strongly oriented toward the oral tradition.

The White religious experience is primarily spectator oriented. The congregation sits and listens. But Black preaching is always dialogue. Black preachers talk to their parishioners, and the parishioners re ply. The congregation participates in the preaching. This is expected. In many Black churches this feedback during a sermon is a firm measure of the preacher's effectiveness.

Consequently, many Black preachers have developed the habit of eliciting responses with such interjectory remarks as "Have I got a witness?" or "You ought to say amen!" And Black congregations respond with a variety of expressions: "Tell the truth, preacher." "Yes, Lord!" "Help him, Lord!" "Preach the Word!" "Praise the Lord!" "Amen, amen."

Pace is another essential mark of African-American preachers. Pace includes not only the rate at which the words are delivered, but the dramatic pauses, the empty spaces that preachers use to emphasize their points.

Black preachers' sermons are also filled with poetry and rhythm. For instance, a Black preacher talking about the sun is apt to say, "I looked and saw the first thin pencil line of dawn and watched God's ball of fire seek its noon meridian, continue its relentless journey to the twilight, and then lie down to sleep beyond the western hills."

Nobody can say that quite like the Black preacher.

I would be remiss if I concluded this section without mentioning some of the substantive factors involved in Black preaching. First, Black preaching has always been Bible-based. Now, I am aware of the many European scholars; but when I go into the pulpit in Brooklyn Temple, I seldom make any reference to those gentlemen.

Black preaching is also centered in the "old, rugged cross"! The cross reminds us of Christ's sufferings, and it gives us hope for victory. We know that the Man who died on that cross outside the city wall has the power to transform lives.

Last but not least, the messages of Black preachers are full of faith. Black people live in the midst of test and trial. They live in a world that doesn't really care--existing from day to day in cramped quarters, surviving on meager wages. Black preachers share with them that the Lord will see us through.

This unwavering faith in the absolute sovereignty of the supreme, infinite Creator is the key to worship in the African- American church. Because Black people have been cramped into oppressive confinement, their very existence has demanded that they give their devotion to the sovereign Supreme Being outside of themselves. When they meet to worship their Sovereign Lord, it is because they know through faith that only He can unify their fragmented existence.

The petitions of prayer

In the African-American church, one of the most vital aspects of care that ministers provide is helping their people get in touch with God through prayer. Traditionally, if not outright instinctively, Blacks have prayed on every important occasion since slavery. If preaching is indeed the center of Black worship, then prayer has been its strength.

Whole ministries--both local and over the airwaves--have been built on prayers for individuals. Successful pastors have confessed that their influence was built on the ministry of prayer rather than on great preaching.

Prayer has undeniably had the healing effect of providing something to do when there was nothing else to do, and thus prevented Black people from being crushed by a sense of powerlessness. So in the Black experience, prayer is the antidote for utter frustration. But dependence on prayer is not mere escapism. It is, in fact, a means of seeking power, a means employed by persons who often have no other access. Few aspects of any caring tradition could be more fruitful.

The leader in prayer, often a layperson, is supported by the same congregational support as is the Black preacher. And just as the preacher is affirmed and fulfilled, so is the prayer leader and the congregation experiences much the same vicarious affirmation and fulfillment.

Six basic themes recur in the prayers of the African-American church: praise, thanksgiving, repentance, intercession, petition, and eschatology. Seldom would a Black person think of closing a prayer in a service of worship without clearly mentioning the last things. As preaching is eschatological, so is praying; perhaps more so.

The power of praise

The primacy of preaching in the Black religious experience has persuaded me to assert that it is the core of Black worship. Our peculiar social history made praying necessary, and it is undoubtedly the strength of Black worship. Music and celebration have also played an essential role in the Black worship experience--that of giving birth to a spirit of praise toward God in both preachers and parishioners.

Like preaching, music is not usually thought of as a form of spiritual therapy. But songs of the soul serve as one of the most healing aspects of the Black church tradition. To put it in Western terms, music is effective as catharsis and as affirmation, the latter applying both to personhood and to the just mentioned affirmation of faith by which Black folk manage to survive and re main creative.

A Black congregation is not likely to do all it can to heal its members if it does not sing, from time to time, such cathartic lines as: "I am weak, but Thou art strong," "Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble any where?" "Are we weak and heavy laden?" and "In seasons of distress and grief.''

But catharsis comes also through laments with roots as old as the African religious tradition poured forth in the sorrow songs of the slaves. In the midst of loneliness and deep alienation slaves sang, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home." When they sang "I been 'buked and I been scorned," powerful healing came with the affirmation that followed: "Ain't gwine lay my 'ligion down."

In the midst of slavery the Black church was nourished and raised on spirituals. The spiritual came into being largely out of the practical need for a means of communication within the slave community in and out of the presence of the master and overseer.

Spirituals became the Black telegraph around the plantations and across the Southland. While these songs were composed during the slave period, they clearly exhibit their creators' thirst for freedom from slavery and oppression at any cost!

Certain benchmarks identify the authentic African-American spiritual:

Bible-centeredness. However well it may fit otherwise, if the music under consideration does not have explicit or implicit reference to the Bible, it is not an authentic spiritual. Our slave ancestors exhibited remarkable spiritual perception by capturing the essence of the Bible as it fell in fragments from their owner's table.

Examples: "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho," "De Blin' Man Stood in de Road and Cried," "Dere's a Han' Ritin' on de Wall."

Repetition. During our preliterate era, this characteristic served as a memory device. Example:

''Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Oh, oh, sometimes it causes me

to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"

Rhythm. Two facts will help greatly to understand the emotional flavor of worship in traditional African- American churches: First, the primary characteristic of European music is the melodic line. Second, and in contrast, the primary characteristic of African music is the beat! By its nature, African music is intended to induce body movement--thus the dominance of beat or rhythm.

Celebration. I would do an injustice to the Black worship experience if I did not mention celebration. In the Black experience, the call to celebrate is done with such unrehearsed, undirected, joyful enthusiasm as to amaze most other churches.

What is it that makes Black people so joyful, so supremely happy? Why do they make so much noise about Christ and their joy in their Lord? What is it that holds them in church often all day on Saturday or Sunday from week to week?

Black congregations meet to celebrate the sovereignty of God. When you see them crying and falling into one another's arms and shouting "Thank You, Jesus," they are not acting any more inappropriately than did the children of Israel after God led them through the Red Sea. That was not a time to be quiet. It was a time to celebrate--so they broke out with a shout: "The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation" (Ex. 15:2).

This celebration in worship is at the heart of the African-American church, for it is the only act of worship that no other body claims or attempts in the Black tradition and manner. Black people meet to celebrate because the church is a survival institution that all people may enter through an open door that no one can shut.

There's a colloquialism in our tradition that admonishes, with some wisdom: "Don't forget the bridge that brought you over." Preaching, praying, and praising have made up the bridge that carried African-American Christians along this pilgrim's journey.


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Craig A. Dossman pastors the Brooklyn Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brooklyn, New York.

October 1991

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