The Black Spiritual Tradition, Jesus & Freedom

Dr. Paul Dixon, the president of Cedarville University, the Christian college Holly and I attended in the early 1990’s, regularly preached during our mandatory, weekday chapels. He spoke with a Midwestern drawl that gave the effect of a folksy, down-home preacher.
  He was once an Evangelist, and you certainly heard that urgency in his chapel messages. By the way, he was a white dude, in his 50’s... like me.

During his chapel messages, he’d often lead the students in an acapella singing of a Black Spiritual.

Amazingly, I was able to find online an example of a Cedarville College chapel service led by Paul Dixon where we sang that spiritual. This is from March 30, 1992:

Holly and I were there! It’s kind of neat to think that among those voices singing that Spiritual some 30 years ago were Holly and my voices. Hers was much better, of course.

That chapel rendition is good, I’d say. But it lacks a certain spirit that comes with Spiritual tradition. Here’s what I mean…

There’s a danger in us singing Black Spirituals that I don’t think we should ignore.

Without an understanding of the significance of Black Spirituals, we don’t do the music justice.  We really need an understanding of where the music came from and what it signified. I’d like to do my best here to help us understand. And through this understanding, it is my prayer that a deeper faith is moved in us.

The Black Spiritual was the earliest example of African American music forged on this continent, and it set the stage for African American music from then on. That said, we should remember this - the enslaved Africans brought here against their will arrived with their own culture of music. Indigenous African music was sung on slave ships, sung to somehow survive the brutalization and torment.

The earliest music African Americans expressed on this continent was forged in Africa and brought over. And eventually, the enslaved despite their plight forged a new music, adapting Christian stories and fusing them with African sounds. This new music – the Spiritual - is what we discuss and sing this morning.

The enslaved people adapting Christian stories – this is important to consider. We might have the idea that enslaver missionaries preached their white Christianity to the enslaved, and the enslaved simply took that tradition at face value initially, and that it morphed over time to become what it is now. That is a misreading of the history.

Historian Henry H. Mitchell in his book, Black Church Beginnings, writes, the enslaved people’s “adaptations of Christianity is due very largely to [their] own initiative, not to missionary labor for the most part.”

In other words, the enslaved didn’t simply take in the Christianity of their enslavers. No, they took it in, and cross-examined it, and eventually created their own slant on Christianity, one infused with a truer light, a freer light. They in some sense transfigured the Christianity they were handed.

They highlighted the Exodus story of Moses and the Israelites, a story of chains gone, the Pharoah’s army drowned, and the year of jubilee known. In that Exodus story, they saw themselves. They highlighted the human Jesus, the one rejected and despised, one of constant sorrows, one whipped and tormented and hung on a tree, yet one whom death could not keep down. In Jesus, they saw themselves. They highlighted the early church, seen in figures like Paul and Silas who were beaten down and persecuted, placed in chains, and imprisoned by the powers that be. In the early church, they saw their own plight, and believed the chains would come off, the prison doors would be tossed open, and freedom would be felt one day.  

See, the enslaved internalized the biblical stories, Jesus and the early church, along with Christian hymns, and they adapted all of it to their own understanding, experiences, and worldviews. From the very beginning, there was transfiguration going on – European Christianity, with its condoning of slavery, that came in; but Black Christianity, with its subversive call for freedom, that came out.

And, yes, if we look with open eyes, we see Black Christianity’s subversiveness in the Spirituals.             

Black Liberation Theology icon, James Cone, in his powerful book The Spirituals and the Blues discusses this subversiveness. I’d like to quote from this text at length…

“It is the spirituals that show us the essence of black religion, that is, the experience of trying to be free in the midst of a "powerful lot of tribulation."

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!
Oh Freedom, I love thee!
And before I'll be a slave,
I'll be buried in -my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

The spirituals are songs about black souls, "stretching out into the outskirts of God's eternity" and affirming that divine reality which lets you know that you are a human being—no matter what white people say. Through the song, black people were able to affirm that Spirit who was continuous with their existence as free beings; and they created a new style of religious worship. They shouted and they prayed; they preached and they sang, because they had found something. They encountered a new reality; a new God not enshrined in white churches and religious gatherings. And all along, white folk thought the slaves were contented, waiting for the next world. But in reality they were "stretching out" on God's Word, affirming a new-found experience that could not be destroyed by the masters. This is why they could sing: 

Don't be weary, traveler,
Come along home, come home.
Don't be weary, traveler,
Come along home, come home.

My head is wet with the midnight dew,
Come along home, come home.
The mornin' star was a witness too,
Come along home, come home.

Keep a-goin', traveler,
Come along home, come home.
Keep a-singin' all the way,
Come along home, come home.

Jes' where to go I did not know,
Come along home, come home.
A trav'lin' long and a trav'lin' slow,
Come along home, come home.

The spirituals are historical songs which speak about the rupture of black lives; they tell us about a people in the land of bondage, and what they did to hold themselves together and to fight back. We are told that the people of Israel could not sing the Lord's song in a strange land. But, for blacks, their being depended upon a song. Through song they built new structures for existence in an alien land. The spirituals enabled blacks to retain a measure of African identity while living in the midst of American slavery, providing both the substance and the rhythm to cope with human servitude…

In the spirituals, black slaves combined the memory of their fathers [and mothers] with the Christian gospel and created a style of existence that participated in their liberation from earthly bondage." (James H. Cone. The Spirituals and the Blues . Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.)

As I wind things down, I go back to Cedarville College and to that Spiritual I began with. By the time I sang in that chapel service in March of 1992 with Holly singing somewhere in that space along with me, I had heard a reworking of that same Spiritual, Woke Up this Morning. Earlier that year, around Dr. King day in January, I decided to study Dr. King’s work and the Civil Rights Movement. This wasn’t part of any class, just my own curiosity and eagerness to learn. Part of that self-study was a viewing of the landmark documentary, Eyes on the Prize. In that 14 part series, a song appeared regularly. It went something like this:

From Jesus to Freedom. You might think it a big change. But not really. The Black Spiritual tradition makes it clear that Jesus and Freedom go together. In some sense, Jesus and Freedom are interchangeable. Jesus, after all, is the liberator, and not just spiritually.

That Jesus and Freedom go together, this is a truth white American Christians need to hear. We can’t preach Jesus on Sunday and then Monday through Saturday ignore the reality that Black Americans don’t experience the freedoms we do. Here’s just one example – the freedom of invisibility. I go into a supermarket, and I do not worry about being noticed, stared at, worried about, or even followed around. I am in some ways invisible as a white person in most aspects of American life. No one pays me mind. Ask most Black Americans, and they will tell you, this freedom of invisibility in white America is not a thing for them. People pay them mind. They are not free from that. And that is exhausting! Living in South Korea, and being noticed everywhere I went, I can attest to how exhausting this is.

Here's another – economic freedom is a freedom still not experienced by most Black Americans. The disparity between white and Black Americans when it comes to economic security remains a sinful reality.

Following Jesus means following Jesus in the work of liberation, the work of lifting up the oppressed and the unfree.

So, as we continue singing Spirituals this morning, let us stand in solidarity with our Black brothers, sisters, and siblings for whom those Spirituals mean everything. In this time of whitewashing our difficult history, let us feel and internalize the pain and sorrow and hope out of despair heard in these powerful songs. As we acknowledge the genius and the power of this music and of the people who moved this music, let us join in the struggle to make all people free, especially those whose fore-parents knew the ravages of human bondage. As we close out this month devoted to Black history, may Jesus the liberator free us here of racism and racial hatred and bias, and may we see the creation of a better history going forward, a history beginning now where "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

A Coat From Korea

I heard it tear as I shoveled. I am not sure how or what movement caused it to tear. And as it turned out, what tore wasn’t essential, ruinous, or irreparable. But it did scare me initially out there in the cold, huffing and puffing as I threw snow into piles on either side of our driveway.

The torn flap of my beloved coat’s front pocket, it fortunately came right off, without ruining the foundation of the coat. For symmetry’s sake, I took off the other pocket flap.
Maybe you got stuck on "beloved coat." No, unlike Dolly’s coat of many colors, my mother did not make it for me. But there is a memorable if not unexciting origin story behind the coat. Maybe the better term is ownership story and not origin story. The story is not about the coat's creation. I'd love to know that origin story, but never will. The story I share is one involving how I first came to own the coat.
I was in Seoul in the early Spring of 2001 with Holly and a mutual Korean friend. It was the Hongdae shopping district. They were shopping. I was mostly people watching, something I tend to do wherever I am. It was a grayer, cooler day, and the crowds weren’t overwhelming – something unusual for busy Seoul. As we walked along, there in the middle of the walkway was a box with a coat hanging out. The box had a handmade sign – 10,000 W (Won), the rough equivalent of $10.
I noticed the lining of the coat first. It was beautiful! Very Korean in style. I stopped the two shoppers - Holly and our friend - to do some temporary shopping of my own. I picked out the coat, tried it on, got my friend’s approval, and bought it straightaway. 10,000 W - an unbelievable deal that ever since I've bragged about to every complementer and admirer.
Coincidentally, the name of the company that made the coat is DanPol. The “dan” in Korean is pronounced like my name. And the "pol"? Well, I am proudly Polish-American. Yeah – the connections are a stretch, I realize.
What’s clear, the coat remains maybe my favorite purchase of all time. The coat is one of my favorite possessions, and I am not someone who values possessions all that much.
So, hearing that tearing of my DanPol coat – it was a horrible sound. A worrisome sound. Was this the end of this part of me?
Yes, as you might guess, it goes deeper than just a coat.
I lived in South Korea for about 18 months. Enough for me to experience the culture in a deeper way. I came to be a kind of Koreaphile, I'd say.
After getting my Master's degree in 2004, it was my hope to do PhD study, focusing on Korean language. I was awarded a six-month language fellowship at Yonsei University in 2005. I completed 3 months of it. The Korean language proved too hard for ADD me.

My parents got divorced while I was there, throwing my family into upheaval. And Holly’s biological clock was ticking resoundingly. I needed to be home. I decided to go home, leaving my hopes of PhD study in Korean religion mostly behind.

I haven't been back since the summer of 2005. Some 18 months later, my son was conceived. I eventually chose ministry instead of academia. I have no regrets, really.
I retain memories. I have photos and a few items – a tea set, a couple framed-prints, some books – from my/our time there. But it is this coat that connects me most to my time in the Land of Morning Calm some 20 years ago.
I bring it out in the winter, wear it when the temp is really low, grateful for the warmth it provides despite the cold. I will continue to wear it through the winter despite the flaw of two pocket flaps missing. In the spring, I will take it to a tailor to get the flaps put back on as well as get it dry-cleaned. Then I will put it away, sort of like the memories it conjures.