SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER… OR, SUNDAY MORNING SEGREGATION?

Sweet Hour of Prayer, sweet hour of prayer,

That calls me from a world of care,

And bids me at my Father’s throne

Make all my wants and wishes known.

In seasons of distress and grief,

My soul has often found relief

And oft escaped the tempter’s snare

By thy return, sweet hour of prayer… (W. W. Walford, 1772 – 1850) 

Yet…. 

“We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic…” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 speech at Western Michigan Univ.)

From growing up in black Christian households, in the South, anchored by a Baptist preacher dad and a Pentecostal evangelist grandmother, as curtains closed on court-sanctioned segregation with the dawn of school desegregation, I learned early on to question the hypocritical silliness I saw within certain mixed interpretations of the bible- especially as they applied to African-Americans.  Simple household osmosis taught me that something was radically wrong with the racial separation in churches, especially during religious holiday celebrations in America.

Yet, like most people in the United States, according to studies like those of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, showing 8% of U.S. congregations are quantifiably “multi-racial” (no more than 80% of any one racial group), I still attend a mostly segregated church.  And, I did so again during this past Easter Sunday’s celebration of a Risen Savior, as well as most other Sunday worship services, since high school, military service, college, raising a family, three careers and, now, even in retirement.

Why?  Well, apparently, that’s a question yet to be answered by some of the most educated theologians, ardent preachers and optimistic philosophers.  Shucks, I don’t imagine that Socrates, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke or other great philosophers would have the answer, either.  On the other hand, I’ve felt that W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass had a clue. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood, instinctively. And, you can bet your bottom dollar that Dr. Cornel West can expound on the matter.  But, getting the world to appreciate their vision is an entirely different matter.   

Just listen to Douglass, a philosopher who happened to be an ex-slave and abolitionist, from his musings within the Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass:  

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.” 

Now, other than a few speculations of my own, I’m certainly no philosopher.  But, I think the points of view held by Mr. Douglass are still worthy of exploration, today- at least as a starting point. Oh, I realize they won’t fit within the mainstream’s scope of critical classroom thinking; but, in my opinion, this is exactly where the fallacies in America’s classroom strategies begin.  It starts within the failure to examine the ugly side of our nation’s history, systematically excluded from our selective classroom history books.  This includes routinely avoiding or suppressing the everyday-living realities associated with the various racial, ethnic and religious subcultures in America, significantly outside the realm of Eurocentric perspectives.

It’s no secret that America’s black and white citizenry have always held oceans of differences in perception, on most issues involving race or racism- at least, to those authentic enough to admit it.  We’re darn near polar opposites on everything, including certain biblical interpretations, especially as they applied to the “justification” of the ruthless brand of slavery in the United States.

Rarely will the perceptions of whites meld with blacks, as with one white activist, Tim Wise, essayist and author of “White Like Me:  Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son” (Soft Skull Press; Berkely, CA, 2008, 2011). His candid take on race relations in America are rather rattling, in my opinion.  But, over the years, I’ve known other intellectually honest whites with similar attitudes. In “Whites Like Me…,” Wise reminded other whites that “By remaining oblivious to our racialization we remain oblivious to the injustice that stems from it, and we remain paralyzed when it comes to responding to it in a constructive manner.”  I’ve also known many whites with attitudes on the far side of the spectrum, completely opposite, from those with the candor and insights of Mr. Wise. 

What does this have to do with why we segregate ourselves, the way we do, on Sunday mornings in America?  Based on my experiences, the reasons are not just skin deep.  They stem from distinct cultural differences and/or cultural comfort, or discomfort, as much as they do from racial differences, perceptually positive reasons, as well as perceptually negative ones.  Within the multicultural dynamics of this society, they also tend to smother those realities outside or on the fringes of the dominant Eurocentric paradigm.

As a result, when it comes to social problem-solving activities, even among the brightest minds the nation can muster, the reasoning or arguments which are advanced often become logically invalid, at best. At minimum, the failure to factor in the quantifiable breadth of multicultural experience in America, sort of like reversing the probability theorem of the Law of Large Numbers (i.e., more averages of results from larger number of trials lends to more precise results, etc. – or something like that…), leads to more distortions and misunderstandings of the human experience- in my opinion, of course.

Simply put, it seems to me that if you really want to discourage true discourse on the matter of race and religion in America, you only have to label someone as racist for even mentioning race or racism and religion in the same breath, as many conversationalist already seem so quick to do in this society.  Yet, true discourse often follows after various exercises in conflict resolution stemming from differences, perceived or real, in belief systems, relationship issues, geographic divides, interpretations and a wide range of disputes arising out of the opposing interest of various parties or groups. 

Even in the smoldering ashes of what I think is the greatest failure in communications– war or armed conflict—some type of discourse and strategic resolution activity often takes place. This is necessary for the parties in conflict to synergize their efforts or synthesize their differences and move on toward better horizons.  But, race or racism and religion, especially in America, just doesn’t seem to fit comfortably on the scale of reason or reasonability, in my humble opinion, of course.

I’m not sure if anyone has the answer for why race still seems to be the #1 problem in America. Judging from the many decades that we’ve been dealing with it, coupled with the incomprehensible strategies that our nation’s leadership- religious and political- often concoct, no one seems to have found the magic wand to wave away the ugly wound of racism still festering on our battered shores. Yet, we continue to pick at the oozing, crusty scab it leaves behind.  Even religious leaders seem to avoid the issue, or deny its existence, in order to appease their congregants or placate the collection plate. Ah, yes, the virtuous collection plate. Surely, that should solve our problems- but, it doesn’t. 

Perhaps, the solution lies within our children.  Our children?  Oh, yes.  You see, in the formative years of their lives here on earth, they seem to instinctively find ways to get along, in spite of their differences- that is, until adults come along to contaminate their thinking.  If we’re honest, we all can probably point to the time we were first “taught” that race seems to matter in everything we do or pursue in America.

I remember well my childhood years of adjusting to the conflicting lessons in cultural differences while growing up in segregated Kentucky, attending an all-black Baptist church, during the school year; then, living on my grandparent’s farm in Ohio, during the summer months, attending a multiracial, spirit-filled Pentecostal church. There, I learned at an early age what it meant for blacks and whites to work together with common interests, since many of the mostly Dutch and German ancestral congregants, predominantly farmers, took rotating turns on each other’s land to help with chores during planting and harvest times. In Kentucky, farmers simply came to town to seek out paid-labor work crews. And, we didn’t take time out to pray in the fields, like we did in Ohio. 

Back home, around the age of 6, I recall first “learning” of what the Confederate flag meant- for black folk- when a white playmate, a next-door neighbor, gave me one of his father’s Confederate flag decals. We both displayed them on our bicycles; but, we didn’t even make it to the first street corner, before quickly “learning” from older kids what the symbolism meant for adults with different skin tones, long before I saw the silly Ku Klux Klan getups. The “lesson” stayed with me until about a year later.  That’s when our white neighbors felt the need to move to an all-white community and my bike-riding friend and I we were forbidden to visit each other, again.

And, I really didn’t fully understand why, until after I moved North and later returned, during those wacky school desegregation years, when all the once-friendly adults seem to be acting uncharacteristically crazy. But, while playing high school football and running track, with Old Jim Crow on the ropes, gasping for air, it wasn’t long before I understood why.

Much of my education on race and religion came from outside the classroom, as well as beyond the stained glass window landscaping of the various churches I attended.  The desegregation years left many impressions and life-time scars, some of which I only began dealing with, just last year, around the time of my high school class’ 50th reunion.  But, it was only the first one I had attended. Unlike other reunions I’ve attended, attending church together was not on the agenda.

Over the years, I have attended black churches, white churches, mixed-race services, foreign churches or cathedrals, military chapels on Marine Corp bases and Navy chapels at sea, as well as in port, on and off naval bases. I’ve knelt in prayer with Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus and Christians, alike. Interestingly, I’ve always felt welcomed, no matter where I attended church. There always seemed to be sufficient spiritual food for edification and enlightenment. Besides, who am I to reject or castigate what others believe?

But, frankly speaking, for me, nothing can compare to the spirit-filled, soul-stirring, gospel music-brimming services of a hand-clapping, foot-patting black church.  I simply prefer the services of the African-American worship experience, of less-than-Mega-church proportioned congregations. But, does that make me a racist or segregationist anymore than it does for a white person who is culturally comfortable within more Eurocentric environs?  I happen to know a few black families who are more comfortable within white, Eurocentric-oriented services, as well as a few whites who routinely attend and are more comfortable with African-American-oriented services.

During the Colonial slavery period, various church and public records revealed many feeble attempts to combine black and white worship services. Documentation shows some black preachers in the South serving white congregations. However, during the late 1700s, the still-hovering and divisive issues of emancipation and race further complicated the rocky attempts at interracial worship. Blacks were either forced out of white churches or voluntarily left to form their own, as with the First African Baptist Churches in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky, according to church archives.  Arguably, the first was founded in Lexington, Kentucky by slaves (Peter Durrett and wife), around 1790.

Later, free African-Americans in Boston’s Beacon Hill founded the First African Baptist Church, under Rev. Thomas Paul, around 1805, followed by the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1816, which grew out of the efforts of the Rev. Richard Allen. My family and I have visited most of these and other traditionally black churches, planted during colonial times, in Virginia and Kentucky, which remain standing today as a monument to determination and faith.

When our kids were growing up, I often told them that the issue of race and racism in America would not even begin to disappear until black and white Americans began to worship together, again.  While I do see evidence of its reoccurrence, I’m convinced for many reasons that it’s likely not to happen on any grand scale.  

When any religion or church becomes a promoter of hate, racial supremacy, or suggests that something other than God is the focus of worship, it then ceases to be the place “That calls me from a world of care…”  When it becomes politicized or corporatized to the bone, as we often see today, it fails to be that place or time where my soul often finds relief. That’s when, in my opinion, it’s no longer that “Sweet Hour of Prayer…,” no matter what color the congregations.

Meanwhile, please pay attention to what you’re really teaching your kids.

 “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.