If Jesus is the author of my faith, then my grandparents are the editors. In rural Arkansas I was raised in the ways of a Victorian, southern black woman who loved Jesus and justice. A proud Baptist, she rescued her six-month-old grandson from a fate that may have been too terrible to tell. A King James Bible and encyclopedias are the first gifts I remember receiving from her. Her admonishments, shaped by her God, possessed existential gems that pointed to the measure of one’s humanness: “You must never look down on people.”
My grandfather, Rev. James Thomas, was a railroad worker and retired Pentecostal pastor. He possessed a third-grade education and a thirst for knowledge. He delighted in tidbits of black history that he had gleaned from folklore. His proudest moments came when he knew that I had “gotten it.” For him, the Bible was the book that he had mastered, and his desire for me was that I master it as well in the struggle for justice. The signs, symbols, songs, and stories bequeathed to me in rural Arkansas were rife with notions of justice for the poor, democracy for all, and God’s desire for human freedom. My grandfather only had a third-grade education, but he articulated a vision of the world that was profound.
The most magical memory that I have of my grandfather “rightly dividing the word” was on the Friday evening after our town of Brinkley’s only factory had closed. With the economic vitality of the entire community in question, Granddaddy, black and burly, broad-nosed and big-lipped, stood at the sacred desk. He looked upon the sea of black and nearly broken faces, and “took” a text. The congregation stood, as is the custom during the reading of scripture.
Slowly and deliberately, he said, “If you will turn with me in your Biiible…”—stretching the word to stress its significance—“to the gospel of John, the eleventh chapter and the 35th verse. When you find it say, why don’t you say, ‘Amen.’”
“Amen,” the flock responded, with anticipation on their lips and trepidation in their hearts. Holding himself together, Granddaddy whispered in a tear-soaked voice, “And it simply reads: ‘Jesus wept.’”
The congregation sat down, but Rev. Thomas continued on. In the presence of a voiceless people, he made the book “talk,” retelling the familiar story of Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved and raised from the dead. Jesus pleaded with his god to raise Lazarus so that others might believe. For over an hour, Granddaddy reminded his community—a people historically alienated, now demoralized and insecure—that they were the ones whom Jesus loved. Seamlessly blending Jesus’s people’s plight with the African-American freedom struggle, Granddaddy’s love for the people and the Bible merged in a way that was life affirming and rendered a hopeless people hopeful.
“God has not forgotten about us. He gave us the right to vote and will honor our desire to work,” he said.
The Bible, and the God that he interpreted from it, affirmed the humanity of black people. It was a project that also put a premium on the possibility of young people leading a freer life in a more just world. It contained a strong belief in education and culture as bridge toward equality.
My grandparents strongly encouraged me to take voice lessons, which I loved, and forced me to take piano, which I despised. Both Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, the churches of my childhood, were led by sharecroppers who celebrated the life of the mind, social justice, and Jesus. They placed a special hope in young folks. The fifth Sunday of the month was reserved for the church youth, who would be responsible for the order of service as ushers, deacons, devotional leaders, choir members, and even preachers. I was always required to play the piano during the youth service. No matter how badly I botched Bach, I received an abundance of “Go ahead, baby!” and a standing ovation.
Folks who were just two-and-a-half generations from slavery and functionally illiterate taught me the profundity of democracy and religion. Among them was Mrs. Roberta. On documents that required her signature, she made her mark—an X—because she could not write her name.
“Come here and read to me, boy,” Mrs. Roberta commanded with her hands on her walking cane and royalty in her voice. “Come here, boy, and read to me about our people.” I obliged, with reverence. Sunday after Sunday, I heard preachers and laity say, “God freed us.”
In the singing, prayers, testimony, and other liturgical expressions of this worshipping community, Jesus provided hope in unhopeful circumstances. Set against the darkness, faith was our light. In the midst of what DuBois termed the “Frenzy,” the congregation shouted Jesus is “a bright and morning star,” “water in dry places,” “the lily of the valley,” “the rose of Sharon,” “a friend to the friendless,” “a rock in a weary land,” “a lawyer in the court,” “a doctor in the sickroom,” and a whole host of such phrases that form the essence of their belief in and about the divine and the community’s plight.
In church, my grandparents were reminded of the assumption of their worth and redemption. They knew that the darkness would not have the last word, because God was with them. My grandfather’s hopes, my grandmother’s vision, and Mrs. Roberta’s desires all flowed from this peculiar conception of God and democracy.
At a moment in our history when one can exchange the words Christian, conservative, religious, Republican, and right in a sentence without changing the meaning of that sentence, I recall this rich tradition and I am encouraged. For it has been through the courage of these illiterate foreparents that I have come to see my role as clergyperson and citizen to stand with queers, immigrants, Muslims, and whoever else is catching hell today. It is within this ferment that my democratic socialist politics and organic liberation theology were born. If we can recover the best of religion as a force for democratic expansion, then we all shall be saved.
ContributorRev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a Senior Community Minister at Judson Memorial Church and the author of the forthcoming book Gods, Gays, and Guns: Religion and the Future of Democracy (Ig Publishing, 2009).