I miss going to church. As I write this, it’s been months since I’ve entered a sanctuary. As someone who was raised, empowered by, and coddled within the Black church, with two preachers for parents (one being a pastor), this is no small feat. Cognitive dissonance between my own Blackness, personal politics & my Christianity notwithstanding (given how my choice of religion was forced upon my ancestors and how the intersectionality I live by often runs antithetical to what I’ve been taught to believe is of God), there are a variety of perfectly plausible reasons I give myself regarding why I haven’t been in God’s House for a while.
- I’m in a PhD program and my weekends have been CRUCIAL in getting writing and research work done.
- I’m still a new father and those Sundays in particular have been valuable bonding time with my daughter who, in my estimation, isn’t old enough to sit still for a 2-3 hour church service.
- I can catch the live-stream of any sermon from the comfort of Bedside Baptist, where the “pews” are extra comfortable.
- My home church is an hour away and going there becomes an all-day commitment.
Reasons? Sure. But for me, excuses.
You don’t stop anything that that’s been a fixture for the first 30 years of your life without feeling a certain emptiness. The void created by not having that weekly uplift and embrace of church means I’ve had to find it elsewhere. Since last spring, I have found my personal sanctuary in music, where every chorus and refrain nurtured my spirit and cushioned my steps on my life’s journey. Walk with me.
It’s April 2015, spring in a year that has already been an all-out assault on Black people. I suppose the same could be said of any other year in American history. Yet, the carryover from 2014’s tragedies combined with the murder of Walter Scott and other acts of terrorism toward Black people amount to a daily attack on my collective spirit. Just turning on the news or logging on to social media meant flirting with the danger of being confronted with Black death, whether in hashtag form, through auto-play videos or through pundits performing reasoning gymnastics to justify another police killing of an unarmed sister or brother. Blackness, in this moment, is exhausting for me.
As a result, I’m stressed to the point of near breakage. I’m finishing the second year of my doctoral program and final papers and projects are due. My wife and I are preparing for the birth of our first child. On top of this, there’s the usual stress of having a demanding (yet rewarding) full-time job. I’m barely keeping it together, fighting imposter syndrome and the increasingly loud inner voices telling me that I’m not smart enough, not ready to become a father, and generally not good enough for anything I strive for. I pray. I run. I write. Feeling like nothing works and still struggling to find confidence and peace, I turn to music.
I listen, finding answers to these questions and encouragement to keep pushing. I start to find succor in the Blackness dripping from the music comprising Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. The funk, the soul, the sheer stank of it all…feels like Home. It is the reassurance of my mother’s embrace, musically akin to attending a family reunion. As a result I’m re-centered, finishing the semester, moving into a new place, and preparing for a newborn with minimal stress.
Then it happens.
They kill Sandra Bland. The same way they killed Tamir and Eric and Michael and Rekia and Aiyana and Oscar and…..I’m tired. Don Lemon is on TV telling me it’s my fault. Trayvon’s killer is still somehow a free man. Dylan Roof shoots up a Black church and is rewarded with Burger King while being taken into custody. Skies are gray because Freddie’s dead. Pundits are telling me that I’m the real racist for saying my life matters, that I’m inciting a war on police by crying out about their war on me. I’m frustrated and my spirit can’t take these attacks much longer. I’m quickly becoming numb to the injustice of having to relive the American nightmare while searching for the strength to continue marching for a broken dream.
Soon, that numbness and frustration turns to anger. I’m enraged because I feel helpless. My degrees cannot help me. My work & research feels worthless because White supremacy’s reach is so enormous that anything I do is akin to expecting a cup of water to douse a forest fire.
So I lock up, blinded by rage and unable to function. I can’t concentrate or accomplish anything because I have nowhere to place this anger. Often, I close the doors in my office at work and sit with fists clenched at my desk, hoping no one brings up current events because I’m thisclose to going off. I need release.
I wonder, how can this keep happening? The Internet’s “Penthouse Cloud” echoes my sorrow:
Syd’s plaintive calls are reminiscent of that of Jesus crying out to His heavenly father “why hast thou forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46. I’m searching frantically for answers at this point, returning to find salvation in the Black Messiah. I need a lyric sheet to fully understand 86.9% of what D’Angelo is saying but it doesn’t matter. There’s deliverance in the hums, mumbles, and intonations. This manner of expression hearkens back to the “hymn lining” I grew up on in the Black church, where messages are communicated even in the most irregular of melodies and indecipherable of lyrics. The moans and grunts often evoke more feeling than the words themselves. “The Prayer” reminds me that “someday we will rise.” Affirmation.
I find my joy as Kendrick’s “Alright” becomes my new favorite Negro spiritual. Bills due? We gon’ be alright. Work stressing me out? We gon’ be alright. Folks being murdered for being Black and breathing? We. Gon’. Be. ALL. RIGHT. I chant this over and over, “shouting myself happy” in the Black gospel tradition. I smile, seeing that many activists and protesters have also adopted it as an anthem for #BlackLivesMatter. I ignore the critics, thinking that anyone who disparages new anthems such as this in favor of the hymns that powered the movements of old is underestimating the spiritual and motivational connection between the two a hater. I’m reminded that regardless of the circumstance, Black excellence will shine through. Every. Time.
In September 2015 my newborn daughter became the first child I’ve ever held in my arms. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her arrival rocks my world and forces a paradigmatic shift in perspective. So many of the various minutiae that caused me stress before – the assignments, deadlines, etc. – instantly become mere background noise. She is my everything. And I’m blessed. Later that fall, I listen to Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy” on repeat:
My daughter’s smile is the song that keeps me buoyant among the vicissitudes that would otherwise threaten my peace. I realize that she is the only blessing I need to count in order to keep my joy. But this joy was fleeting.
A few months pass into 2016. I’m getting used to the idea of being a new father, and now I’m struggling to juggle everything again, only this time with the added pressure of parenthood. The other side of the happiness of being a new parent is the realization that everything I do from now on affects my child, not just me or my marriage. The gravity of this responsibility pulls me down to earth and forces me to examine my steps. Am I doing everything to reach my destination? Am I even going in the right direction? I review my personal goals, trying to figure out why I’m still so far from “doing well” in my eyes. On top of this, one of my best friends from college dies unexpectedly and I’m in shock, not understanding why or how this could happen to such a good dude and great friend. I’m suffering, mostly in silence and my spirit is running on empty. I need a sanctuary.
“Ultralight Beam” hits me hard. As I’m watching that SNL performance for the first time, I’m transported into church. It’s the “altar call” portion, where those needing prayer are asked to come to the front, singing in unison and holding hands as the minister intercedes on behalf of everyone in the congregation. My soul levitates and somehow, I’m fighting tears as Kirk Franklin’s prayer at the end of the song feels like it was uttered specifically for me. Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough.
It’s amazing how healing can emerge from the most desolate feelings of brokenness. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book was released this May in what can only be described for me as divine intervention. Upon pressing play, I’m transported back into church again and reminded of all the reasons why I’ve missed going in the first place. It’s less about the subject matter of the songs than the more ineffable thread of uplift and spiritual happiness that courses throughout the album. It immediately takes me back to those days of singing in the youth choir, likely off-key but still angelic, to let mama & the deaconesses in the front pews tell it. How great is our God….
I listen to the “Blessings” reprise (which interpolates “Let the Praise Begin” by Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ) and close my eyes, singing in unison with the choir of Chance, Ty Dolla $ign, BJ the Chicago Kid and others. As the album reaches its benediction, I’m encouraged, my spirit is lifted and moreover, I’m ready for my blessing. I’m ready for my miracle.
Music is no replacement for scriptures and sermons, but it can nonetheless be just as powerful a spiritual experience when it feels like God is speaking directly to the listener in song, with no distractions or interruptions. This experience is not one limited to overtly “gospel” genres. Powerful, emotionally evocative music isn’t any less moving just because it doesn’t fit a certain description, in the same way that the best sermons may not be those delivered by an actual minister. Thus, it has been these secular songs that have given me ways to re-discover that sweet, beautiful, soul-saving joy through the ministry of music.