Today’s post is nothing related to science. I did speak at my Church on Friday about humility, science and faith, and on Ash Wednesday went to an African American Church where I listened to their choir. That experience stimulated this post.
If religion was a thing that money could buy
The rich would live and the poor would die.
Those words are from a Negro spiritual, “All My Trials, Lord” and I learned them at the communist camp I attended back in 1957. I was ten, and didn’t understand the words at all. Religion is bad, so shouldn’t it be the other way around? The poor would live and the rich would die, must have been what they meant to say.
We learned a lot of Negro spirituals at that camp, along with union songs, anti-war songs, and songs about brotherhood and freedom. The spirituals were the most moving, but also made the least sense. They were all about God and Jesus.
Go tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on the Mountain that Jesus Christ is born.
I’m gonna walk with the Prince of Peace
Down by the riverside
All those verses with Lord and God and biblical references, taught to a bunch of red diaper babies in a communist atheist camp – I didn’t get it.
I had learned the explanations: the Negroes were not really religious Christians, they were just pretending to be so they could survive slavery, and all those lyrics held hidden (completely nonreligious) meanings.
Or, alternatively, the poor, uneducated Negroes actually did believe in God, but it wasn’t their fault, since, well, they were poor and uneducated. We all knew that smart Negroes existed (I keep using Negro in this piece because that was the only acceptable term at the time. Black was still a decade away from replacing it.) Harry Belafonte’s son went to our camp, and there were one or two others. And of course there was Sidney Poitier.
Still, I remember being really bothered by all those times when we had to sound as if we actually believed in the absurdity of a magical sky fairy whenever we sang things like:
“All God’s children got shoes” or “Do Lord, remember me” or “Oh sinner man, where you gonna run to?”
And it didn’t matter how often I was told that when it came to religion, we had to give Negroes a pass. I just didn’t like it. The explanations didn’t ring true.
Of course, things got even worse soon. By the early 1960’s the movement had grown from sit-ins and school integration to marches and rallies. And there was no question where the leadership of this movement was coming from: the Black Christian Churches of the South. From Martin Luther King to Jesse Jackson, the strong leaders of civil rights were not politicians, not communists, not union leaders, but pastors. King’s speeches rang with the glory of God, and of Christ’s messages of equality and compassion, of love and charity. Now I was watching TV images of Black preachers exhorting Christian congregations to go out and join the struggle for freedom.
As the movement grew, many others joined in, but the most impressive, most powerful, most heart wrenching scenes were those of clergy – white and Black, Christians and Jews – who linked arms at the front of the marches and demonstrations as they faced the terrifying ranks of armed and brutal racists.
This was not the revolution I had been taught about, the one where workers overwhelmed the company thugs for the cause of economic justice and a living wage. This was a revolution where people of conscience were fighting to win the hearts and souls of their enemies in the name of love and Christian mercy. It was nonviolent by nature, something that Marx and Lenin never taught.
By the time I started marching in civil rights demonstrations, I was not a communist anymore, and I no longer found it quite so troubling to sing the songs of faith that had allowed a struggling people to endure. I had learned “We shall overcome” long before it had become the anthem of the movement. When Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, I no longer had a problem with the religious references.
Now that I am a Christian, I see clearly what I couldn’t see at the time, and everything makes perfect sense. I can now feel the presence of Christ in the trembling voices of the frightened kids as they faced fire hoses and baseball bats. I now understand the prayers of the handful of protestors, those desperate lonely witnesses to justice and dignity, who, despite all the odds against them, did in fact overcome. And when I recently heard a Black Church choir sing a hymn, with all the spirit and joy that I first heard 60 years ago, all of this came back to me, and I had to bow my head in prayer and thanksgiving for finally seeing the truth of how the Holy Spirit has always moved in the hearts of humanity.