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  • Writer's picturevilmablenman

My Black Church & Black Identity

As another Black History Month rolls in and rolls on, I’m thinking of the forces that shaped my sense of Black identity, thinking of the treasures Black culture has given me growing up in Jamaica and Canada. As I reflect, I realize that one of the most significant legacies is the foundation of faith through the Black church—the village that raised me and taught me that faith matters and that culture matters in the expressions of faith.

Now hear me, please. Faith in God is not about race. Faith transcends race and culture. What I’m reflecting on and giving thanks for is how the Black church that evolved in the West and developed its own unique expressions of the Christian faith nurtured me in my fledgling faith and also taught me Black pride by demonstrating it is okay to express one’s culture creatively in worship through culturally-infused music, prayer, preaching and rites of birth and burial.

My love of words, written and spoken came from my Black church background. The church in which I grew up emphasized memorization and recitation of Scripture and inspirational poems—a legacy of its early roots when literacy for former slaves was a responsibility and priority of the church. As a spoken word poet today, I often picture myself as the little girl on the platform of our little country church reciting words that rhyme and hearing loud “Amens.” The house in which I grew up had only two books—a King James Version of the Bible and a hymnbook compiled by Ira Sankey. We referred to the latter simply as “the Sankey.” They were my first books.

As a child and teen my faith grew when I heard powerful testimonies in church from people in dire straits, be it near-death sickness, financial woes, or relational distress--situations that could drive one to despair and yet the opposite happened. People held on to hope, spoke affirmations of life and gave thanks to God in ways that made the modern practice of gratitude journals a familiar oral tradition to me. And when someone died, a funeral was both a time to mourn and to dance. Over the years I’ve watched Black people forge and express resilience through their faith.

As a psychotherapist, I’ve come to recognize the therapeutic benefits of “testimonies” and other common Black cultural expressions of faith. Take for example, the centrality and ceremonies of church on Sunday mornings for individuals and families. Church is a special place to get dressed up and go to, no matter how depressed one feels, no matter how chaotic Saturday night was. In that place each week spiritual, mental and social needs were met as one heard buoyant music, passionate preaching, responded prayerfully or tearfully or both and interacted with an extended spiritual family. Church was sanctuary and there one received reminders that one is loved by a community and by God.

On one of my early trips back to Jamaica, I walked around inside and outside my old church, grounding myself and cementing the significance of this cradle of my faith. On Sunday I got a little nostalgic for reggae gospel and googled Toronto Mass Choir. What a treat! Check it out and also the poem below. Culture matters. Faith matters.

When Black Folks Mourn

they dance too

stretching their arms

to the sky

music moving their feet

against the direction

of tears that flow

for they know

sorrow too well, know it

has another tomorrow

but no forever.

Behind them stands yesterday

so they dance today

draining dry the cup

of grief yet holding

hope high while they cry.

--V. Blenman

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