By Rev. Dawan Buie*
The Black Church was born in hushed harbors and places away from the seeing eyes of white slave masters so we could express ourselves as we desired. In these gatherings, we could speak to God in our unique ways that were influenced by our African traditions. These gatherings were the roots of the Black church.
The Black Church emerged for at least three reasons. The first reason was that we needed affirmation of our worth. We were suffering immensely, and the church was a place to affirm our humanity as well as our belief that God is working within history to free us from bondage. Church was a place where we found encouragement, comfort, and empowerment in the face of immeasurable hardship and suffering. It affirmed our ability by helping us to start colleges and businesses. It was a place where prayers were put into action. It affirmed our identity through Spirit-filled preaching and an interpretation of the Scriptures that reminded us of God’s call for justice and the affirmation of the worth of our humanity. I think this was a direct reaction to a society that saw us as less than whites and even less than human. Our Black Church told us we were somebody. We were loved by God! We were fully human! We had a God that was fighting for our liberation from our earthly chains!
The second reason the Black Church emerged was the need to organize ourselves to work toward social upliftment. We had, and in some ways still have, a society hostile to our existence and advancement. Therefore, the Black Church helped us organize to create jobs, literacy programs, communal connection, and to engage in social and political actions to advance our civil and human rights in American society. These included nonviolent demonstrations, divesting from companies, boycotts, lobbying candidates to support our rights, and voting for candidates that we thought would help us improve our lot in society.
The third reason was that we were not welcomed, or even allowed, in many white churches. When we were allowed in the churches, we had to sit in the balcony. We were not allowed to have full participation in all aspects of the church. We were not permitted to express ourselves fully in worship in the ways we desired to.
The Black Church has many rich traditions. Some parts of this rich tradition are call and response during the worship service, singing and arranging music that had its foundation in our African heritage, and praise dancing that expressed a full range of emotions that we experienced. We dressed in our best clothes for each worship service. We had ways of being “the Church in the world” that sought to radically transform society to be more just.
One of the Black Church’s traditions is the Seven Last Words Service. It is a service in which seven preachers reflect on the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. We as the Black Pastors’ Fellowship of East Ohio continue the tradition of the Seven Last Words Service annually. This year it will be hosted at Church of the Saviour UMC in Cleveland Heights at noon on Good Friday, April 2.
Seven preachers will preach on one of Jesus’ seven last words on the cross. The preachers are: Rev. Edgar Brady (first word), Rev. David Whitt (second word), Rev. Gerald Cameron (third word), Bishop Tracy S. Malone (fourth word), Pastor Sheena Cameron (fifth word), Rev. Neriah Edwards-Boone (sixth word), and myself, Rev. Dawan Buie (seventh word). Each preacher will offer a captivating reflection on Jesus’ final words before he died for humanity’s sins as the sacrificial lamb of God.
During this service, only those taking part and their family will be in-person at the church. All those not participating in the service are welcome to attend virtually at www.cotsumc.org/live. If you miss the live service, it will be available to view on the same page after the service has concluded.
For more information on the Black Church, I recommend the PBS special, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story. This Is Our Song.” The program produced, written, and hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. aired during Black History Month 2021 and can be viewed online at www.PBS.org. There are also many other resources on the Black Church. I encourage you to read and learn from the many resources on the Black Church created by Black people.
*Rev. Dawan Buie is the associate pastor of Medina United Methodist Church and the president of the EOC Black Pastors’ Fellowship.