Friday, July 3, 2015

Inexplicable Joy

I have struggled to make space for the full range of human emotions that these past few weeks have engendered in me. I wake up still crying in rage at the deaths of 9 Black men and women, killed by a racist terrorist while they were holding Bible study in their Charleston church. I shake with anger at the silence of so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, as African American churches mysteriously burn. My heart breaks when thinking about black women clergy receiving threatening letters for daring to be unapologetically true to their calling and vocation, letters written by someone opposed to women in ministry. I just haven’t had the words to describe the layers of hurt and pain and sadness as I reflect upon both the prophetic witness and the challenges of the Black church, the place that is my spiritual home.

I had made a commitment many months back to preach at a church, which I thought long and hard about cancelling after the events of this past month. My schedule was packed and I was already struggling to find clear words to speak to the media about various events. I had nothing encouraging to offer, no good news to bring. I simply wanted to stay home and weep, to deal with the searing images of two young black girls burying their father. But I had made a commitment, and so I went.

I was sitting in the pulpit and from that vantage point, I had a clear view of the congregation. I saw what I expected to see: an aging African American church. The membership was under 100 people; there were some young people under the age of 18, but mainly members over 60. There were only a handful of men, including the two ministers who shared the pulpit with me. The facility was well-cared for, but worn. The words appearing on plaques below the stained glass windows reflected the names of members who passed away long ago. I was in a historically black city, an inner city church, and a neighborhood that time and gentrification forgot.

But then...

An elder whose face was carved with lines and memories of things he cannot forget, approached the altar and began a prayer of intercession. His firm voice called on the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. He petitioned the Rock, the cornerstone that the builders rejected. His prayers anointed that small sanctuary and the presence of God filled the place. I watched a frail hand lifted up in worship. Dressed in her Sunday best with a wide-brimmed hat in place, this church mother stood with hands uplifted as tears streamed down her face. She, too, was at the throne of grace. Prayers both private and corporate, joined together; the words were indistinguishable, but all our hearts gathered together for this moment of prayer.

On that Sunday morning, there was music and dance; there was laughter and sorrow. Announcements were read and visitors were welcomed. Choirs sang and babies cried. As I brought forth the Word, my message seemed insufficient and my ideas too simplistic. But those same frail hands and lined faces responded to my words and lifted me higher. They encouraged and pushed; they called and they responded. In that small church in a city that stimulus funds neglected, a great cloud of witnesses in this realm and beyond, worshiped with a truth and intensity that moved my soul.

This joy I have/the world didn’t give it/and the world can’t take it away.

This church was a place of joy; joy that doesn’t make any sense. These lives did not represent the academy or a comfortably-ensconced middle-class America. This congregation did not have a pastor who marched on Washington or who sat down with presidents. By every standard, this was a poor congregation in a poor city. But there was so much richness present! They were raising grandchildren whose parents were lost to the prison industrial complex. They were awarding scholarship money to graduating seniors, even though some of the members had never finished high school. They were praying for the sick and visiting the shut-ins; filling in the gaps of a racially-biased health care system. This congregation was full of joy. Yes, they were also grieving, angry, and feeling the pain of all the injustice in the world. But there was joy; it was palpable and tangible. And this joy in the midst of so much pain is the paradox of the gospel and the mystery of our faith.

This joy I have/the world didn’t give it/and the world can’t take it away.

Joy is finding a way to get up every morning in the midst of a death-dealing culture. Joy is gathering for a barbecue with friends, even when your laughter turns to angry tears. Joy is watching little brown babies dance and clap their hands in a world that often denies them a childhood. Joy is a courageous black woman who dares dismantle a symbol of racist oppression, risking her life and freedom. For those who far too often live on the edges of death, joy is daring to say “I am still here.” 

In a world that refuses to even acknowledge black pain, grief, and sorrow, joy is being able to say: though we may be cut down, we are yet alive. Joy is defiantly rebuilding a church torched by arsonists. Joy is going to Wednesday night Bible study and Sunday morning worship, casting aside a spirit of fear. Joy is simply daring to show up...when the world wants you to silence your voice. For all of you who continue to show up - though bruised, battered, with tears in your eyes, scarred, and broken - know that the world will not and cannot steal your joy.

© Yolanda Pierce

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