Joy and Justice Recap: A Celebration of the Black Church and Black Christianity
Everyone sensed it coming even before it happened. The musicians, who had been sitting on the side since their set ended, quickly found their way back to their instruments. People in the audience scooted up toward the edge of their seats. The shouts of “amen” and “alright” were more frequent and more vociferous.
“Black Christians are the embodiment of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” intoned the preacher. Rev. Dr. John Faison Sr. began a half-speaking, half-singing cadence that signaled the climax of a sermon in the Black preaching tradition.
Sentence after sentence rolled from the pulpit in ever-heightening waves of enthusiasm for his subject: the resurrection.
“He got up!”
The few people who remained sitting popped to their feet shouting “Yes!” and raised their hands in the air as a physical punctuation of the preacher’s proclamations.
Rev. Faison ended with a prayer. Not the heads-bowed, eyes-closed type but a song. Everyone was singing, swaying and clapping in unison to a classic song of the culture. The whole church was on their feet with the preacher in collective praise.
“This joy that I have…the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away!”
This moment, this place, this occasion, this gathering of speakers and guests at the Joy and Justice conference was a celebration of the Black Church and Black Christianity.
Black…But with a Seatbelt On
At many Christian conferences I’ve attended, the Black Church tradition, as varied and rich as it is, has been left out of the proceedings. The white-centeredness of those events leaked through in all kinds of ways. By slates of all-white speakers, music written by and for predominantly white Christian audiences, or the choice of topics and themes.
So often I would be in those spaces on the edge of my seat, not in anticipation of a moment of communal celebration, but anxiously gauging whether this presenter would say something misguided or racist. For Black Christians, conferences that purport to be Christian in principle but exclusively prop up white religious norms in practice, are not places of freedom.
Too often as Black Christians, we have to downplay our culture and history in a mixed-race or predominantly white setting. We have to give explanations or qualifications that what we are doing or saying may be unfamiliar or perhaps even offensive to non-Black people. We have to give up our vernacular, our expressiveness, and our comfort for the sake of people who never knew and may have never respected our traditions.
In so many white Christian contexts, we only get to be Black with a seatbelt on.
A Celebration of the Black Church and Black Christianity
We didn’t want that for the Joy and Justice conference. We wanted Black Christians to come and feel free and safe. We wanted them to trust the organizers and the speakers. We wanted them to feel seen and heard and dignified. That happened through a celebration of the Black Church and Black Christianity.
The combination of speakers, topics, music, space, and place meant that we could be Black without a seatbelt on at the Joy and Justice conference. We welcomed people of all races and ethnicities, but we leaned into the reality that white culture and religious preferences are not authoritative or normative.
So much of this is better experienced than explained. That’s why I was so pleased to see so many Black people there. I wanted as many of us as possible to experience the joy of freedom. It was my hope that at the Joy and Justice conference, Black Christians felt the liberty to be their full embodied selves, and after such an experience never to settle for anything less.
Many of the Black Christians who follow The Witness find themselves in predominantly white settings whether in church, school, or the workplace. They often feel whitewashed in those contexts. They have to modulate their blackness for the comfort of the white people around them.
But we don’t have to do that. Black Christians don’t have to leave part of ourselves at the door in an attempt to placate the least culturally-aware white person around us. I hope the Black Christians who attended the Joy and Justice conference left with a bit of holy dissatisfaction: a righteous restlessness that makes them uncomfortable and unwilling to unnecessarily play down their unique Christian heritage in the name of a whitewashed form of diversity.
From the feedback we received, I think we largely achieved that goal. So many people had the same comment about the conference: “This was healing” or “I needed this.”
Liberation Requires Sustained Intentionality
But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the freedom to embrace one’s blackness does not happen without sustained intentionality.
We intentionally designed every component of the conference to help Black Christians feel at home. Every speaker who took to the main stage was Black. Representation, or a lack of it, sends a powerful signal about whose presence is valued. For Black people who may never or seldom see a teacher in school, the president of an organization, or the leader of a group who looks like them, we had to make it clear that Black people’s gifts and skills would be on display.
The location was critical, too. We could have chosen a sleek space with various lighting sets, the latest A/V equipment, and sophisticated breakout rooms. But we chose a historic Black church: Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. It has been a cornerstone of the Black community in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago for over a century. People from Mahalia Jackson to Martin Luther King Jr. have graced the stage in the church sanctuary. We wanted to celebrate not just the Black Church as a culture and tradition, but as a physical space as well.
Black Church music is an institution in itself. Ebenezer M.B. Church had Thomas A. Dorsey as its music coordinator. It was at that very church where he assembled a 100-person gospel choir and they first performed this fledging musical genre. This historic event gives the church its name, “The Birthplace of Gospel Music.” That tradition continued with Michelle Higgins and her band of singers and musicians. They understood the dynamism of Black gospel music: when to repeat a refrain, when to pause for an exhortation, when to encourage the worshipers to sing, clap and throw their full selves into the experience.
All of these decisions took hours of conversation, prayer, research, and discernment. The pervasiveness of white norms and culture makes it easy to default to practices and mindsets that have been designed to empower and emphasize whiteness. Only through a deliberate and ongoing process of prayerful thought can we, even as Black Christians, counteract the presumption that “white is right.”
Intentionally black-centered occasions are not a separation from people of other races or ethnicities. It is cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. It is poised in the midst of plurality. It is diversity with unity.
The Joy and Justice conference was a multi-day answer to pray. It gave us a picture of God’s faithfulness to the Church through people of African descent. It was no less than a demonstration of God’s glory through a celebration of the Black Church and Black Christianity.