Resurrection Sunday in Alabama’s Black Belt
Have you ever attended a Black Baptist church in rural Alabama for Resurrection Sunday (Easter) before?
Since I was a little boy, my mother and I would travel from the Birmingham suburbia and go “back home,” where my grandparents live, joining relatives at a little country church for Resurrection Sunday. Home sits along Alabama’s Black Belt, where our land is only forty miles from the Mississippi state line.
Researching rural Black churches across the Black Belt in the late twentieth century, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya emphasize how these churches contribute to the survival of their people in the most extreme and violent circumstances—white supremacy the most extreme and violent of them all. Today, additional challenges threaten the existence of rural churches across the South, especially in the country, woody place my family calls home in West Alabama.
The highway to home is eerily quiet. As we travel down the road that connects this rural area to the rest of the world, the leaves dance as the wind pushes them across the road, like dust balls rolling around the desert.
We see the occasional eighteen-wheeler carrying logs for the paper mill miles away, with its red flag at the tip of the longest wood, telling approaching vehicles to keep a reasonable distance. The paper mill exists as one of the few blue-collar jobs left in the area.
We see stray dogs searching for their next meal.
Sometimes we see deer running across the road—or dead, laying on the side of it. Buzzards surround the deer, treating its carcass like a buffet. As we approach, they scatter and circle overhead as if we, too, have entered a dead zone.
But this is home, even while some houses show signs of desertion—reflecting the presence of an aging population. Hands and voices that once waved “hey ‘dere now” from their porch, in their southern dialect, no longer welcome us home. But we see them. Ancestors.
Remember when Sister Akins used to sit out there before she got sick…and I sholl miss Ole Bob from over there. He was Grandaddy best friend. Now he ain’t got no mo’ best friends out here….Yea, he ‘bout the last one left ‘round here. And you know he ain’t gon’ leave and come to the city with us…This is home.
Despite these changes and transitions in this rural town, Resurrection Sunday at the church down the dirt road or right off the highway, encompassed by trees, looks and feels the same—like home.
We wake up on Sunday morning for “Sunrise Service,” seeking to reenact Jesus getting up “early Sunday morning.” Grandma grabs her Easter hat, matching her outfit, secretly competing against the other Mothers at the church.
Grandaddy, a deacon, joins the other deacons for devotion. They pull out the foldable chairs, some with crimson seat cushions, matching the church’s floor color. They ring the bell on the offering table, letting us know the service is about to begin. A deacon, with his growly, country twang, begins singing.
Let’cha light shine
Let’cha light shine
Maybe someone down in the valley
Tryna come home
Tryna come home
The church, filled with traveling family members—from Birmingham (like my mother and me), Michigan, and California—joins in, embracing the sounds that reminded us that we had made it home.
Then, embodying the ritualistic traditions of Black Baptist deacons, my grandad, or another deacon, gets down on one knee, bending over the folding chair, and begins to pray words many of us know by memory.
Once more and again, Heavenly Father! We come to you knee bowed and body bent, thanking you Father, that last night wasn’t our last night. That our bed didn’t become our cooling board and that our sheets didn’t become our winding clothes. Thank you for waking us up this morning, Father! Clothed in our right minds…
Grandad prays on and on and on, serving as the preacher before the preacher, a deacon with musical and mystical proclivities.
After this, someone calls the church with a melodious tune, dragging our voices through each syllable.:
Guide Me Oh Thou, Thy Great Jehovah.
Pilgrims through this barren land!
And we respond to the call.
Guuuiiiiiidddddeeeee Meeeeeeee Ohhhh Thouuu…
Next comes the Resurrection Day Program, led by the Sunday School Superintendent. Here, the church nourishes the introverted and extroverted children with the same level of love and laughter. Supporting the children with “Amen, baby!” and “That’s alright. Praise God!”
This is home.
Finally, comes the “preacher of the hour,” who most likely pastors two or three churches within a forty-mile radius. Such are the ministerial obligations of rural preachers and country churches in the South. The preacher whoops and hollers, shouting as if the church is packed to the rafters. Using memory to guide the sermon, the rural preacher channels what James Weldon calls the “old-time Negro preacher” in his 1927 work God’s Trombones.
I intend to explain the unexplainable—find out the undefinable—ponder over the imponderable—and unscrew the inscrutable.
On Resurrection Sunday, the preacher’s degrees—or lack thereof—don’t matter. The central question, in the words of my grandaddy, is, “Can the preacher preach?”
The entire church operates as the amen corner, anticipating the sermon’s closing.
One Friday, He died! But he didn’t stay dead. ‘Cause early Sunday morning, he got up with all power in his hand.
These words are no different from the Baptist preachers in big cities, but there’s something about being home that makes this homiletical moment more mystical, more powerful, more alive—especially when everything in the community, from the jobs to the churches to the people, are dilapidating and dying.
After service, family and friends, from near and far, catch up. We introduce new family members, by birth or marriage, eat, and depart saying, “see yall next year.” All of us anticipating the next time we get to come home and do “country church” all over again.
Last year, COVID-19 prevented us from going home for Resurrection Sunday, and it will do the same this year.
While both of my grandparents have their vaccines, the deadly specter of the pandemic lingers—and there won’t be a Sunrise Service this year, not in person at least.
Some churches in metropolitan, suburban, and urban areas are preparing to hold socially distant Resurrection Day services or stream online services. Most churches back home don’t have the resources and technology to stream online services. For the past year, many churches in rural Alabama attended church through their landline phone. My grandparents’ church is one of them.
I weep for my people back home who may be unable to attend a service. Some of them don’t have the resources for an outside service, and it is too risky to host a service inside with an aging membership that has a high instance of preexisting conditions. It’s too risky to risk it.
I hope that next year will be different. When we travel back home, I hope that I still see the hands and hear the voices of those welcoming us, hearing them say, “It’s been a while!”
They will be there. And the traditions that make-up the rural Black Baptist church in Alabama’s Black Belt will be there too. Alive. Resurrected from the tomb of this world changing pandemic…
May the Lord watch between me and thee
While we absent one for another
Until we meet again.