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Itchy pantyhose. Elaborate hats. Clapping tambourines. Seasoned saints giving me more peppermints than I knew what to do with.
Those are some of my earliest memories of church. I grew up in a predominantly African-American Baptist church, which had its own traditions, songs, and sayings. “He’s an On Time God” was sung valiantly (often by my father). Every testimony began, “First giving honor to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
I have come to respect and cherish the traditional black church that laid the foundation of my faith in Jesus. All cultural manifestations of Christ’s church have faults and blind spots, of course, but I’m grateful for at least three lessons I learned from the church I was raised in: a reverence for God, an encouragement to walk with him through pain and suffering, and the importance of community.
1. Reverence for God
The historically black church places a high value on the holiness and transcendence of God. I remember the reverence of communion and the humility required to partake of the elements, as well as the sacredness of baptism and the significance of identifying with God and his people. Children dared not run across the altar where God’s Word was proclaimed, since such locations had a sacredness about them. And while clothing was much debated in our house, my parents insisted we dress up for church because it was a holy day of the week, set apart for worship and rest.
But the greatest evidence of the fear of the Lord was seen in the prayer lives of the seasoned saints. They had a Christlike residue about them, which only comes from laboring in prayer amid serious storms. When they bowed their heads to pray, there was the distinct sense that they were entering the throne room of God with confidence and reverence (Heb. 4:16). These men and women were trusting God to be their ever-present help in times of need (Ps. 46:1). They were seeking God to be true to his Word, as one who is both holy and near (Ps. 34:18).
2. Encouragement to Trust God through Pain
As I heard these prayers uttered aloud, the Lord was showing me a picture of what it looks like for his people to trust him when hope is constantly deferred (Prov. 13:12).
The African-American church is a miracle. My people clung to the same God my people were taught had made them less than human. The black church was birthed from a place of marginalization and hardship. From its foundations it has known dark times, but it has also been given the privilege of experiencing God as strength and shield (Ps. 28:7).
My people clung to the same God my people were taught had made them less than human.
I wondered how the members of my church endured during seasons of burying children, unfaithful spouses, injustice in their communities, and unfair systems they were fighting against. I watched these men and women show deep resolve and alacrity to follow God when reason whispered to not even try.
It was as if, in a healthy way, suffering was expected. There was a palpable understanding that we live in a fallen and fractured world—and that the greatest days for the Christian are always ahead. So there was no sense in trying too hard to make this earth their home. That would be like going to a hotel, unpacking your clothes, putting them in drawers, and then hanging up pictures. No, these saints were living for another world. They were “looking forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). This has challenged me to expect hardship of various kinds (1 Peter 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:12) and to not suffer without hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
Life will present difficult situations, but God is an ever-present help, and we have not been called to run this race alone.
3. Importance of Community
It’s common for minority groups to experience a “collective consciousness.” There’s just an undeniable sense that we need each other. I watched as my parents opened our home to families who needed a place to live. When a member’s close relative died, it was customary for other church members to attend the funeral, even if it meant driving hours to do so. When my own grandmother passed, I remember seeing leaders from my church in the pews, mourning with us. I observed Romans 12:15 being lived out. Though the physical, emotional, and monetary needs were often great, God provided for his people through his people.
God provides for his people through his people.
This is the greatest lesson I learned: we need one another. It would be impossible to walk faithfully with the Lord alone. He instructs us to do good to one another (Gal. 6:9), to bear with one another (Eph. 4:2), and to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11). So as we toil and struggle to make it home to glory, may we do so with saints beside us, helping us along the way.