Seeing God at work in black churches

July 21, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE CHURCH IS the door through which we first walked into Western civilization; religion is the form in which America first allowed our personalities to be expressed."

So wrote novelist Richard Wright of the black church, which emerged as the central institution of African-American peoples during slavery and has remained ever since the social center of their lives and the most characteristic expression of their collective spiritual striving.

In the catalog to "Come Sunday," the Museum of Modern Art's recent exhibition of photographs of working-class African-American congregants in New York City, writer Henry Louis Gates Jr. observes that the black church "is at once a culture and a black cultural event, a weekly unfolding of ritual and theater, oratory and spectacle, the most sublime music and even dance."

All these and more are evident in the remarkable photographs of Thomas Roma, a white photographer who in 1990 began a series of photographs documenting the many houses of worship in his native Brooklyn, N.Y.

Roma planned to compile a comprehensive record of buildings belonging to all the community's religious denominations for a book to be titled "God's Work."

The project took an unexpected turn, however, when the pastor of a black congregation housed in a former Jewish temple in the East New York section of Brooklyn challenged the photographer to rethink his premise:

"The truth is -- and you should know better -- that God's work is not the building itself but what goes on inside," the pastor said.

He then invited the photographer to visit his congregation the next Sunday and photograph the actual service.

Over the next three years Roma photographed more than 150 services in 52 different African-American churches in Brooklyn -- a year of Sundays. The exhibition and catalog present 87 photographs culled from that body of work by John Szarkowski, the eminent curator-critic and director emeritus of the museum's department of photography.

'Powerful portraits'

The pictures are a revelation even to those already familiar with the characteristic forms and rituals of the African-American church, which the photographer here captures with unusually forceful directness.

"These powerful portraits," wrote the scholar Cornel West, "disclose a depth of black humanity and dignity rarely seen in white America -- black minds, bodies and souls in quest for spiritual meaning within sacred ritual."

In his seminal 1903 essay "The Souls of Black Folk," W. E. B. DuBois vividly described what he witnessed as a visitor to a rural Southern black church as a young man:

"I was a country schoolteacher then, fresh from the East, and had never seen a Southern Negro revival," he wrote. "And so most striking to me, as I approached the village and the little plain church perched aloft, was the air of intense excitement that possessed that mass of black folk.

"A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize us -- a pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word.

"The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt-cheeked brown woman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul, while round about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of human passion such as I had never conceived before."

DuBois admitted that "as described, such scenes appear grotesque and funny." But, he insisted, as seen they inspired nothing less than awe:

"The frenzy of 'shouting,' when the Spirit of the Lord passed by, and seizing the devotee, made him mad with supernatural joy, was the last essential of Negro religion and the one more devoutly believed in than all the rest," he wrote.

"It varied in expression from the silent rapt countenance or the low murmur and moan to the mad abandon of physical fervor -- the stamping, shrieking and shouting, the rushing to and fro and wild waving of arms, the weeping and laughing, the vision and the trance.

"All this is nothing new in the world, but old as religion, as Delphi and Endor. And so firm a hold did it have on the Negro, that many generations firmly believed that without this visible manifestation of the God there could be no true communion with the Invisible."

Many generations have passed since then, yet the forms and rituals of worship DuBois witnessed at the turn of the century in the rural South persist virtually unchanged, having survived transplantation to the urban North and all the radical social upheavals of this tumultuous century.

The black church has survived because it remains the only arena in American society where African-Americans can feel completely accepted. Barred from so many areas of social and political life, African-Americans historically turned to the church for self-expression, recognition and leadership.

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