24 Jun What’s Wrong With White People?

Jill and I went to the funeral of a friend’s father last week. I’m not a fan of funerals. I don’t know anybody who is. But this one gave me second thoughts about funerals—and churches. The presiding minister was a short, vigorous woman of middle age. She reminded the congregation that this was to be a celebration. The deceased was going to meet his maker, after all. The congregants voiced their agreement. Loudly. Oh, yes, I thought, let’s make some noise! Need I add that this was an African American church?

A small one, too. On a good day it might hold two hundred people An organist—a big guy with linebacker shoulders—was playing throughout the service. When there wasn’t singing, he would string some appropriate melody behind the speaker. To get us in the celebratory mood, the choir got up and did a number: four middle-aged ladies led by a woman who reminded me of my grandmother. She had the barrel-big voice of a blueswoman. “If you ask him, He will come,” she told us. The choir agreed. The congregation agreed. We clapped. We sang. But it wasn’t over when the singing stopped because the spirit had gotten into the organist and he kept on. And then choir started up again, singing, “My mama told me one day everything’s gonna be all right!” And how could we disagree? We went on like that for a while. And felt right warmed up by the time the visiting ministers got up to share their recollections of the deceased, who had been a bishop in this little church.

The first speaker was a tall, ebony black man with such stature and cheerful charisma, I was ready to follow him to the river. He didn’t speak to us, he sang. If I had a voice like that, I’d sing everything too. Lord have mercy. As if that weren’t enough, the second minister, an older goateed man, said he felt so good he had to dance. And he did. We accompanied him with clapping. Then we sang “I’ll be going up to meet Him – joy and happiness will be mine!” Then the minister’s son delivered the eulogy. There was more singing and some testifying. Then the choir got up and sang some more. I’ve never had so much fun in church.

Store front churches like this one seem to break all the rules I grew up with. In my white-bread world, church was as solemn as a mausoleum. You weren’t even supposed to cough loudly in church, much less sneeze. The solemnity weighed so heavily on us, we could hardly move. The minister would talk his sermon at the congregation. And talk. And talk. And we would just sit there oh-so-silently and take it, fighting to stay awake. Attendance at church was nothing but dutiful and something of an ordeal. You did it once a week the way folks used take a bath once a week. Then you felt a better person for having gone through the trouble. That was the extent of it.

Our church was big and well-appointed and showed off the congregation’s investment in their religion. Everybody was well meaning, don’t get me wrong. But it was such a joyless enterprise. Is it any wonder that when, as a teenager, I was given the choice to attend or not, I stopped going? So, I’ve got to ask, How did white folk get it so wrong? Some say it’s our dour Calvinistic heritage, a product of cold, treeless Scotland, where hard-bitten parishioners put a premium on pain, not joy. But the African-American heritage has been nothing but pain, so how did they get it so right when it comes to church?

After coming away from the funeral service last week, I was singing. And I felt buoyed for the rest of the week. Had I grown up surrounded by that kind of celebration, my life would have been different, I have no doubt. As it is, Jesus’s hand has never touched my shoulder, and so, when I drive past big, pretty churches on a Sunday, I think not of celebration but of sleep.

Here’s my favorite tune from the service. I’m Going Up Yonder. (Recorded on my phone.) When the song gets rolling (second verse), it rocks. Listen to the organist crank it with his leslie on the B-3. I was tempted to get on the drum set that was sitting idle beside him. I recommend downloading this tune onto your system and cranking it up.