Guide me O Thou
Pilgrim through this Barren Land
I am weak
But Thou art Mighty
Hold me with Thy powerful Hand
I can still see and hear my dad and the other deacons singing this at the altar on Sunday morning. Dad often led morning devotion and this song was part of the repertoire. If the Pastor led it, the song took on a different flavor and the entire congregation rose to their feet by the time he said Great. Church fans waving, we were one voice, one choir, one sound. At 8 or 9 years old, I watched, bored, disinterested. I didn’t know what the lyrics meant, neither did I understand the passion in their voices, or why they sang it for so long. There was a strength, a fervor, a deep need expressed in those hymns. That was how we got over. You’d have to grow up in the Baptist church to understand how deep the roots run for Black people. The church was where we found solace, comfort, strength, and power to face another day, another week. It was our therapy.
Folks arrived at church dressed to the nines, battles scars from the week hidden under three-piece suits and spit-shined Stacy Adams. The church mothers and deaconesses donned the widest, brightest headpieces you’ve ever seen. They’d snap open lace fans that matched their hanky’s and their suits were tailored to perfection.
Church mothers were everybody’s mother. They taught you how to dress, how to sit, how to place a lace hanky over your knees if your skirt was too short. Mother Monroe was the fiercest church mother I’ve ever known. She wore four-inch heels, diamonds like Liberace, and on first Sunday, her white suit and matching hat would have shut down a Paris runway. She was friends with my parents, and I called her my grandmother. No one really knew how old she was, some said 90, some said 95. She passed away a few years ago. We don’t really have women like her today. Women who have lived through times and seasons, who did what they had to because doing what they wanted to do was not an option. Women who knew what it meant to “hold out just a little while longer” because “help is on the way.” That is a part of our culture that is slipping away, but it’s the part that kept us from falling apart. Those church mothers held us together and now we are separated from them and our traditions.
Today, with Black churches in varying stages of opening, the therapy we so easily accessed on Sunday morning is almost out of reach. We press and stretch but the fire and heat we once felt is smoldering and cold. Church provided community, connection, and camaraderie for common struggles. What happened in the church family was reflected in Pastor’s sermons; he was often the first (and maybe only) counselor some folks ever met. The message from the pulpit, while nestled in scripture, was often a prescription for what was ailing the body. Love as a balm for hate, forgiveness as liniment for injustice, hope as the elixir for a downtrodden spirit.
Times have changed. The pandemic has changed us, how we worship, how we gather, how we funeralize our loved ones. Social media has changed how we talk to each other. We are both more and less connected every day. I wonder if that loss of connection is what has created the tears in our fabric; if the social distance (pre and during pandemic) has disconnected us from what once united us: our trauma and our triumphs.
The church was, and still is, the mechanism to disseminate information to the masses. For the most part, we trust the Word that comes from the pulpit, even if we don’t do what we’ve heard. Perhaps we need to go back. To resurrect the old times ways that brought us this far. Maybe we have drifted too far from what kept us. Maybe we need to reach back to the source of our strength. Songs of deliverance, messages of hope, words of advice, love of church mothers, and the smell of chicken frying in the church basement.