Spiritual Autobiography

Introduction

My spiritual journey has taken many paths and turns. It has been influenced by the events in my life. The paper will discuss the religious events in my life, and the footnotes will reveal my personal feelings about those events. The footnotes are an important part of the paper, and the reader will often feel that he is listening to two different people speak. This is because of the duality, which occur by being born Black in America. Black Americans must always think on a dual level. The content level is the main part of the paper; the real story is in the footnotes.

My spiritual journey has always been centered on service to others and what could I do to improve the quality and spiritual life of children.

My earliest memory of my mother is related to her working in churches, and developing programs for children. My mother was a music teacher and concert promoter. My brother and I were professional singers from the ages of three and fours years old.

By the time I reach the age of twelve, I had already been elected the youngest superintendent of the Sunday school in the Baptist church. I was the lead singer with a group of adult gospel performers, and I was able to conduct a praise and worship service, in place of my mother. My mother earned her living from the performances and skills we had as children. I will admit, that I developed a love hate relationship with music, church, especially small, storefront churches. Today I am uncomfortable with ministers in financially challenged communities, collecting the small coins of women who are desperate for some relief from their pain and suffering, and hope by giving their last, God will provide some hope and release.

Paying the Bills

Church was a business to our family. We were church singers and performers. My relationship with God was not very clear. This relationship was defined by my mother and the music she performed as church organist and choir director. I remember attending mega tent rallies. It was at these rallies that I learned that ministers depended upon the music and the organist to manipulate the emotions of the people. The preacher could preach the people into the readiness for a good shout, but it was the organist or the music, which gave the shout its beat. The preacher depended upon the organist to capture the rhythm of the heartbeat, and play a set of chords that inspired what was called the “holy dance.”

Looking back, I can see, that I was angry with God. We were in the God business and the music business as a means to avoiding poverty. I was on automatic pilot. I could carry out most of the responsibility relating to conducting service, except preaching, and if called upon, I could do that also. This was remarkable because this was before reaching the age of puberty.

Helping or Hurting

Churches had an intimate relationship with children and their families, and some of the ministers played significant roles in our social life. As a child, somehow I thought it was wrong to rob women and widows out of their meager funds. I thought the church should be giving to these women rather than taking from them. This was the beginning of my resentment towards the “storefront churches.” I did learn that some churches were takers and some churches were involved in helping people to deal with life’s problems.

This was the post depression period in America, and the Black church was the leading social service agency in the community.  The country met the needs of young people during the twentieth century. Those needs were met through the churches. The question is, can the children and grandchildren of that generation reconnect with God? Can the church be the vehicle for that reconnect?

My spiritual journey has been a lifetime of seeking answers to some of these questions. Jesus was very concerned about children. The question is how concerned is the church about the children in the community? I find that there are many churches, but many seem to have little effect on the lives of children. Many of these children are from homes where their parents and grand parents were brought up in the church. What was it about the experiences with their parents and grand parents that appear to have turned some of them off from church? Are they disappointed in the God of their parents?

Do they like and respect the life of a Christian as represented by the people whom they know?

Childhood, Poverty and the Church

I remember my childhood. My mother took me to a little church where she worked as an organist. We were in the church every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Saturdays my mother served as music director for a Seventh Day Adventist Church. Sunday morning we were up for Sunday school, morning service, and the afternoon and evening programs. I was really all churched out by the time I reached twelve years of age. The church was the means by which people could handle their life problems and maintain strong mental and emotional health. There were very few, if any, mental health clinics, but there were many small churches in each neighborhood. Reflecting back on that time, called post depression area, there were also few children who could be called “emotionally disturbed.”

The pastor of the churches would focus on scripture relating to hardship encountered by peoples in biblical times. There was always some scripture or biblical story, which could provide some degree of relief from suffering. Children hearing the suffering of their parents presented before the congregation during what was called “testimony,”were careful not to add to the burden of their parents. They learn to adjust and accept the conditions of their lives. This was also the time when religion focused on the “hereafter life” rather than worry about the problems of this world. Oral tradition coming down from slave literature and the experience of slavery, suggest that one of the reasons that slave owners in the British North American colonies were encouraged to teach their slaves Christianity was that it was an effective means of control. Slaves, who through religion could be conditioned into a belief of heaven, were more content to accept the difficulties of the earthly world. Some even suggest that the conditions of slavery and poverty were “the will of God, and who are we to question the will of God.”

You Take the World, Give Me Jesus

Eugene Gordon 1929, writes:

You may have the world but give me Jesus,” sang the Uncle Toms of the pre-Lincoln era. And their masters, always generous with intangible gifts, lavished upon the serfs more and ever more Jesus. And their gifts remained, despite efforts of many of this generation to exchange some Jesus for a bit of the world.

My spiritual formation was influenced by these stories, and by the acceptance of some of these women to the conditions of their lives. I separated God from the physical, social and economical environment I found myself living in. I wanted the kingdom in this life, and on this earthly plane. My view of God was that He was not a God of poverty and injustice, and with a change in mental attitude it was possible to achieve more and improved conditions in life. The advantage of going to church frequently and attending many different denominations is that you hear the word of God over and over again. Somewhere in those repeated words of the bible, the image of God emerges

Not the image of the God of my mother, father or grandparents, but an image of a God who walks in the middle of difficulty, and will see you through to the end.

Somewhere the image of God as the symbol of strength and endurance in the time of hardship comes through. From the perspective of slavery, the slaves were freed from the bondage of the pharoses of the Americas, and made a mass exodus into the wilderness of freedom. I see God in the events of the past. I see God in the survival of a people who could have been emotionally handicapped by the events of their lives. God held the emotional health of the people, and there were few if any recorded records of mass insanity as the results of the institution of slavery. The stories told in the Black Church has always been about endurance, survival and making a better life. The strength of the Black Church has been its ability to help people remember when they were in bondage, and how they got over that period.

 

Falling Into the Trap of Ethnic Diversity in Ministry

One of the problems experienced by some ministers who seek to work with congregations of diverse ethnic histories is that the stories are not the same. It is difficult for a pastor coming from another culture and another history, to relate to how a people see God, and use Him in their worship. Slavery is an important part in the spiritual formation of Black people. The period after slavery, called the wilderness period or the racism period, is where people put on the armor of God, and began to use the teaching of Jesus in the acts of forgiveness and acceptance. God had to become real to a people who were living face to face with the realities of life. Ministers had their hand full with helping people to accept the idea and fact that they, the slaves and the peoples of color, were indeed the chosen peoples of the earth.  It was only with a complete knowledge of scripture that ministers were able to cite chapter and verse in the bible, which related to the conditions of their lives. The Old Testament demonstrated that, peoples of color, they were not alone in the trials they were going through. The New Testament gave them a personal savior who would carry their burdens and their pain and sorrow. The spiritual formation of any person of color with roots in the Americas centers in and around a personal responsibility and relationship with God and His son Jesus the Christ.

The Women, the Church and Jesus

The women would pray out their concerns, and lay before the church the hardships of their hearts. Lot of good music, and plenty of food, and the women would give their few coins to the minister, the only male in the church. After service my mother would return home to our apartment, which was sparsely furnished by her bi monthly welfare check. She had played the music, which permitted the women to shout and cry out their pain, and she, had shouted many times around the organ, not missing a single beat. Some how to me this was not God’s house, this was a house of pain and sorrow and the women felt better after releasing their sorrow load. At the age of twelve, I was able to leave this church of sorrow, and go in search of my God.

I did not see God working in these storefront churches and lives of these women. Each week they came back and repeated the same story, and added another pray event to the list. As a child, I had heard enough biblical stories to know that God had and does work in the lives of people. I could not see him working here. With the permission of my mother, I visited several churches to see if I could find a place where God was working. I did find such a place.

Finding Another God, Changing Environments

Harlem has many fine churches, and many store front churches. God has always been in Harlem, it was just necessary to find the body of people demonstrating his presence and working in their lives. I found the St. Marks Episcopal Church on 137th street and Edgecombe Ave. NYC. Today it is called The St. Mark’s   United Methodist Church. There were exciting programs from children. There were men in leadership roles. There were women walking with their heads held high and demonstrating the working of God in their lives. There were positive role models for living life in this exciting community called Harlem. Children in the community hung out in the church after school and evenings. The church was opened seven day a week. All social activities were held in the church. Young people learned to date from the church, and get married and have their children blessed in the church. Whatever the community needed was found in the church, from financial planning, relationship building, management and administration, and a spiritual teaching about the love and will of God. I found my God, and I found my church. The church was so crowded that it was necessary to arrive early if you wanted a seat. The minister was feeding the people with the food from God, which they needed. Women would take young girls and mentor them into the roles of Christian women, and men would take young boys and mentor them into leadership roles and Christian manhood.

That was the twentieth century, and through the grace of God we made it through. We made it through wars, racial discrimination, and unimaginable challenges of life. We had the church to hold as a firm course and a supportive guide. As children we made it through and became adults demonstrating the blessings of God in our lives. The church was filled with children from the nursery school to the university levels.

The Disadvantage of the Successful Works of God

The churches success was also responsible for its decline. The church taught its young people how to work and let God work in their lives. God did work in their lives. Many became success businessmen and women and professionals. Many demonstrating the workings of God, married, had children, and moved out of the community. They brought homes in the suburbs and other communities, they loved their church, but many could and would not send their children to the neighborhood schools.

As the school system in New York City began to decline, so did church attendance. People were not leaving the church; they were seeking better learning opportunities for their children. The church, without knowing it, had a vested interest in the quality of education delivered to the children in the community. It was directly affecting the bottom line of church operation.

The challenges of the 21st century, is to solve the problem of educational delivery to poor children, and also to make the church more responsive to the needs of children.

Finding God

Finding God was a transforming experience. I had to know that this God of my ancestors was the God for me. I had to take a step in the direction of faith and trust that God would be with me in every step that I took. It was necessary to deny the reality of my present existence and just the knowledge that I was made in the image and likeness of this God. I learned to look in the mirror and see a reflection starring back at me that was a reflections of the face of God. I learn to look into the face of other people and also see this same reflections. My decision was what would I do with this awareness of who I was. If I was made in the image and likeness of God, then I would have abilities to do things, which I could not imagine with my natural mind.

My natural mind look at the reality of my existence, and told me that there was no way that an individual would be able to over come circumstances with so many obstacles blocking the way. The still  voice, which comes into your mind, during times of quiet and surrender revealed the thought that what man cannot do, God could do. It was around this time that I decided to take a closer look at these storefront church women, I wanted to know what they had in common. I wanted to see the degree of their dependence on this church system. I noticed that all of them had made poor relational choices in their lives. I noticed that most if not all of them, were not in any positive relationship with men. In fact most of the content of their weekly testimony related to some negative behavior of friends or relatives with whom they associated. Most of them had a considerable amount of time to contribute to church activity. These activities included cleaning the church, arriving early to set up the church for week day or evening services. The women would join together and cook all day Saturday and brought the food to church on Sunday. Cooking and eating was an important part of church activity. There seemed to be a sense of comfort in the shared rhythm  of their lives. They were the same, almost carbon copies of each other.

This brings me to the development of my Christian witness and a major step in my spiritual journey. It is hard to praise God from an extreme position of poverty. There was a relationship between poverty and education. If parents were sending their children to schools that did not prepare them for the work world in which they would live, then some of these children would grow up and live hopeless lives of pain and suffering. The minister saw these people after the disappointments in life had led them to the church as a refuge from pain. There had to be a way to change the direction of the lives of these storefront churchwomen and their children. It was obvious, that children who received quality education tended to make better choices in their lives. If education was the path to understanding what God wanted for us, then education would be my ministry call. I entered the education field, and with the help of God, I delivered quality education to children and the adults whom I had the privilege to serve.

The Church As Educational Centers for Spirituality

My ministry today focuses on helping churches to become educational centers. This is not reinventing the wheel it is about encouraging churches to do what they do best. Churches are in the transformation business .The elimination of poverty is a transformational issue. Poverty clouds the lens of the eyes and makes it impossible to see the paths that God has prepared for His people. Churches have the power to make the blind see, and the lame walk. The healing powers of Jesus are found in the hearts and the hands of those who serve children.

Today, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church sits in Harlem a shell of its former self. The church used to hold 3,000; today maybe seventy-five senior citizens attend on Sunday. There are no Sunday school or youth programs. The building is locked six days a week, and on Sunday, the one day that it is opened, the members quickly disappear after service to return to their homes.

 Conclusion

Needless to say the schools in the Harlem community has been in decline for years, and the churches have set quietly by and permitted that decline to take place. I am not impressed with churches that have loud music, exciting music, and no children. If the children in the neighborhood are hanging in the streets and know more about the inside of a jail than they do about the inside of a church, then something is wrong. If we don’t help them with school, why should they attend our church? The saving your soul message does not work with a youth who is hurting in the mind and the body. Young people are not like their grandparents, and in some cases slave ancestors. They do not say give me Jesus, and you can have the rest of the world. They feel that there is something wrong with a religion that supports poverty and oppression, and they are unwilling to attend church building, which they consider, the building centers for the weak. When a man has a job and is able to take care of himself and his family, then he is willing to praise the God who made it possible. When a student feels that the education system is giving him the tools that he will need to get a good job, then he will be willing to sit in school and listen to teachers who respect him and his ability. The male is like the canary in the mind shaft. He will give the first signs that there is something unhealthy going on in the environment. Therefore, we must pay attention to the absence of men in our churches, homes, schools, and even universities. Jesus first healed then he taught scripture. He did not give scripture to the blind man or the cripple man; first, he healed the condition, which they were facing.

Today, I attend the Riverside Church in New York City. It reminds me of the St. Mark’s of my youth. During the years when I worked as a public school teacher in the Harlem and Washington Heights areas, I found that I needed some help to improve the academic performance of my children. I approached Riverside church about the possibility of starting an after-school program in the church, and bring my class there to do additional work with them. The church agreed, and provided the space and resources for the project. I was able to reintroduce the missing component of religion back into the educational process.

The academic performance of the children improved significantly. The children went back into the schools, and with their religious experience, influenced the entire school. Many of the children attended the church, and others joined churches of their own denomination. I learned later that many parents moved out of the community and bought homes in the suburbs. If churches are to retain this body of membership, then they must become actively involved in the education system. It is my belief that every church should have an after-school program, and the church should open its doors to the youth of the community.

I don’t know if I like being a part of a religion where a large portion of its members were or still maybe KKK members. I do not know if I like to be part of a religion where people are hated for their sexual orientation. I do not know if I like to be part of a religion where the Mother Church has top ay out over a half a billion dollars because some of its priest molested children. I do not know if I like being part of a religion that stands by and permits a system to send boys and men to jail, and the only way to escape is to join the military. Something is wrong with our Christianity. We are not slaves any longer, but we are still being given the slave sermons. Keep quiet, behave, and you will get your reward in heaven. I want to know my God here now and in the flesh. Jesus came down in the flesh to let us know that we can know and experience God in the flesh. My journey to this understanding has taken me through many paths of faith.

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