Article originally posted on State of Formation.
I had just finished morning prayer at the local Episcopal church near my office, a place where I go to find strength and renewal in the middle of the week. It was the feast day of one of my favorite saints; I felt encouraged, renewed, and hopeful, ready to face the day ahead. Joining with my fellow worshippers, I walked to the fellowship hall for a cup of coffee and breakfast. With a cup of coffee in her hand, a seemingly well-meaning, smiling Caucasian woman sitting next to me turned and asked “So, Reverend Harris, I don’t understand all this frustration about Confederate statues in the news. It’s just a statue, and it’s history, after all.”
My face hardened, and my smile turned into an expressionless mask of rage.
This statement baffled me. Her mind was already made up, and it seemed as if she thought I was the safe black person in the room who would validate her thoughts. Her statement, seemingly out of nowhere, destroyed my prayerful and hopeful attitude. “Here we go again” was my immediate thought as I felt rage and anger rising as high as the temperature of the coffee in my hands. With a plastered smile on my face, I responded: “When my people have been enslaved, beaten, segregated, and tortured for four hundred years, a statue to the Confederacy represents everything that we have fought against in the struggle to be free.”
“Oh, I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” Nina Simone’s deep, soulful voice floats over a room of thirty African American law school students, faculty, alumni, and staff at the first annual Sankofa Retreat. With our eyes closed and shoulders limp, Nina croons the prayers rising from our hearts as we inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale. “Oh, I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” Free from seemingly “innocent” but soul-destroying questions regarding my people’s history. Free from white performative gaze. Free from the expectations of excellence at all times laid upon the black middle class. We breathe and pray, and for just a moment—as the sound of our breath rises—we feel free.
Freedom seems elusive; perhaps it’s a figment of the black collective imagination. Like a fairytale told by our parents, the myth of freedom makes promises it can’t keep. It seems tangible. Earn the right credentials, beat “them” at their game, carry yourself well, be an activist—but not too loud. And if you obey the rules, one day you will earn the American dream. Yet freedom, like Ezekiel’s dry bones, seems to crumble in the wind. I keep longing for that day when freedom will gain bones, skin, and flesh and become an embodied reality. Until then, just join Sister Nina and keep singing.
At what point does the singing stop? That is a question I, a black Christian minister, wrestle with. At what point will the dream of freedom become more than a place of disembodied hope and become reality? I hear the folk wisdom of the black church mothers of my childhood telling me to “keep waiting, child, the Lord keeps his promises.” However, I’m tired of waiting. Yes, I affirm the creeds of my Christian faith that we live in the in-between of time. Waiting in the now and not yet of life. Knowing that in some untold future, Christ will come to restore all things. It is my duty, however, as a black Christian minister, to join the plaintive cry of our ancestors and the psalmist in Psalm 13 to ask, “How long, O Lord?”
Tearfully, I ask God, “Will black people ever taste freedom? Is there room and freedom for black folks to live an abundant life?” Not in the dictates of the prosperity gospel and pie-in-the-sky theology that tells its adherents if they only believe, God will bless them. My longing is for the promise of abundance—to believe in the ability to be black and free without fear.
I wonder if that is where freedom begins? Maybe freedom becomes enfleshed in the longings of each individual soul. There is an old spiritual that states:
Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
Somehow my ancestors had the capacity and audacity to believe that as they sang, that hope was born and as hope was born, freedom would begin to find itself creating a room within their hearts.
I dare to believe that in some way, each day, I can begin to live into freedom. Sister Nina’s words, “Oh, I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” morph in my head as I approach the altar. I lift the bread and I lift the chalice and intone these words: “For God so loved the world.” For just a moment, Nina stops singing, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” I taste the bitter wine and the sour bread of the Eucharist and sing the words of the old gospel hymn, “I am free, I am free, no longer bound, no more chains holding me.” For just a moment, I see freedom walk across the back of the church. It looks at me and proclaims, Black and Free.
Image Credit: Ernest C. Withers, “Mule Train leaves for Washington, Poor People’s March, Marks, MS,” photograph, May 1968, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Ernest C. Withers, Courtesy of the Withers Family Trust.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.