I spent Monday morning half-listening to a Eucharist Liturgy on Youtube while working on a new painting. As I mulled over the fledgling work, contemplating whether to completely paint over what I’d just done, the sound of Bishop Fernand Cheri’s voice caught my attention. “Black faith matters.” Interesting- what did he mean by that?
The Bishop, previously unknown to me, was speaking at the 2019 Religious Education Congress. The liturgical service he was participating in, “Eucharist Liturgy: Honoring Our Ancestors in Faith from the Black Culture Perspective”, was one of several shared from various liturgical groups throughout the conference weekend. The Black Eucharist Liturgy, a mix of Catholic liturgical practices and Black Gospel style, was peculiar to me. I had never seen a Black mass before. Though there was a distinct elegance to the service that I noted, it didn’t catch my full attention until I heard Bishop Fernand Cheri’s twist on the popular idiom “Black lives matter”.
It is impossible to hear “Black faith matters”, and not connect this sort of faith with the tragedy that birthed “Black lives matter”. The mental joining of the two is telling, revealing the sordid reality of the historical dance between black faith and black justice. The question of one has never existed without the other for the Black American people, given that Black America grew out of a twisted Christianity that sought to justify the unjust situating of black bodies within the Atlantic slave trade.
While it is true that the bonds that tie Black Americans to American soil are full of sorrow, it is equally true that the power of the Christian Gospel has sustained Black America since its earliest days of enslavement. What to make of this ungainly paradox- the religion that sought to justify enslavement actually became the relational connection to a God who fought for black freedom through the advocacy for justice by black men and black women. So, why did Bishop Fernand Cheri feel it essential to let listeners know that “Black faith matters” when it would seem that the powerful history of Black faith might speak for itself?
“This “now”, frantic with racial eruption, is not a new layer of racism, but evidence of the overt and suppressed race-laden narrative of the formation of this country.”
I recently listened to a recording of a speech by the extraordinarily profound Black American author and speaker, James Baldwin. As the late writer was apt to do, he didn’t mince his words as he spoke about the American tendency to forget history. Baldwin proposed a “white history week”, because “history is not the past.” What would seem to be the racist history of the United States is not in the past, but in the now. This “now”, frantic with racial eruption, is not a new layer of racism, but evidence of the overt and suppressed race-laden narrative of the formation of this country. This history must be looked at and acknowledged, lest the United States continue to spin through the unrelenting cycle of unmitigated trauma.
The Black Eucharist Liturgy and Bishop Cheri’s homily are part of the answer to such a call for the remembrance of history. All too familiar with America’s historical pain, Black faith allows Black Americans to reach for hope and to recall that hope is what caused generations of Black Americans to push for not only the better, but also and most simply, the humane. I take Black faith to mean that faith which has endured the greatest of trials; that faith which has withstood the greatest of societal pressures; that faith which refuses to forget the God who carried a people toward a promised hopeful future even as they were carried away from home and family across the ocean.
Standing with my paintbrush in hand, momentarily halted by Bishop Cheri’s words, I realized that Blk Halos is also an answer to the call for remembrance. In bearing witness to the societal tragedies that have plagued Black Americans, Blk Halos honors the generations that refused to relinquish faith. As I peered down at the canvas laid before me, I realized that I didn’t need to cover what I’d painted before. The surface layer of the painting was sheer, giving witness to the levels of color and texture upon which it rest. Surprising blends of color peeked through the amassing layers, each level adding to a larger, unfolding narrative.
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