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New PBS documentary “The Black Church” enlightens, inspires, and faces its flaws

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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Prof. Henry Louis Gates points something out to Oprah Winfrey prior to her receiving an honorary degree from Harvard University
Prof. Henry Louis Gates points something out to Oprah Winfrey prior to her receiving an honorary degree from Harvard University at commencement ceremonies in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which begins airing Tuesday on PBS, offers an inspiring look at a four-hundred-year-old institution that forms the solid rock of the African-American experience. 

The sprawling documentary, which unfolds in four hours over two nights, is hosted by Harvard’s Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who also has a book on the subject coming out Tuesday. 

The Black Church features celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, and Jennifer Hudson, including some who have drifted away from the church after growing up in it. 

“There will always be moments that push us back to our faith,” said Bishop T. D. Jakes of The Potter’s House in Dallas. “Because life has a way of reminding you that you need something bigger than you to get through a season.” 

The beginnings of the Black Church in America

The black church’s story begins with slavery, followed by the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the continued racial strife of the twenty-first century. 

Under slavery, Blacks often had to worship in secret. When they worshipped in public, Whites put them in segregated seating where they could be carefully controlled. 

Their White masters limited their exposure to parts of the Bible, such as the Book of Exodus, that might cause them to think about freedom. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. 

Then, in the first decade after the Civil War, thousands of Black churches sprang up across the South, later providing a refuge during the segregation era and a staging area for protests during the Civil Rights Movement. 

“In our experience as a people, there is no separation of church and state,” said Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. “Our political strength, our forward movement in this nation, has always been led by people of deep spirituality.” 

The songs of the Black Church

Music provides a glimpse into the soul of the Black church. The soundtrack features classics such as “Oh Happy Day,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Down by the Riverside.” Many of the songs of the Civil Rights Movement were hymns with lyrics changed to reflect the civil-rights battle, like substituting the word freedom for Christian terms. 

“It’s hard to hate somebody if you can hum their music . . . and you can feel it,” said Robert Darden, a professor at Baylor University and a former gospel music editor for Billboard magazine.  

Legend, one of the executive producers of The Black Church, said he reveres the church and its traditions but is no longer actively religious. “For folks who are progressive now, the church just doesn’t connect on all the issues that we care about,” he said. 

Winfrey settled an argument between Gates and producer/director Stacey Holman about the name of the documentary. Gates left Winfrey a message with several possible names, and she called back and left him a voicemail, singing, “This is our story, this is our song” from the chorus of “Blessed Assurance.” 

Winfrey grew up attending church in Mississippi. The documentary shows her sitting between CBS News’ Gayle King and entertainer Tyler Perry during a service at The Potter’s House. 

“The master, in my opinion, is T. D. Jakes,” Winfrey said, adding that she sometimes flies into Dallas just to hear him preach. 

“The bitterness and biases”

The Black church is not a monolith, and the documentary doesn’t gloss over its flaws. Gates celebrates its rich history while acknowledging practices he considers homophobic and sexist. 

The documentary extols the often overlooked role of women in the Black church and the Civil Rights Movement, citing luminaries such as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and activist Prathia Hall, who actually came up with the phrase “I have a dream” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would use to such effect during his speech during the March on Washington in 1963. 

Evangelicals will be troubled by the rise of the prosperity gospel in the Black church. “How did we go from ‘I have a dream’ to bling, bling?” wonders Rev. William J. Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. 

The Black church also includes controversial activists such as Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright. But the truth is that Christ’s church, Black or White, is not perfect. Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois running for president, touched on this in 2008 while responding to criticism of Wright, his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. While disagreeing with controversial statements Wright had made, Obama refused to disavow him or his church

“Like other predominantly Black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the Black community in its entirety,” Obama said. “The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the Black experience in America.” 

“The meaning and the magic”

One of the most poignant moments comes in the final scene of The Black Church, when Gates speaks at the small Methodist church in West Virginia he attended as a child. 

“After so many years distance from it, I have finally come to understand more fully the meaning and the magic of the Black church,” he said. 

He told the congregation his favorite hymn of all time was “The Prodigal Son.” He began singing, “Oh, I believe, I believe, I will go back home.” 

With laughter and tears, hugs and kisses, he went back home. 

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