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What You Can Learn from
African-American Liturgy

by Father Anthony Vader

The three elements of African-American worship I will present are not exclusive to African-American tradition, but all of them are highlighted in this worship.

The African-American concept of celebration demands ornateness. African-Americans dress up for Sunday liturgy. After many years with African-American worship congregations, I am no longer at ease with those Masses in some white parishes where some of the parishioners worship while wearing T-shirts, slacks, and sweatshirts. African-Americans would never dress so informally to celebrate with the Lord.

When they were forbidden because of prejudice to enter public gathering places, African-Americans isolated themselves to avoid conflict with prejudiced persons. This isolation could have been disastrous to their personalities. To restore their self-dignity they wore beautiful clothes symbolizing their inner worth. Their churches were places where they could wear stunning clothes, so dressing for the Lord had two purposes. Today African-Americans can enter any restaurant, hotel, or other assembly dressed as they want, and yet they still dress for the Lord. After all, they want to thank God that they can afford these clothes.

The priest who greets his well-dressed parishioners in his clergy shirt (no coat or cassock), St. Benedict The Blackbaggy trousers, and unshined shoes lets his parishioners know that he has not identified with them in this aspect of their subculture. Black ministers always wear their gowns on Sunday, and some of them have put on lace surplices and even birettas. One minister in the neighborhood has his deacon wrap him in a cardinal’s water-silk cape after the Sunday sermon.

Vestments should reflect the grandeur and the glory of God in design, color, and fabric. If the parish is poor, special collections for this purpose will cause people to empty wallets and purses. If the pastor allows the women of the parish to purchase the materials and do the sewing, as African-American women have been doing for years, he will be proud of himself and his Sunday liturgy. The same is true for the sanctuary and those who are in the sanctuary for the Eucharist. Expertly trained and disciplined altar servers (plenty of them), dressed in joyful and stately robes reflecting their status at the altar, add to the grandeur of the worship service. To reflect the glory of God and the worship service, bells, incense, holy water, banners, and perhaps dancing should be incorporated. All creation sings the praise of God.

African-Americans come from a great tradition of liturgical singing. Their spirituals are often considered America’s finest contribution to the fine arts; but long before they were so recognized, the spirituals were a source of strength to the African-American slaves. Gospel music (and its secular counterpart, the Blues) grew out of the roots of the spirituals and African music. Great African- American singers have filled churches, opera houses, and auditoriums in both the United States and Europe; and a popular part of their concerts has been “black” music. An African-American congregation sings and sways when the organ and the piano softly introduce familiar music after a scripture reading, a homily, or Holy Communion. This is a model for all Catholic worship.

African-American churches have a tradition of great choirs. People join church choirs for many reasons, but principally to praise God through the talent God gave them. Choirs also encourage congregational involvement by participation and appreciation. The minister of music who knows good music, and who also knows where the congregation is musically, can combine choir and congregation in an emotionally moving unity. And a good choir can keep the scripture reading or the homily in our minds for the rest of the day because music continues to stir us.

The non-Catholic African-American visiting a Catholic church is anxious because of all the standing, kneeling, etc. and can find consolation when the choir begins to sing a familiar Gospel hymn or spiritual. Music soothes, and familiar music is especially comforting, as any mother with an upset child will testify.

I do not intend to denigrate traditional music, some of which goes back to the earliest days of Catholicism. Even African-Americans warn Catholic choirs against singing only spiritual and Gospel music. Many converts have said that they came to Catholicism out of reverence for Catholic worship. They could have stayed in their Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal denominations if they wanted Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal religious services. African-American choirs often present Bach masses, Palestrina motets, and other neglected Catholic music. Like the great African-American concert and operatic artists, all choirs should produce a varied program of many musical styles to praise God. These choirs appreciate what we Catholics neglect. Spiritual and Gospel music becomes Catholic music on a par with traditional Catholic music for all the members of a church.

Three admonitions to parishes that include African-Americans are also lessons for any parish. First of all, choirs, whether African-American or white, whether Gospel or traditional, have a habit of not wanting to end their selection. Instead of competing with each other, the priest and choir work together to glorify the Lord.

Second, African-American choirs sway to the music and clap their hands. They (and the congregation) cheer a good soloist or a moving rendition of a favorite hymn. Most white congregations are more sedate. Good music “moves” the hearer, who has to show involvement and participation through body language.

Finally, musicians and music are expensive. The good African-American organist, pianist, and music director are on a “wanted” list for both Catholic and Protestant churches. If a parish thinks it can be cheap with regard to music in their annual budget, the parish suffers. Churches with decreasing congregations should examine their music programs.

By skimping on the music budget, a congregation often dwindles, and the collection decreases. African-American Protestant churches often take up the collection during the choir’s most moving musical selection. Parishes on subsidy from the diocese should petition as much money for their music ministry as needed. A good choir can enlarge a congregation and get a parish off diocesan subsidy.

Few and far between are the white preachers who can preach in an African-American style. Anyone who has heard the great African-American preachers, with their use of alliteration, familiar stories, and especially their ability to excite a congregation after a few well chosen sentences, can only envy their skill. I fear that copying their style would be foolish.

African-American religion is associated with the Protestant tradition in which sacraments are not stressed. Prayers and preaching supported by music became the foundation of the African-American worship service. The preachers had to be proficient just to maintain their churches. Up to the 1960s, just about all intelligent, educated, and skilled African-Americans had only one profession—the ministry—in which they could exercise their talents and charisma. For the great number of African-American men and women who went to seminaries, preaching was of primary importance.

All good preaching should involve the emotions. Whatever excites us moves us totally, including our emotions. African-American preachers are not more convinced of the power of God’s word and message than white preachers, but they preach with more conviction. African-American preachers work harder on their sermons: the stories, the chanting, and the outpouring only seem spontaneous. Their sermons also last longer; and so the ideas, mechanics, and interaction with the congregation have to be worked out better.

Those who have listened to African-American preachers for a long time know that the final product is a message of consolation and strength for the congregation.

(Reprinted and revised from Parish Liturgy, October-December, 1996, pp. 5-6)



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