For the past three years, the worshiping community at Christ House has marked the beginning of African American History month with a special service of story and song*. Created by Dr. Asa Lee for the community at Wesley Theological Seminary, the service is patterned after a traditional Christmas “Lessons and Carols” style service, with readings from American History interspersed with gospel and spiritual songs. Reverend Anderson-Gray first participated in the service while he was a student at Wesley Theological Seminary, and received permission from Dr. Lee to bring it to the Christ House community.
After a traditional start to the service, the Service of Reading and Song starts with drumming, which in traditional African cultures called people to come and hear news. The service then progresses through a series of four readings, each marking a distinct stage in American history. The first reading comes from a letter written to former president John Quincy Adams from a group of Mende Africans who had revolted and seized control of their Spanish slave ship. They wrote to the former president demanding their freedom.
The second reading comes from the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb. Henry Bibb was the son of a white state senator and enslaved Black woman who wrote in graphic and disturbing detail about what life was really like on a plantation during the time of slavery.
The third reading is an excerpt from Pauli Murray’s autobiography covering Odell Waller case. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was an American civil rights activist who became a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest, and author. Odell Waller was an African-American sharecropper who fatally shot his white landlord over a dispute concerning a wheat harvest. Waller was quickly convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Waller consistently maintained that he acted in self-defense, and the case became famous, and even Eleanor Roosevelt (at Pauli Murray’s urging) tried to intervene in the case.
The final reading was written by Reverend Esau McCaulley for the New York Times in 2022 titled, “What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans Like Me.” In it, Rev. McCaulley reflects on African American history, including the killings of Emmett Till and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, and affirms the importance of holding onto a bodily resurrection and the hope and victory that it provides.
Between these readings, we heard spirituals such as “Oh, Freedom,” “Deep River,” and “I Shall Not be Moved.” The service culminates in a singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the famous black national anthem.
While many parts of the service are difficult to hear, the point of the service is to reflect on the strength exhibited throughout American history by those who were oppressed. The Mende people call on God for their freedom, affirming that God punishes those who lie. Despite all that Henry Bibb saw and experienced, he still wrote that, “I had faith to believe that the Lord could see our wrongs and hear our cries.” Odell Waller affirms his faith in a forgiving God in his last statement before being executed. Rev. McCaulley writes towards the end of his essay that,
“I am often asked what gives me hope to go on, given the evil I see in the world. I find encouragement in a set of images more powerful than the photos, videos and funerals chronicling Black death: the vision of all those Black bodies who trusted in God called back to life, free to laugh, dance and sing. Not in a disembodied spiritual state in some heavenly afterlife but in this world remade by the power of God.”
It is a powerful service, one that affirms everyone’s God given dignity. A dignity that we see in everyone who comes to Christ House.
*Participation in worship services and pastoral counseling is voluntary.