Eleven a.m. Sunday morning was once called “the most segregated hour in America,” but as the nation becomes more diverse, so do its institutions of worship. Steeped in traditions passed down since slavery, churches are one of the cornerstones of the African-American community, and navigating the subtleties of these Black houses of praise can be challenging. Luckily, we have assembled here a comprehensive guide that will help those of Caucasian descent when visiting this unfamiliar territory.
There are three things people of color can never understand about Caucasian culture:
1. The way you let your children talk to you.
2 Why y’all don’t use washcloths.
3. What you wear to church.
The first time I visited a Presbyterian church, I was floored. Even the most well-dressed worshippers wore wrinkled Dockers and boat shoes. I felt like it was so disrespectful to Jesus, but you know what they say: “White folks will wear Umbros to Easter Service.”
At Black churches, one must dress impeccably in CHURCH clothes. (Black children are taught at an early age the four classes of clothes: School Clothes, Play Clothes, Work Clothes, and Church Clothes.) Men’s church suits have twice as many buttons as business suits and don’t come in colors as much they come in flavors: There’s Skittles Green, Peach Faygo Pink, Grape Jolly Rancher Purple. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look no further than mustachioed comedian, game-show host, and bullshit-spreader Steve Harvey, who has managed to milk a fortune from his line of church suits. You can sometimes spot an out-of-habitat church suit at formal events, too, like when NFL players become commentators, or when deacons have court dates.
Women’s church dresses are simultaneously demure and racy. They are tailored to show less cleavage than usual and fall below the knee, but still highlight the roundness of the female buttocks. You see, once a woman attends church for 22 consecutive Sundays, her booty begins to get rounder, and her dress will show it. After about 20 years of Sundays, these women become church mothers, and all their dresses are then required to have sequins or rhinestones on them. I’m pretty sure there’s a bible verse about that. Sister Wilma showed it to me one time, but I forget where.
When entering a Black house of praise, you can’t just walk in and sit wherever you want. Getting there first does not mean it belongs to you. I’m sure a Native American could explain this to you in greater detail. The sanctuaries of Black churches are governed and ruled with iron fists by the most powerful group in the Black church universe:
White churches have greeters. Door openers. Smiling welcomers. Our ushers are not like yours. Black ushers are deputized, stone-faced keepers of peace in Black churches—like nightclub bouncers in thick, white-soled nursing shoes. They’ll guard VIP sections that belong to the church mother, the head deacon, or Sister Wilma. Sister Wilma is probably going to be late, but you “bet’ not” sit in her seat. She’s been sitting in that seat since 1947.
You shouldn’t worry, however. Just by the virtue of your whiteness in combination with your being a visitor, they’ll make sure you get a good seat close to the front. Probably between Sister Wilma and Tasha.
You should also know that it’s going to be hot. The time of year doesn’t matter. If it is the middle of summer, the air-conditioner will be broken. If it is the middle of winter, the heat will be on too high. I once hypothesized that the heat in Black churches was part of a nefarious plot by a conglomerate of Black funeral homes to spread their product-placement propaganda to captive audiences via ads on church fans. But now I realize that if we no longer needed church fans, the industry that makes those wooden sticks they staple to the cardboard would collapse. Church fans and popsicle sticks are all they have. Not to mention that the keyboard player needs at least a temperature of 90 degrees to summon the Black Holy Ghost, but we will get to that later.
We know you’re used to following along with choirs singing solemn hosannas from hardback hymnals. There won’t be any of that today. A study published in the Journal of Worship Psychology in the late 1980s revealed that the average Black person knows 1,028 gospel songs by heart. There is no need for hymnals. Even Tasha knows the words, and she still has that little band from Club Diamonds on her wrist from last night, and still smells a little bit like Hennessy and Black & Milds.
In the absence of Victorian-era pipe organs, Black churches usually have a group of musicians that rivals Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show bands, and they jam. Even though the musicians seem like they could handle any type of music ever invented, they still need help. That is why, two rows behind you—and no matter where you sit, they will be always be two rows behind you—will be someone who brought their own tambourine. That person will be playing their tambourine like Jesus might come tomorrow, and the first question he asks will be, “Why didn’t you play your tambourine harder?” I’m not talking about that Simon & Garfunkel rhythmic-shaker shit. They will be banging that motherfucker like they gotta scare the devil away.
If you are lucky and visit on a very Holy occasion—Easter, Christmas, Pastor’s Anniversary—you might get to see the Holy Grail of Black church ceremony: the choir marching in. Even if you don’t get to see it, you will still be treated to the Black church choir. You probably won’t know the words to the choir’s song, because it is a remake of a John P. Kee remix from a Mississippi Mass Choir version of an Andre Crouch adaptation of an old negro spiritual, but don’t worry. By the time the choir sings the chorus for the 187th time, two things will happen:
1. The song will be burned into your brain.
2. The Holy Ghost is gonna come.
Most Christian religions have some concept of the Holy Ghost, but very few people know that there are actually two versions. There’s the White Holy Ghost—which sometimes make Caucasians break into tears, wave their hands, and occasionally thrash about—and the Black Holy Ghost. The Black Holy Ghost has rhythm. If Sister Wilma begins to rock and speak in undecipherable syllables, don’t stick your belt in her mouth. It is not a seizure, but the presence of the Black Holy Ghost.
The Black Holy Ghost does not descend—it is called—and not by prayer or the word of God. The only person with the Black Holy Ghost’s direct phone number is the keyboard player. You will inevitably begin to hear him play something that sounds like a mixture of Delta blues and polka music. What you are hearing is the only form of Black music that is still pure, and hasn’t been coopted and commercialized by your people: shouting music.
Shouting music is to the Black Holy Ghost what the bat signal is to Bruce Wayne. And where there is shouting music, there is shouting. You’ve seen shouting before. You just didn’t know what it was. Some examples:
Africans do it to summon the spirit of their ancestors.
Deion Sanders did it every time he scored a touchdown:
P. Diddy did it at the end of the “Missing You” video:
All Black fraternity stepping is just coordinated, non-Holy-Ghost shouting:
Even though shouting is pervasive in African-American sanctuaries, every Black person has their own signature shout, and no two shouts are alike, because they are dispensed only by the Black Holy Ghost. It is a little-known fact that Harriet Tubman could identify lost slaves in the dark by asking them to shout.
So, when Sister Wilma starts shouting, don’t panic. Be calm, like Tasha. The ushers will be there in a second to hold hands around her in a circle to confine her shouting space and limit the number of sequins that fall off her dress. While Sister Wilma is full of the Holy Ghost, Tasha is going to rip last night’s wristband off her wrist hairs, whisper an un-Holy-Ghost-like Jesus, and hand you a note. It’s probably nothing; you can read it later.
After the Holy Ghost comes and leaves, the sermon will begin. There is a list of things you should know before you partake in a Black sermon, or you might lose your fucking mind.
1. There is a list of Black church phrases that you will need to study like a 6th-grade spelling test. I’m not going to list them here, but at least learn the mother of all call-and response holy phrases. I don’t care what denomination you attend—at one point during the service, the preacher is going to say, “God is good.” Even if you think God is not good, or you believe him to be GREAT, there is only one correct response: “All the time.” Just to make sure you understand, the pastor will present you with the mathematical converse of this phrase by saying, “And all the time?” Again, you shall respond only with “God is good.”
2. There might not be that much scripture. Sometimes God lays it on a pastor’s heart to give a message straight from the latest hip-hop song or a popular movie. So if the preacher presents the story of Delilah betraying Sampson as “These hoes ain’t loyal” or talks about God sparing Lot’s life as “Straight Outta Sodom,” just roll with it.
3. Don’t be thrown if he reads from a mysterious book called the “23rd Sommets.” That’s just how some of us pronounce “Psalms.”
4. There is only one way to make sure you understand the message of the pastor’s sermon and bury it in your heart: You must turn to your neighbor and say it with him.
The Black church sermon will be longer, more heated, and more animated than you are used to. You can be like Tasha and check your Facebook posts on your cell phone, or like Sister Wilma and take notes. Either way, don’t worry, it will be over soon.
Like in an hour or two.
Either you are going to have to march up front to drop your offering off, or the ushers will pass baskets down your aisles to collect your money. Here is the key to the Black church offering: Treat it like you are at the strip club.
There are going to be multiple collections for many different causes, so don’t go blowing your wad by making it rain the first time they pass the offering plate around, lest it seem like you are being stingy during the pastor’s collection, the building fund, the honorarium for the guest speaker, the tithes, or the Sunday School bank. Whatever you planned to give, divide it by 10 and give a little bit in each offering. When you do this, Sister Wilma is gonna slip you a folded note.
I know I am in no position to tell you how to spend your white-people money, but make sure you bring the correct change at a Black church. Ushers don’t like to make change, and we all assume white people don’t have cash. They’re always in front of us in line at the grocery store writing a check or trying to cash in a mutual fund or some shit. We don’t know all the secret, certificate-of-deposit, cashier’s check, white-people types of legal tender.
Only God knows.
They are going to ask all the visitors to speak, and being the only white person in the congregation, you’re gonna kinda have to, because they’ll all be staring at you anyways. Be aware that there is a strict script you must follow when speaking at a Black church. If you pull out the two notes from Tasha and Sister Wilma, you’ll see one of them was an invitation to smoke a blunt after service, and the other was an outline of the script, which I will repeat here for emphasis. No matter what you plan to say, you must begin with:
Giving honor to Jesus, the members of the pulpit, and everyone in their respective places. I bring you greetings from [your church’s name], where the Reverend [your pastor’s name] is the pastor.
Anything you say after this is of your own volition, but you should end with:
… and those who know the words of prayer, please pray for me.
That’s all you need to know about attending a Black church. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? They’re gonna say they’d love to see you again, but the truth is that you don’t have to come back. We’ve been doing this for 318 years just fine. There is still about an hour and a half left of testimonies, announcements, one more offering they forgot to collect, and perhaps a return visit from the Black Holy Ghost, but you can go now.
Sister Wilma is gonna be waiting in the parking lot to smoke that blunt with you.
Lead image via YouTube.
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