No, actually that’s not a surprise. I learned a lot of things in college. But there’s one particular thing that Dr. Howard Rienstra, history professor at Calvin College taught me in one of my classes that has stuck with me since then.
I took a class on “modern American” history with him and while I don’t remember the title of the course, I know we spent a lot of time talking about the slave trade, the post slave era and the civil rights era.
What stuck with me? The thing that stuck with me is this statement:
“African Americans, and the African American church, have their theology of sin, suffering and heaven absolutely correct. They had no choice but to get it right.”
Theology of suffering? Think about it. If you grew up as a slave in America in the 1800’s, there wasn’t much to be happy about. Actually, there wasn’t anything to be happy about. Your life consisted of hard work for no pay and constant heartache and loss.
The Southern Baptists and particularly the “black church” have developed a rich history of music, of worship and of preaching in church that focus on heaven being our home. We’re only traveling through this land of pain and suffering, there’s something better coming.
Why did they develop that? Because the alternative was to go stark raving mad. The losses, the pain, the abuse would have been too much.
The Black church developed the ability to worship with joy – not joy because life is so pleasant, but joy because heaven is so wonderful. Joy because eventually they will be done with their suffering. They developed the ability to share sorrows – because they knew the only way to get through the pain was to share each other’s sorrows and walk with each other through the suffering.
The first world church can learn from the African American church in this. We need to learn that our joy in life is not because things here are so good. Our joy in life is because “This is not where we belong.”
We also need to be more open about our sorrows, we need to be more open about our pain. “I’m Worn” and I need your help and I need God’s help to make it through.
Church would be more Christ like and more meaningful if we did.
P.S. I’m very well aware that these two songs are not Negro Spirituals but they are examples of the “White Church” picking up on those themes as part of their worship.