Sewing: New documentary sings praises of Black churches

Photo of Joy Sewing

Yolanda Adams was 8 when she sang her first solo in church.

Though a little nervous, she stood before the congregation and courageously performed, “All of My Help Comes From the Lord.”

The elders nodded in approval as she continued to sing.

It was there in the Black church that Adams, now a multi-Grammy winning gospel singer with a syndicated radio show who has sold more than 10 million albums, found the confidence as a little girl to use her big voice to make music.

Adams is among the many celebrities, such as Jennifer Hudson, Oprah Winfrey, Kirk Franklin and John Legend, and noted spiritual leaders and scholars featured in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s new documentary, “Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song” airing at 8 tonight and Wednesday on PBS for Black History Month. They share their experiences and thoughts on the significance of church in African American culture.

“The Black church is where you got a chance to practice on the people who loved you the most, and who would tell you the truth,” Adams said. “They might say, ‘Your speech was really good. Next time, lift your head up, be proud of who you are.’ And that’s where we got that — the pride in a great job done, pride in knowing that we were getting better with each time.”

Gates calls the documentary series his most important work yet. The church, regardless of domination, has been the foundation in shaping African American culture. “Black Church” traces the history of faith from before slavery through the 20th century.

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"Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song"

8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS

“It’s is impossible to put 400 years of history into four hours, but our faith started in Africa long before slavery,” said the series’ producer Stacey L. Holman, who also produced, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” on PBS in 2018. “The church is Black theater, where you can fail with an embrace. It’s where Black businesses were cultivated and education was stressed. It’s been instrumental for so many movements in the Black community.”

I was raised in both in Black Catholic and Baptist churches, but was clumsy with singing hymns or knowing Bible verses. I found a community of children who came together to worship and celebrate in a spiritual setting. I participated in the church bazaars and youth organizations. Even the act of getting dressed for church came with pride.

As an adult, I found childlike comfort in accompanying my parents to early-morning Baptist services, where elders praised my work as a journalist with, “We’re so proud of you,” and gave me warm, smothering hugs. My grandmother’s little country church in Bunceton, Mo., population 350, was equally comforting.

Nothing has given me that feeling of being swaddled in support like at a Black church.

There are nearly 400,000 religious congregations nationwide, and African Americans tend to be more religious than whites or Latino populations, based on a Pew Research Center study. There are many reasons for this, beyond spirituality.

Black churches, historically, have been the place where Black men and women were treated with respect and reverence in world in which racism often dehumanized them. It was the place where you were called by your name — with an emphatic Mr. or Mrs. — and a place where you dressed with dignity and felt empowered.

Gates said in a Zoom video event for the documentary that he was raised in church, where “we were always fighting racism and trying to get into Heaven.”

Locally, Erick Hoskin, pastor and founder of Word of God Christian Fellowship Church in Cypress, said church was everything to him growing up in in Natchez, Miss. His mom was a church clerk, and his dad, a deacon and the first Black school superintendent in Natchez.

Hoskin, who moved to Houston for his job with the federal government where he worked nearly 20 years, started his church in Cypress in 2011. It now has nearly 800 members.

“Church is where we developed our identity and where leaders came to speak. It’s still the epicenter of the Black community and where we send our youth to college tours and speak about civil rights. We are trying to make sure we intertwine the church culture of our parents with what is happening now,” Hoskin said.

Black churches have long been at the front of civil rights movements. But for as much as it has empowered a community, it has lagged in providing equal footing for women, who often make up the majority of the congregation. The same is true for LGBTQ parishioners.

Gates said women are the backbone of the church. They are “fighting for their rights to preach in the church, which was quick to address racism but slow to address feminism.”

Dr. Tamla Wilson, who recently earned her doctorate in divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Houston, said many Black churches still do not embrace women in pastoral roles. Her thesis was focused on creating spaces for Black women in ministry.

“I’m fortunate to be at a church (Wheeler Avenue Baptist) where women in ministry have been acknowledged,” she said. “We get the wonderful exposure to powerful women in the church. But so many churches do not embrace women. We are marginalized in corporate American and then in Black churches, where we should have a voice.”

A mother of two boys, Hudson, 7, and Holland Groce, 10, Wilson started The Waiting Room fertility ministry at Wheeler Avenue in 2014, which meets monthly. She candidly shares her own fertility challenges, while providing encouragement and support for other women. She also created a private Facebook group.

“I’ve been in church my entire life, but to be somewhere where you learn something is powerful,” she said. “At church, my children get to see Black men who are loving toward them and encouraging them to be their best. They are learning to be an acolyte and to be leaders. There is a village always trying to reinforce how to be a good person.”

Black churches often struggle with finding a financial footing, unlike some of their white counterparts.

“I have a full-time job and run a church. It’s is a challenge, and it requires significant energy to lead the church,” said John Ogletree, a software sales executive who also is the lead pastor of Image Church in Cypress. Both his father and grandfather were pastors.

“The commercialization of churches is also an issue. You see the large churches and what they have to offer. We’re in an elementary school. That strips you down to focus on the ministry, but no matter how big or small the building is, the Black church is our backbone,” he said.

For Adams, church is where she found her musical calling, and it paved her path to becoming a gospel superstar.

“There are some amazing singers at every church,” Adams said. “So it wasn’t as though, I was a phenomenon. We had people who could sing rings around me, but they didn’t desire to do it. I just kept at it and kept at it. And thank God I had the encouragement of so many people around me to keep going, saying, ‘You sing so well. You have such powerful voice to be a little girl.’”