Dreaming of a Black Christmas
Some of my fondest Christmas memories take me back to when I was an elder in a black church. When I preached, folks not only listened, they shouted hallelujah and amen! When we shared the Christmas story together everyone called out “Praise the Lord!” and clapped their hands.
My town near Chicago prides itself on its ethnic and economic diversity and the racial integration it has fostered (mostly successfully) since the 1960’s. An African American theater community theater group in town decided they wanted to do an integrated version of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity. The play is an African American version of the Luke 2 Christmas story heavily loaded with Gospel music, and is a jazzy mix of church and show.
It turned out that not that many white folks tried out. In fact, for most of the rehearsal time my 14-year-old son and I were the only ones cast. I got the role of Elder and my son was the Narrator. As show dates approached and the men’s chorus wandered dangerously adrift, my versatile songbird daughter (home for the holidays from college) joined the ranks and rescued the tenor section.
It was a remarkable cultural and spiritual privilege for me to be part of this troupe, and especially rich to share it with my children. Having sung in many (staid, white) church choirs, this approach was something entirely new to me. The choral director never once handed out sheet music or lyrics. She sang it all to us, then with us, until we had the songs memorized. She developed tight, intricate harmonies for each part and stood next to each of us until she thought we all had our notes. Then we’d sing everything together…and she would do hours of individual triage.
The ages of the cast of 18 ranged from age 6 to 70, from adorable tots to a commanding grandmother whose bosom could comfort any soul. Before each performance the cast would huddle in a circle holding hands. The director would call on someone to offer a prayer, and after that we sang a little chant “Umojah means unity.” I learned that Umojah is one of the principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Maintaining unity had some challenges. The actress who played Mary couldn’t stand the guy playing Joseph. One (white) guy who helped with props was usually drunk. He kept hitting on the young women in creepy ways. He also provided hay (complete with bugs) for the climactic stable birthing scene. (We got fresh bales before the show went up.) Some teenage cast members with great singing voices but bad attitudes got the boot early on. On the whole, though, we captured the spirit of Umojah.
There were two of us acting as preachers for this faux congregation. The other preacher, a gorgeous young woman, performed a spectacular liturgical dance to “O Holy Night.” I was required to sing the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus.” My solo was abysmal and still makes me shudder. They should have just let me preach.
I recall Mary, hugely pregnant (thanks to a pad strapped under her costume) and traveling that difficult road to Bethlehem, singing the haunting lyrics: “I just can’t give up now…I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.” I still find myself humming that song at times when I think I’ve had about all I can take. You can hear the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmQBshQ11uo&feature=fvw
I also loved the very simple “Fix Me, Jesus.” Beautifully sung and accompanied by tinkling bells, this was as basic and profound a prayer as I have ever prayed. You can hear a version of the song here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rt0vVTIelYk&feature=related
This year, when I’m singing carols and reading the familiar scriptures, I will also remember my days as a black preacher, the power of Umojah, and the truth behind the lyrics of our finale number: Joy, Joy, God’s Great Joy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmvX3YwETdQ&feature=related
Christmas really is something to shout about!
What unusual Christmas experiences have you had?
How do you add enthusiasm and vigor to your worship?
What have been memorable Christmas musical events you have attended or participated in?