“I love to belt out those old gospel songs,” said a retired religion professor, when asked why he still went to church, “but I don’t believe a word of it.”
I just returned home from watching a delightful production of Crowns at Indiana Repertory Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It is about African American women and the hats they wore to church—their “crowns.” In the production, there is much spirited singing of the old gospel songs in true African American style.
I remember singing many of these “hymns” as a child in the little country church in southern Indiana where I grew up. Only, we were EUBs (now a part of the United Methodist denomination) so we sang them in a pretty subdued fashion which was not nearly as exciting and inspiring as the way African Americans sing them. A friend, who was Pilgrim Holiness, came to my house one day and played these songs on the piano in her fashion—different rhythm from that of our church. My mother and grandmother said that the Pilgrim Holiness were “too religious.”
My mother loved to sing the old gospel songs (albeit in Methodist fashion). So, when she was in a nursing home, I used to go and play the piano and sing with her. We would usually get a group (mostly ladies) who heard us and came to sit around and sing with us. After a while when I entered the nursing home to visit my mother, others would ask if I were going to play and sing for them. I knew that my mother had slipped into deeper dementia when she quit singing those old songs that she knew by heart.
An African American colleague of mine told me, “Reba, you would still be in the church if you had attended a black church. We get that singing going and clapping and swaying and we get filled with the spirit of God. You just feel his presence filling you up.”
Yes, it might be nice to belt out those old gospel songs even if I don’t believe a word of it. Maybe I will sit down at my piano and see if I can still play them. And, by the way, I want to learn to play them African American style. It is much more fun and exciting.