African American Spirituality and Song
Week Six Summary and Practice
Sunday, February 7—Friday, February 12, 2021
The legacy of the spirituals is worth our continued attention now, not only as “museum music” . . . but also as a broad-ranging cultural tradition that remains relevant to pressing present-day social realities. —Arthur C. Jones
Black sacred song has been at once a source and an expression of Black faith, spirituality and devotion. By song, our people have called the Spirit into our hearts, homes, churches, and communities. —Sister Thea Bowman
This is the contemplative moment, the recognition that each and every member of the congregation shares the same angst over the troubles of the world and the need for reunion. —Barbara Holmes
Whether you sang “freedom” during the sixties or the older traditional text with the word “Canaan,” in essence the song says, I must leave or change where I am, and I want you to go with me. —Bernice Johnson Reagon
Jeremiah is saying actually, “There must be a balm in Gilead; it cannot be that there is no balm in Gilead.” The relentless winnowing of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end that he is brought face to face with the very ground and core of his own faith. —Howard Thurman
When we see contemplatively, we know that we live in a fully sacramental universe, where everything is a pointer and an epiphany.
A Plea for Divine Presence
Although I am always urging people to adopt and practice contemplative, wordless, or apophatic prayer, I also believe in the power of cataphatic prayer, full of words and images that express the longings of our hearts. As many of you know, we at the Center pray daily for the many petitions that readers share with us vulnerably and in great trust. I believe God hears and understands the prayers both from the silence of our hearts and the words of our mouths. Today I share a poetic prayer full of inclusive compassion from the Reverend Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.
Older than the morning stars that twinkled in the blackness of night’s first birth, the rotation of the axis of time, bring us into the freshness of your mercy and the newness of your presence. We come to you today with heartfelt gratitude, not with mixing Judas paint with Judas praise in order to cover our hypocrisy. Some of us come to you with triumph over tragedy. Others of us come with enduring pain suffered from shameful defeat in an inescapable battle of life. Some of us feel like going on and others of us feel like giving up. But to you we come just as we are. Whether we are winners or losers, we know that you love us one and all. Greatest of the Greatest, you know just how much we can bear. We all come to commune with you:
The tireless champion;
The tired loser;
The retired forgotten ones;
We all come to be consistently corrected and comforted by you.
We come counting our lost.
We come confronting our crises.
We come as citizens of cities controlled by crime.
We come chilled by the cold of cowardice.
Great God Almighty:
Commune with us conscience clean.
Caress us with the cradle of compassion.
Consecrate us with outrageous convictions.
Control us with Christlike concerns.
Great Physician Powerful:
Pardon us with the conscience of peace.
Place us in paths of productivity.
Practice the perfection of healing upon those who are physically, emotionally, or spiritually sick.
This is our humble plea, we present in the precious Name of the prince of peace, Jesus Christ, our priceless priest. Amen.
Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.
J. Alfred Smith, Sr., “A Plea for Divine Presence (1989),” in Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans, ed. James Melvin Washington (HarperCollins: 1994), 257.