The Black Church

It’s Sunday.

Sunday meant church when I was growing up.

I never took my girls to church. Well, that’s not 100% true. Actually, we went, after my older daughter Marisol was baptized in the church here. I felt like I was being a hypocrite, to baptize her then not to continue going there afterwards. But then I noticed that she was a bit of a distracting force for the ladies in the church as she expressed herself wildly. I wasn’t about to start trying to control her, plus I wasn’t so digging the content of mass, so after about a month, I decided that we weren’t really meant to be there.

My mother nearing her death told me, a rebellious teen, “You’ll come back to the church.”

She was right.

It happened when I was studying at Mills College in Oakland, CA.

Just as she’d forced me to go to church as a child and a teen before she got too sick, I had a college professor who forced me and all his students to go to church. In my African American Studies class at Mills College, Dr. Martin told us we wouldn’t pass the class if we didn’t attend church, a Black church. His logic was that to begin to understand Black culture you really needed to experience church.

I went. And I stayed.

St Patrick’s parish is a Catholic parish in West Oakland. And at the time, the priest there was Father Charles a young African American priest who came from my hometown of Chicago. He was 33 at the time, the age of Jesus when the shit hit the fan. He had an identical twin brother who also was a priest,

Anyway, these two priests were very radical, they were pushing for marriage to be allowed in the priesthood and also women priests. They knew their stuff and the reality of the patriarchal world they operated in, so even they admitted in their predictions that allowing male priests to marry would come first before the existence of women priests in the church. Since I’d secretly wanted to be a priest as a girl, they won point for mentioning the idea.

So I went to the church, almost every week, and was very, very inspired by the sermons that talked about real things. That was my Sunday morning ritual for a couple of years when I lived in East Oakland. On Sunday’s, there was no BART (Bay Area Rapid Transportation) connection between East Oakland and West Oakland directly, so I would have to transfer at 12th street and go on the San Francisco bound line to West Oakland, meaning I had to get up early enough to get myself down to the Coliseum BART station and to West Oakland for a 9:30 am mass. I usually got there pretty late. But it kind of didn’t matter because unlike my White church growing up, there were no back to back services every hour and 15 minutes. Church didn’t last an hour. It went until near 12 when the Spanish language mass, the only other Sunday service was scheduled.

One day, the father had us stand up he told us all the stand up file out of the church, and we went to the corner where there were four three or four liquor stores around the corner drunk people hanging out and he said we had to take our message to the street so he preached in the streets in a big circle. And it was really amazing. I never forget that experience. Father Charles took the group out into the corner where there were three liquor stores and we made a circle, and like took it to the streets. We did church in the streets in a big circle. The guys who had already been started the morning drinking came and joined us. And, yeah, that just reminded me of some of the most powerful memories there.

Then there was the choir. White people love gospel music, and I’m no exception. The choir was amazing. If anything else in that Catholic curch fell short of being Black enough to give me the experience Professor Martin was hoping his students would have, the choir made up for it.

Let me mention there was a one other white guy who regularly attended church, a tall, older white gentleman. He was in the choir and stood a head above the rest of the members.

Maybe in part through his example, I actually joined the choir. That gave me a chance to have conversations with other parishioners. Turns out some people thought me and the other white guy were related. He was actually from the south and a former a Baptist, in fact a lot of people in the choir and church were former Baptists. From what I gathered from snippets of overheard conversation, part of the draw was the Catholic church had a little less drama going on than their former churches.

Unfortunately, rehearsals were all the way in Richmond for some reason. They didn’t start on time and went on and on. Since I was on public transportation and still a student, being in choir wasn’t sustainable. The piano player and the main male soloist who could bring congregation to tears when he sang in church, was kind of a rageaholic during rehearsal. It broke my heart to disappoint the director, the kindest guy ever, but I quit the group after only one appearance in front of the church.

Years later I ran into the choir director on BART and as he’d always told me before, “Your place in the choir is there waiting for you whenever you want to return.”

When Father Charles stepped from behind the pulpit and started to create programs addressing systemic problems in the neighborhood, he was suddenly transferred to Atlanta, GA to do a youth revival circuit with his twin. Many of us thought it was suspicious. His successor was by the book, much like the White priests I’d grown up listening to but with a touch more melanin in his skin. I stayed on because I kind of felt sorry for him, still liked the choir music and the welcoming smiles that lit up the faces of the lady ushers, svelte grandmothers in high heels and grey tailored suits with African cloth sashes.

Bit by bit, I attended less frequently. One day the priest put the words children and evil in the same sentence and I never returned.

A few months ago, I made an interesting connection as I searched for Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace album from 1973. Gospel music is actually part of my personal background. That’s thanks to Floyd Brown and Chicago’s WGN radio. Every Sunday night as a child laying in bed before going to sleep, I listened to the 25 minute Kumbaya segment at 9 p.m. that played all the gospel greats.

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Sheilamary Koch

Artist-educator passionate about equity, gender, conservation, creativity, mindfulness and breaking barriers for under-represented groups-especially girls!