Tearing down the wall that separates many Black churches from the beauty and pain of Black people
By Rev. William H. Lamar IV
Few memories stick with you as permanently as your first night in jail. It was my first night. It wasn’t his.
More about him in a moment.
Replaying it: How did I end up here? The moments leading up are dash of blur, tablespoon of reality. There were eight of us that day, human beings of faith from multiple spiritual traditions praying at the plaza of the Supreme Court. If there is any place that needs it, we figured the so-called “High Court” is that place. And, so, in lock step with that sentiment, the Supreme Court police demanded three times that we stop praying for them.
We refused. After all, this is the same court that gutted Voting Rights. The same court that equated money with speech and accorded corporations – yes, inanimate places of employment – the same status as people. That court that unleashed a cavalcade of corporate, dark money trickery into politics. The one that, just recently, gave pass on (approval to) the sophisticated practice of stealing elections by caging Black people into political dead-zones – something we’ve innocuously called “gerrymandering.”
So, we made a covenant to keep praying and bearing witness with our bodies because the court needed to do justice. It needed a reminder on its purpose and a lesson in what justice meant. That meant letting the court know that we would put our bodies in between their unjust ways and the people they were disenfranchising. Someone, something needed to stop the process of this court offering up citizens as sacrificial sheep to kleptocratic oligarchs.
We prayed. As the prayer intensified, the police grew agitated. Officers then pried us away from our prayer circle and arrested us one by one. If one sister or brother was taken away, we’d close ranks by tightening the circle and just kept praying. The circle was shrinking with each forced disappearance. And, soon, finally, the circle was no more.
The praying stopped. At least the praying that we could see and hear.
Once the circle vanished, we were spirited off into the bowels of the Supreme Court. We were arrested, booked, handcuffed, and shackled. Ironically, we were treated like terrorists by an entity that terrorizes vulnerable communities with faulty jurisprudence regularly.
I remember the rickly cold of the metal D.C. jail slab I slept on that night. If you could call it sleeping. I stayed awake to flick off roaches all night, sharing my D.C. Jail ration of Kool-Aid, stale cookies, and a nasty bologna sandwich with new insect friends. My middle-class self searched for a blanket. Nope. A pillow. Nope. I then took off my boots and made them into pillows. Wishing and praying away the damp darkness of the city jail was my only blanket.
I’ll never forget how we met. As my male clergy colleagues and I held court alone amid more than several dozen other men in the same holding area, there was a sense that we stood out. Everyone else mulled about, greeting each other with guarded smiles of familiarity and an odd flavor of reunion and barbershop-level bonding for a place like this. That’s when he caught us looking out of place.
“What y ’all motherf***ers doing in here?”
He shared his story of the previous arrest,played out many times before. Same record, but different tracks of tragedy. I didn’t ask what for. It didn’t matter. I don’t think we shared our names either. We were, simply, two Black men spending a night in jail. That seemed enough. We were all in the same place now. Waiting to speak with our lawyers and trying not to irritate jail employees.
It was about 5 a.m.
We talked. We laughed. And my dear friend and brother Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler suddenly said: “Let’s pray.” Nearly 40 of us soon joined hands in that God-forsaken place. One brother on the edges, however, grumbled on about how he “… don’t f**k with that prayer sh*t, that church sh*t.” I wasn’t offended. “I don’t blame you, man.”
We went around the circle. Some prayed. Some didn’t. Then we arrived at the nameless protagonist of my short story here. He prayed the most profound and heartfelt prayer I had heard in a long time:
“Lord, get us out of this motherf***er. Amen.”
My heart leapt and sank simultaneously.
Nothing is as immortal as an honest prayer. These are the prayers that God wants the Black church to help answer. Yet, we are so judgmental, sadly stratified along lines of class, economics and, now, social media selfies. We are so captivated by the neat pretensions of Black respectability and the illusion of manufactured affluence that we aren’t often used by God to answer these prayers. Or, maybe we can’t handle the language of these prayers.
So, that’s a damn lie.
We really don’t want to embrace the people who share these prayers. We shutter at their existence, and the thought of their permanent condition makes many of us jittery about our tenuous grip on the accoutrement of success in our modern-day Roman Empire.
I yearn for the day that brother can tour every last one of our churches and pray that same prayer. I want us to feel his deep humanity, his deep connection with God and our ancestors. I want us to know that in the end, any of us could have our humanity stripped away any second and end up as just another Black person in jail. Or worse.
We must tear down the wall that separates many Black churches from the beauty and pain of Black people victimized and traumatized by the lingering racism we live daily, and the inherent classism felt in churches every Sunday. We need to recognize the power in togetherness, the power in knowing how similar we all are. Power in knowing we have been victorious before and we can be victorious again.
To reach that goal, we must break our current state of bondage – both imposed and self-inflicted. That’s worse than jail, since we don’t even realize how handcuffed and shackled we are.
Now, let us pray. Lord, get us out of this motherf***er.