Cultures

The Black Church
This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song
Streaming on PBS

Review by Brandt L. Montgomery

Henry Louis Gates’s two-part PBS documentary The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song is like myriad song styles. There are parts that are happy and others that are like the blues. But just like the Psalms, there is always a song of praise for the living God. Though Black Christians have at many times felt forsaken by the world, to quote one hymn, “I’ve found a friend in Jesus, He’s everything to me.”

Gates says Black Americans did not embrace Christianity solely to enter heaven. Though heaven was a “distant motivation,” blacks embraced Christianity “so that they could believe in another kind of future here on Earth.”

The future they saw and claimed was a world without racial inequality, pain, and sorrow, but everlasting life and peace with the all-loving Jesus. Black Christians have rightly seen in their faith a “future-present” reality, the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus in force in the here and now, as well as in fullness at the hour of our death.

The history of the Black Church shows us how, instead of bringing God down to us on Earth, we should go up by our praise to God in heaven. That is how the reality of the good news is best felt in this time, in anticipation of the next.

Gates does well in presenting the black Church as a non-monolithic religious institution. For those unfamiliar with the Black Church, or under the impression that it is of only one expressive style, Gates’s presentation is an important contribution to breaking down perceptions and the study of black religion.

The Black Church is varied in its representative denominations, emotional expressions, and liturgical traditions. This variance and America’s history of racial and social inequality have helped keep before Christians the importance of justice.

Because of the variances throughout the Black Church, there are variances of opinion within it. Though black Christianity was and has always been quick to confront racism, it has been slow to address other issues such as sexism, homophobia, and environmental justice.

The Black Church has had its problems and failures, and Gates does not attempt to cloak them. An important question comes from such engagement: What is the future of the Black Church?

In this question we see the work of the living Christ. The Black Church today still faces many of the same issues and problems it always has. It is also still developing through the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. That is because the Black Church is part of the Church, whose head is Jesus Christ, who lives and still saves.

The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland,