I woke up early in Philadelphia on a comfy living room couch. My plan for the day was to get some coffee with friends, maybe see the Liberty Bell and then start the drive to my next show in Rahway, NJ. As I exited my friend Jon’s house, quietly closing his front door, I turned and saw a large stone building: Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the “oldest church property in the United States to be continuously owned by African Americans”.
A few years ago, I was in this same situation: on tour, at Jon’s, early rise. It was a Sunday morning back then. I saw dozens of black folks getting out of their cars, entering the church. I wanted to go in but I had some hesitation, mostly concerning my attire: part rock-and-roll-scumbag/part Freddie Mercury acolyte. I didn’t want to offend those in their Sunday best. Also, I knew nothing about the A.M.E. Church. Admittedly I wasn’t sure if my, uh, whiteness would be a big deal or not. I decided to peek in and find out.
As the service went on, people became impassioned about what the pastor was saying, speaking when they felt inspired, singing when they feel compelled. I was moved. I thought it a shame that in the fifteen years I’d been living in the south I never went to a service at a black church. It probably would’ve helped the disconnection I felt during my first year in North Carolina, a transplanted white northerner teaching science to black and white eighth graders who thought I talked funny.
In the middle of the service, the congregation started shaking hands and hugging one another, people leaving their pews, having full fledged conversations up and down every isle. It’s as if we weren’t in church anymore but at a neighborhood party. A black woman came up to me and held out her hand. She asked how I was doing and where I was from. I said I was a musician from Durham. She told me she had family there and then remarked how she loved visiting them, especially to escape the Pennsylvania winter. She introduced me to a lady friend, smiling and commenting at my boots. I admitted to them I wasn’t sure if I should come in dressed the way I was. Both said all were welcome, especially with boots like that. I realized my initial reservations of entering the church probably offended them more than my actual attire.
After five minutes, the congregation returned to their seats and started singing or maybe the choir started singing, signaling the congregation to return to their seats, I can’t remember. The service continued for another half hour or so.
As we all exited, I thought about my upbringing in the Catholic Church. There is a similar moment in the service when formality becomes semi-formal, a thirty second break from the stand up/sit down/kneel/stand up/sit down/kneel. The priest says ‘Let us offer each other a sign of peace’. People then shake hands with those to the left and right as well as in front of and behind, well-wishing one another by saying ‘Peace be with you’. And then it goes back to the formality again. It’s a nice, symbolic gesture of hoping for peace or goodwill for your fellow congregates.
Jon told me that there were dozens of camera crews outside the church earlier in the week, people reflecting and giving commentary on the horrible murders at a Charlestown, SC A.M.E. only a few days prior. As I walked around Philly that morning I thought about the differences between actively pursuing peace and the hoping for it. I thought about Charleston, the welcome given to a stranger, the betrayal of that trust and then the courage of forgiveness. I wonder how often I’m willing to engage in meaningful conversation with those culturally or politically different than myself. Or have I done my best to side-step or actively avoid it altogether, trying to solve these problems with a vote from afar, never converting work in my virtual world to work in my actual world?
I think about this for a while and then I’m confronted with a troubling fact about my personal history. I play music born from the confluence of black and white culture. For decades, I have been in dozens of bands and played with hundreds of people.
I’ve never been in a band with one single black person.
What good will a thousand handshakes and wishes for peace do if I never engage in conversation with that other person as to how we, the two of us, can actually achieve it? How many rallies will I go to with people from all different walks of life and yet when I look around my dinner table or campfire they all mostly look like me? What progress is really made when a university rechristens every single one of its buildings named for perpetrators of hate and yet does not make strives to admit and then properly educate those who continue to be marginalized? What good does it do to take down a flag if it still waves in our hearts, maybe not whipping wildly by gusts of hatred but rather waving subtlety and comfortably by the slight breezes of fear?
There is no easy way to get to where we must go from here, no easy way to fulfill this country’s promise, no simple path to achieving its ideals. It will not be had through mere symbolic achievement. It can only be accomplished in reality by the much harder path of reaching out in everyday living.
On to Rahway.