Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Black History Month? More like Black History Year

  • Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. GOOGLE MAPS

Published: 2/18/2019 8:25:33 AM


Last Sunday, when the service began at Alden Baptist Church at the top of the State Street hill in Springfield, Miss Anessyah, age 11, stepped forward in her blue velvet dress and walked with confidence to the lectern in the sanctuary.  

“Please find the Call to Worship in your Bulletin,” she said. She paused as the congregation found the right page in their program. Miss Anessyah then began reading the “Leader” part.

“What does it mean to be Black and Christian?” she read.

The congregation, reading their part, responded:

“It means that there is a religion which addresses the needs of Black culture and Black people, who bear the marks of oppression.”

“What does it mean to be Black and Christian?” Miss Anessyah read again, her voice strong.

“It means recognizing ourselves as offspring of enslaved ancestors, and claiming Africa as the place of our cultural origin and our spiritual roots,” the congregation responded.

“What does it mean to be Black and Christian?” Miss Anessyah read again.

“It means understanding the Gospel as the redemptive purpose of God, designed to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free.”

This back and forth continued as Miss Anessyah asked the same question over and over, and the congregation responded with words of empowerment, liberation and faith.

Under the leadership of the prophetic preacher the Rev. Dr. L.A. Love, worship services at Alden during Black History Month are filled with messages about the strength, beauty, vision, creativity and power of African-Americans. “God wants you to become better, not bitter,” Pastor Love told the congregation on Sunday. “With the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, Africans can walk on water, too.”

Urging the congregation to claim “who you are and whose you are,” Pastor Love has re-framed Black History Month as Black My-story Month. Dr. Love believes that all Black people are called to claim their power and vision and share their own stories of struggle and triumph, hope and despair, accomplishment and pain.

My-story is the focus of this year’s Black History Month — take back the story and tell your own story, Dr. Love is encouraging the congregation: “It’s time to flip the script.”

Partway through his sermon on Sunday, Pastor Love looked up from his manuscript and stared at the congregation. “We come from a lineage of divine blessing and anointing,” he said. I thought maybe he was tearing up. “We are not who they say we are,” he said, his voice somber and quiet. “You are more valuable than who the media tells you you are,” he said. “Remember, we are made in God’s image.”

During our worship service on Sunday, Sister Emurriel came to the lectern on the sanctuary floor and spoke about Black History Month at Alden. “Make no mistake about it,” Sister Emurriel said, “this year Black History Month will not end on the last day of February.” She went on, her voice rising in intensity: “This year we declare that Black History Month will last ALL YEAR! We are now ushering in Black History Year!” There were shouts of “Amen!” and loud applause.

Last year during Black History Month at Alden, I was aware that when we stood and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I seemed to be the only person in the sanctuary who did not know all the words to every verse by heart. This year, I made sure I had memorized all three stanzas. All the songs sung in church are focused on God’s presence, the strength of community and breaking the chains of oppression. Led by an energetic choir, the singing is robust, proud and intense. Sometimes people cry while they sing. Sometimes I think folks can hear us down the State Street hill right into the halls of the new MGM casino.

As I drove home from church on Sunday, I found that my hands had a slight tremor and my heart rate was accelerated. Through the words, songs and prayers, we had been washed in the Spirit of God and filled with a message of fighting racism, harnessing strength and going forward renewed in hope. I knew I had been a witness to a powerful message, almost a revival, and that the Spirit had been gusting through that church.

Also on the drive home, I remembered the words exchanged between two Civil Rights leaders after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Dr. King stepped from his room in the Lorraine Motel onto the balcony and the shot rang out. Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy ran to Dr. King, took him in their arms and cradled him. Then Young wailed, “It’s over, it’s all over.” But Abernathy rebuked him and said, “Don’t say that! It is not over!” he shouted. “It will never be over!”

During this Black History/My-story Month, I realize that both Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy were right. Dr. King’s life was taken, his voice stilled. But his work to fight racism continues, his message remains, his leadership and inspiration carry us forward, and the movement grows, changes, builds and gains momentum in new ways.

Miss Anessyah, with courage and confidence, is asking questions and getting answers. And she is standing in the midst of a church and a community that is all about justice, freedom, strength, voice, power and fighting oppression. The story continues, the work goes on. Welcome to Black History Year.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the Founder and Director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield. She writes a monthly column on the intersection of faith, culture and politics.

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