Times are hard. They have always been hard for some of us, but current events make it difficult for even the most affluent of us to ignore our secondary status in these not as United as we should be States of America. And when times get hard in the black community, tradition has it that the church plays a critical role. It only takes a cursory glance at the history of Civil Rights in America to understand the power of pulpit and the church in the black community. Even now, some of the most influential voices in Black America are reverends. But it’s something about the traditional black church that is….comforting and revitalizing. No matter how much my mom’s tries to convince me, I don’t remember growing up in the church. So my first introduction to the traditional black church was as reluctant teenager, following my mom’s as she looked for a church home. I remember the first time I saw someone catch the Holy Ghost and fall out on the ground. It took everything I had to not run out the church scared and laughing at the same darn time!! When they hit her with that white sheet and she started humming, I was through with the idea of ever catching the Holy Ghost. As I matured in my faith, I learned the historical and cultural significance of “catching the Holy Ghost” as well as the praise break. Though I tended to attend more reserved and conservative congregations, the traditional black church was never far from reach. No matter how many degrees we get. No matter how many BMW’s and Audi’s we drive. The traditional, old school black church is still just a hum and organ run away. Even in our non-denominational mega-churches, catching the spirit during a praise break is only a drum kick away. It ties us to our culture both in America and Africa and for the believer is one of the most cathartic experiences in the church.
While visiting a church this past Sunday, the pastor was speaking about the lack of awe that Christians have with grace, but the respect and reverence we have for wrath. Basically saying we learn better when we learn the hard way. As an example of how we take grace for granted, he sang the song Amazing Grace. At first he sang it pretty normal, not holding the notes longer than needed and actually making it to the second the verse within a few minutes of starting the first. But then the praise break just happened. Just like I had seen it happen before. The musician started to stretch out the notes and the preacher and choir followed suit. If you have never witnessed a seasoned pastor sang Amazing Grace “the right way”, as he put it, then you are missing out on one of the greatest traditions in the black church. That song is…just…..I mean….you know!!! YOU KNOW!!! That first line let’s know what’s up! When it takes 8 bars to get out “Amazing Grace” you know you are in the hands of a professional and you might want to stretch and kick off your heels!
It’s just something about the old school hymns from back in the gap NEVER fail. The songs you got to stretch!!! You know’em amazing grace, you’ve been a friend, you keep blessing me, you made a way, He’s an on time God, Anointing, etc. They tend to run together too. If you hear one, you are bound to hear at least three or four more; no break in between, no notice, no change in tune or note. It just happens and you are compelled to follow along. The reaction from most folks, especially the old heads is always the same. It’s like they have been waiting on these songs!! You remember how your cool uncle reacts when he hears his favorite Frankie Beverly and Maze track at the family reunion? You know that reaction, the one where you jerk ya head back and lift ya hand and start to do that little rock. The old school hymns cause the same reaction.
The only way to end 3 old school hymns back to back is with a praise break. Any musician that has ever played for a black church knows exactly how to transition from Amazing Grace to the universal praise break drum beat and organ run. And once you hear it, you know exactly what’s about to go down!!! The Happy Dance, The Hop, The Bounce (not to be confused with The Hop, it’s when you just bounce on your toes, while you actually get some hang time during The Hop), The Soul Clap, The Whoop – usually reserved for the Preacher or Deacon, and the various interpretations of The Wail! All of this is stuff I used to turn my nose up at; I was too educated in the scriptures to participate in such buffoonery. But as I have gotten older and wiser, I understand it now. IIIIII I got a praise, I got a praise, got a praise, got a praise, I got a praise!!! I understand the duality of the praise break, serving as both a connection and a release. Focusing a congregation on something greater while helping to guide them past their burdens. The shouts and hops and dancing connecting us back to a time where as a people we had to adapt to a religion and culture that was both foreign and oppressive. Still through perseverance and ingenuity we made it our own and integrated it to the back bone of our culture. The joy of reliving moments from our childhood, seeing our parents weep tears of joy for the promises they had faith were being fulfilled through their praise. Moments that started movements that proved to be the catalyst for their lives, our, and many generations to come. Hope that in our current praise breaks we are creating similar moments, galvanizing similar movements; impacting generations near and far reaching. It is a powerful moment.
I’m always reminded of my great Grandaddy, grand daddy Tu Tu, who was an old school baptist preacher from Mississippi. He couldn’t sign his own name but knew the bible inside and out. It always amazed me that a man who signed his name with an x could have such command of the Scriptures. But even more so that he had such command of the moment. That his lifetime of leaning on his faith gave him the confidence to believe that his church needed a praise break every now and again. They needed to be taken through the old hymns. There is power in being reminded of what leaning on faith can do for you. This weekend was a moment of power.