Black Gospel Music & The Orthodox Church: A Need To Seek Common Ground

The only truly salvific music that came from America is the Negro Spiritual. ——- Archbishop Dimitri (OCA)

Black Gospel was born in suffering.  Slaves, at first, were denied the gift of Christianity.  Masters were eventually convinced that the faith could be taught to “their property” to encourage them to accept their lot in life and be docile and obedient.  Our ancestors in bondage learned the songs of their owners.  But, they changed the tune to match their experiences.  Whenever they could, they made up their own hymns that expressed hope and joy in the midst of the most brutal oppression.  After slavery, the black spiritual tradition continued as new songs were created under the toxic fumes of second class citizenship.  This deep reservoir of music was the soundtrack of a people’s struggle from 1619 thru the early 1970’s.

In a 300 year period, members of a little religion from Judea grew despite a brutal Roman persecution.  In fact, the God-man whom the group was named for died at the hands  of Jewish and Roman authorities.  Many of their greatest leaders like Deacon Stephen, Apostle Peter, and Bishop Ignatius died by the cruelest means of martyrdom.  The Church never forgot and continues to honor those who died for the faith.  They not only honor those who suffered in ancient times.  But, it’s more modern martyrs of the Ottoman Turks, atheist Soviets, and Ethiopian Dergue are remembered and those who currently suffer in Egypt and Syria with names barely known outside of their families.

Negro Spirituals and traditional black Gospel and the Orthodox Church share the same root of suffering.  But, the disconnects of ethnicity, history, and style tend to keep these two similar worlds separate.  While devotees of black church music and ethnocentric Orthodox Christians have no animosity toward one another, I think we are comfortable in our own circles and do not see the need to reach out to one another.  This is a shame as we could find some ways to unite to enrich the Church and preserve the faith of a genre that often gets ignored for the sake of contemporary music.

Why should those of us who have been steeped in the traditional black Gospel music reach out to Orthodoxy?  Orthodoxy by it’s very nature embraces the best of a culture and history.  Consider the way Russians have been major contributors to the faith.  Their harmonies have proven to be an acceptable alternative to Byzantine chant.  The beauty of their iconography is renown in every sacred and secular corner of the visual arts.  In some Orthodox congregations, black spirituals have been included in baptisms, vespers, and other worship services.  While there may be some conflicts between song lyrics and church doctrines, the shared root of suffering makes the pursuit of common ground more than possible.  When the ground is found, we can give to the ancient faith a greater base of spirituality.

Why should the Orthodox Church seek those of us who come from the black church music tradition?  If the church is to be that great number of the saved from all nations, tribes, and languages; it cannot sing in Byzantine Greek and Old Church Slavonic alone.  Again, this was the music that carried an oppressed people from a slave shack to the heavenly kingdom.  A people who survived Turkish marauders, and Bolshevik Gulags should be able to identify with them.  There is plenty of room to prefer acapella  singing to rhythm sections or a simple piano.  But, by embracing us who cling to our music tradition, the iron that cut Ukrainian wheat is sharpened by the iron that cut Louisiana sugar cane and vice versa.

How do we bring these similar yet different worlds together?  Perhaps it will take a series of meetings between Orthodox scholars and African-American music experts.  Perhaps it will take some faithful souls to simply sit down and put our heads together.  I am not sure.  But, I pray that we will work together to find the common ground we share.  Perhaps if we would just look down and then look at each other, we will see it.

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