Living an African-American Orthodox Christian Life: Maintaining Our Musical Heritage

One thing that keeps black people from inquiring about and becoming catechist of the Orthodox Church is a lack of music that we are familiar with.  Growing up Baptist, we never heard of Byzantine or Slavonic tones.  I was working a summer job when I met someone from the Greek Orthodox Church and it was not as if she walked around chanting various hymns every other five minutes.

When I pastored a congregation, our youth and young adult choirs would sing a couple of contemporary songs and even do praise dances to music heard on gospel radio stations.  The men’s and senior choirs sang traditional spirituals and music along those lines.  Ancient religious chants, even Ethiopian mezmurs, were not an inspiration for any form black American religious music. 

I was not expecting to hear any genre of black music on a Sunday morning when our parish was in Poquoson Virginia.  However, there were no contemporary Hillsong music nor good old-fashioned Southern Baptist hymns either.  The chants and songs were from the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Church.  Perhaps some of the white converts were listening to the latest contemporary praise and worship music in their homes or cars.  However, at the Church, we did not sing or chant anything modern from anyone’s style.  The music of Matins (or Orthros, the morning prayers) and Divine Liturgy is chanted to help bring earthly and heavenly worship together. Displaying talent and keeping up with popular styles is not the point.  Parishes that have a larger African-American minority may choose to sing a classic Negro Spiritual at the dismissal.  Some other ethnic populations have mini concerts of whatever heritage they may choose during coffee hour.  Nevertheless, the music during the worship services does not change to keep up with the times.    

How do my wife and I hold on to the African-American heritage of religious music?  The traditional singing of our ancestors help to inform our prayers.  Brenda and I love to listen to the McIntosh County Shouters as they sing simple Gullah/Geechie shout songs as we rise to pray at the First Hour.  I play Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers right alongside spiritual music from Greece and Ethiopia while we read the scriptures before breakfast.  I relax a little during my Ninth Hour readings and listen to jazz.  We worship with our distinctive religious music six days a week in the church that is in our house.  On Sundays, we worship with our brothers and sisters with an ancient Christian sound that is a common ground for all of us.  With all of the toxic divisiveness we have in this nation and world, perhaps finding common ground can help build many bridges. 

We frequently discuss the lack of “our kind of music” in the Orthodox Church at the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black Conferences.  Most of us believe will take well educated musicologist to develop an authentic African-American Orthodox sound.  One priest noted that, “any song we sing becomes our own.”  I have heard it said that it took over a hundred years of Orthodoxy being in Russia before the Slavonic tones were developed and favored over the Byzantine.  There are calls by some outside of the church to change the music so that more African-Americans may convert. 

My advice is not to let music be the deal breaker in a serious inquiry into the Orthodox Church.  We have kept some elements of African culture despite outright opposition.  Maintaining our musical heritage in a church where we are the minority is not hard nor prohibited, (“The Negro spiritual is the most salvific music created in America.” Archbishop Dimitri {of blessed memory} OCA Diocese of the South). Guided by the Holy Spirit, I think we can find ways to keep and share the best of God’s interactions with us as we come to the table of Orthodoxy. 

One thought on “Living an African-American Orthodox Christian Life: Maintaining Our Musical Heritage

  1. I’m white, but I believe singing Orthodox music the African-American way in churches where most people are black is an excellent idea. The purpose of all religious artistic expression – chanting, painting icons, writing, etc – is to elevate the soul towards God through familiar things. Black culture totally has a place in the Orthodox Church, for it is beautiful and we love, honor and celebrate the beautiful. Diversity is to be cherished.
    Your website is awesome: thanks for you contribution. Have a nice day! 🙂

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