In the last twenty years I’ve attended three weddings and ten funerals. I’m not old enough to experience that kind of lopsided ratio but it’s the story of black America. The weddings grow sparser and the funeral crowds grow younger and rougher
I never thought black America would outlive America proper but somehow it has. Well, not somehow. The last faint vapors of black America’s Christian faith has kept it alive this long.
This past week I spent a few days in Toledo, Ohio aka Glass City for a funeral and for the first time I’m feeling that there is a chance we’re all witnessing the end of black America. In Toledo, the heathens are young and multiplying. The faithful are old and almost resigned.
The funeral was sad – for the living. The deceased has already proceeded to the embrace of his Maker. In a sense he had the best seat in the house.
The funeral was beautiful. It was simple. It was long. It was filled with the spontaneous emotion and singing only black churches produce. If you were there to follow a strictly adhered to liturgy you left bewildered. If you where there to hear people talk unabashedly about the love, kindness, mercy, and glory of Jesus Christ you left regretting you had to leave.
No reformed theologians were in the pulpit to make sure the sermon didn’t stray outside the lines. As a Presbyterian I wish there had been but the sermon was better than most I’ve heard in the black evangelical world. The quality was probably a product of the pain the preacher felt as he was delivering a eulogy for his uncle. I would judge the sermon as being more of a plea to the various ragamuffins and nullifidians in the pews attired in baseball jerseys, gang affiliated attire, tank tops (male and female), and jean shorts than an exposition. They were family – the ragamuffins and heathens – mostly related to the preacher and his dead uncle.
He talked a lot about courage (yeah, I nodded my head). Courage to be a man, a father, a reliable member of a community. He talked mostly about the courage to believe in an unbelieving world. Courage to live by faith and not by sight. Courage to believe Jesus when you have no money in your pocket and no prospects for work. He talked a lot about the courage to stand for right even when you have a past full of wrong.
He talked about mercy and affection. How the deceased was known as a man of mercy and how the mercy he was able to show was because God had first shown mercy to him. He appealed to the bonds of love, “We’re not here to fight. We’re here to live.”
I talked to the pastor on the crowded sidewalk in front of the church after the service. We are roughly the same age and we bonded over our similar grey suits. He had the good cheer and weariness of a dedicated soldier holding a post knowing reinforcements were not on the way. I gave him a hug. He had just sent away one of the last of a generation who went to work everyday in the factories and not on the corners. He was one of the last guardians of a community where the grandfathers went off to fight Communists for the liberty of mankind but the grandsons now fight each other over twenty dollars; where the parents spent all night praying but the children spend all night partying. In his sermon he asked the assembled spiritual wastrels, “Is what you traded the faith for worth it?”
At a gathering after the funeral (where I discovered my wife’s cousin makes the world’s best macaroni and cheese) I sat with a man I’ll call M. M grew up in Toledo. He was a Marine, a Vietnam vet, and a former crack addict (1986 – 2003). I asked M about his life and what it was like growing up in 1950s Toledo. An hour later when he was done I wished I had recorded it all. He talked about living through poverty, segregation, war, and addiction. “When I look back I see God had marked me out the entire time. People were praying for my dumb ass. .. mother, sisters, everyone,” he told me (yes, verbatim, I typed that into my phone right in the moment).
It is M’s belief that God has allowed black people to go through a lot so we see our need of Him. He was also unshakeable in his belief that, “This country has more people who want to see it do better than who want to see it fail. We (black citizens) will make it.”
We parted company. M had to get back to Detroit before nightfall.
I wished M was 30 years old and not 80. I wished people cared about the cocaine flowing like rushing water into black neighborhoods in the 1980s as much as we pretend to care about fentanyl and opioids now. M’s daughter lives in Flint. He told me about the still ongoing drinking water catastrophe there and I wished all the justice warriors in the streets cared about reforming local government beyond purging white cops from the police department.
I don’t share M’s optimism. It was clear to me that many of the youngsters at the funeral would not have hesitated in turning it into a double bill with my lifeless body as the star of the second feature if I slighted them in some way. Is this what it looks like when God removes the hand of protection M talked about? If only we had elected a black President and given him two terms to straighten it all out. What’s that, you’re saying? I can’t understand you when you shout.
The church building that housed the funeral is damaged and worn. The congregation is damaged and worn. I’d be surprised if either lasts to the end of this decade. When all the men like the beleaguered pastor and M are gone I fear it will be all over in Glass City — another Promised Land turned wasteland.
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