Beyond the sanctuary: History of the Black church

Black History Month

GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — There was a time when Black people had very little to call their own.

History reveals they had no control over their freedom or if they were worthy to live. But the only place Black people had to themselves was church

For African Americans, it’s a place that mends broken people, shattered hearts and is a haven that gives them a place to lay down their burdens.

“They feel like there’s one space they can go where they’re untouched by racial divide, untouched by economic divide and that’s the Black church,” said Pastor Jathan Austin, of Bethel Empowerment Church.

The Black church was created when slaves banded together to have religious meetings. Since they couldn’t have their freedom, they found comfort in prayer.

“It’s not just ‘God deliver me from the chains of my oppressor,’ — now it’s ‘God evolve my community,'” Austin said.

Prayer is the cornerstone of the Black community and is often a learned behavior passed down from generation to generation.

“Big mama, grandmama — you know, she’s going to teach how to pray,” Austin said.

Big mama is also going to teach her loved ones how to sing.

“I remember the old church mothers humming the hymns while they were either cleaning the church or my grandma while she was cooking,” said Dadrian Nelson, worship leader at Bethel Empowerment Church.

Those hymns come from African American spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” which were created by slaves.

“They’re the foundation of the Black churches,” Nelson said.

Those hymns laid the groundwork for songs of the Civil Rights Movement like “We Shall Overcome.” Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often used the lyrics in his sermons, while seeking safety in Black churches, which served as meeting points for protests, rallies and support during the Civil Rights Movement.

“If you look at those who live in that racist mentality, the Black church becomes an intimidating place for them,” Austin said.

It’s the reason white supremacists frequently bombed Black churches in the 1960s. But through it all, Black people relied on gospel music to combat their pain.

“We connect with the words,” Nelson said.

Black churchgoers still use that music to celebrate their victories in and outside of their church.

“All of those things make the church a special place in the Black community,” Austin said.

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