Worship Across the Racial Divide
Dr. Gerardo Marti – September 9, 2021. In his series, Race, Religion, Politics – What We’re Not Supposed to Talk About, Dr. Marti shares scholarly resources that are helping to expand his understanding.
At an outdoor café on Los Angeles’s Westside, a Caucasian worship leader and I met to talk about his congregation. We drank coffee as he shared his desire for racial diversity in his church and the type of music he worked into each Sunday service.
Then, in the middle of our conversation, he suddenly blurted out,
It wasn’t the first time I heard a white person express admiration for Black music performers and styles, but this blunt yet seemingly natural statement stuck out as one of the most significant of all of my interviews when researching for my book, Worship Across the Racial Divide (Oxford University Press). During those many months in various churches across the Southland, I heard many different comments about different racial and ethnic groups (white, Asian, Hispanic) throughout my research. Statements about African Americans were by far the most common and consistent.
Regardless of race, these church goers were all confident about their knowledge of Black people and their music. They said things like, “Black people are more spiritual,” “Gospel is a very African American thing,” and “One must be ‘Black’ to sing ‘gospel.’” In fact, gospel was a distinctly “Black” thing that other racial groups — especially white people — could never do right. One white choir member said they sang gospel music a lot in their church, then added: “We don’t really have the soul of a gospel choir.”
After 170+ interviews, I found that people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds believe gospel music is only for Black people. Many used the word “soul” as a key descriptor. In fact, in every conversation, “soul” was always a word that equaled “Black.”
My conversation with Sheryl, a Black choir member, was one of my most interesting conversations. We were talking about her experience of worship, and she made a careful distinction between “gospel” music and “Vineyard” music — something that came up several times in other interviews as well. The Vineyard Church is part of the charismatic congregational movement, and it emphasized ecstatic worship through contemporary Christian music, a more soft-rock, simple lyric, and affectionate-to-God music that helped redefine popular religious music among evangelical Christians.
Sheryl told me with wide-eyed surprise that she “actually worshiped” when Vineyard music was played in her church:
Gerardo: It’s interesting that you say you experience full worship with a Vineyard song when Black gospel was so important to you.
Sheryl: Yeah I’m like, wow, I like this song. And in fact, I’ve even felt guilty about it, like I’m betraying my race . . .
For Sheryl and others, “Vineyard ” music was often used as a euphemism for “white” music, so Sheryl felt that allowing herself to worship with white music made her feel as if she was betraying her African American heritage.
It’s very ingrained in me since I was a little girl that I identify myself as African American, so I sing like an African American would sing. I don’t stand still when I sing, I rock a certain way. So that’s who I am. I’m African American, therefore, I worship like an African American . . .
The performative aspect of worship makes the practice of worship a racial marker. She described the social expectations that govern this form of worship, saying,
You have to put feeling into your songs, you can’t sing flat. If you’re a singer, and if you’re singing to a white congregation, you sing what they expect to hear.
Sheryl’s self-awareness is instructive. As an African American, the singing of worship music becomes a cue for the performance of worship behavior that is guided and governed by other church-going Black people:
If you’re at a Black church, you’ll sing differently because we expect it to be powerful and strong and with feeling. Drag it out, and go up and down. It can’t be flat, or you aren’t giving us what we expect.
Her description of “what they expect” and then “what we expect” makes explicit the expectation of how African Americans worship in particular ways.
For Sheryl, the performance of Black worship becomes an element of explicit learning among Black people from a young age. Sheryl told me about training children to sing, saying,
Even when we teach our kids songs, I say, ‘I’m going to teach you the words,’ and then I’ll say, ‘Now that you know the words, sing it like Black folks.”
She quickly added,
It may be a stereotype from your perspective, but from our perspective, it’s our culture.
Sheryl provides an up-front acknowledgement that African Americans indeed fall into stereotypical behaviors with respect to worship, yet it is due not to their nature or a simplistic genealogy of culture. The observed stereotype of African Americans singing gospel music falls into a pervasive expectation of a style of worship inherent to the performance of their identity as African American Christians, one that developed within the Black church nearly a century ago.
For men and women like Sheryl, authenticity in worship means that singing gospel music “like Black people do” becomes an inherent part of their Black religious identity. Learning from others, this expressive worship can become central to Black identity. And the expectation to “act like Black people do” appears to be accentuated in racially mixed church settings where white people come to expect that Black people worship “like Black people do.” Although it is part of a shared culture, it becomes more problematic when it becomes an expectation by white Christian audiences, insisting that Black Christians act a certain way.