In the African-American community, when somebody in a crowd hollers, "Take 'em to church!" it means there's an emotional connection between the speaker and the audience that's producing a crucial response. All the listeners are...well, listening. The speaker is bulldozing the walls that most folks hide behind and downloading a hefty dose of whatever will wake them up, set them on fire, and remind them what it is to be alive.
I got taken to church today. In a church. And the Rev. Al Sharpton did the taking.
The good Reverend, whose National Action Network was a driving force in Jena, Louisiana, recently when twenty to fifty thousand people descended on that town in a show of solidarity not seen in decades over a single incident, looked introspective as he waited in a row of ministers for his turn in the pulpit. But from the time he adjusted the microphone until he whirled abruptly, with perfect timing, and retook his seat, Sharpton was totally in control. And he knew it. He displayed the savvy of a man who, as the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church minister and host, Rev. Moses Gordon put it, has reached "his season." But there was no arrogance. No grandstanding. In fact, none of the stuff I was prepared to see--and forgive him for.
I told myself I wouldn't take notes, even though I know Sharpton is a master of the turned phrase and I knew I would be blogging about the service. In fact, I let the first couple of zingers go by before I jerked out my pen and began hastily jotting down all I could, considering the speed with which he spoke and the way he went from point to point like a man who is paying by the minute to do so.
During his introduction, Rev. Gordon said that he had told his visiting counterpart that he could speak or he could preach, but that he should deliver whatever he perceived as necessary and the end result was electrifying. For a man who has been mercilessly castigated and ridiculed, Rev. Al Sharpton is not only a formidable orator, but an unapologetically inspiring man and I, for one, was inspired. I hooted. I wept. I applauded. I jumped to my feet so many times, I was hard-put to keep track of my pen.
"People talk about what happened back in the day," he started out. "But this is the day! Some folks go to church and don't do anything out in the world where the work is waiting to be done. Going to church is supposed to prepare you to DO that work! The reason I went to Jena is that those could have been MY sons. That could have been MY daughter calling me up to tell me she got into a fight at school and was sentenced to twenty-two years."
Then, in response to those who have criticized the mass mobilization in Jena, he declared, "You can't cause pain and then tell people how to holler. Hanging nooses -- the symbol that's been used to threaten our lives for over one hundred years -- is not a prank. If it was only a prank, how come it didn't happen until after African-American boys sat under that tree?"
In the dark, he explained, roaches will come out to eat a six-course meal, but when you turn the lights on, they all scatter. "The march wasn't designed as a solution," he went on. "but to expose the problem. On September 20th, we turned the lights on. If you don't want the lights on, you must be hiding something."
Addressing the rangling for position so often highlighted in and encouraged by the media between the more well-known African-American leaders and organizers, Rev. Sharpton euphemized, "If I'm drowning, then I want whoever's got a branch to help me. We can argue when I get to shore about who gets the headline, but right now, get me out of the water!"
By now, he was systematically attacking every possible excuse a person could have for laying low in the face of institutionalized oppression. "If you expect the ones who knocked you down to lift you up, it won't happen!" he warned. "If they wanted you lifted up, they wouldn't have knocked you down in the first place!"
He had chosen as the framework for his presentation the story from the Old Testament in the Bible about a powerful meglomaniac by the name of Nebuchadnezzar who threw three young men into a fiery furnace for not bowing down to him. It was not hard to follow the analogy. And the end of the story, of course, is that, when the men are thrown into the flames, they don't die. But Rev. Sharpton didn't even mention that. It wasn't the point he was going for. The point he was going for was that, in the face of the flames, they didn't bow down.
"If you're scared, say you're scared!" he bellowed. "And then sit down and shut up and let somebody else stand up and talk who isn't scared!"
I came unglued. I yelled and applauded so long with tears streaming down my face, I became convinced that the wall to wall crowd, virtually entirely African-American, must surely think I was nuts. But I didn't care.
See, I've been edgy the last few days since I committed to do a campus presentation on "What is Racism and How Do I Know I Have It?" You know how I write. Well, imagine this stuff coming out of my mouth, complete with inflections and expressions, face to face with my listeners. It can create some emotion, let alone I'm talking to folks who sport "Proud Redneck" bumper stickers on their F-150's. So, yeah, I was scared. I know I've been doing this for decades, but this is a new venue. And while I absolutely believe I'm here "on assignment," it doesn't mean I don't feel the pinch. The pinch, in fact, was all over Al Sharpton's face when he left the building, escorted by huge African-American sheriffs to his vehicle, though he had earlier quipped light-heartedly, "I want to meet Jesus, but not today. I still have work to do."
So I was afraid. But three days ago, I found out Sharpton was coming to my little town. So I went to hear him, of course.
My mother swears that I wasn't more than four when I was riding down the highway with my parents one afternoon, stuck my head out the window and screamed into the rushing wind, "Look out, world, here I come!" That was a long, long time ago, but that little girl's still in there. She took me to see Al Sharpton today. He took us all to church. And now I'm ready to do the work that's waiting.