This Far by Faith: The Power of the Black Church

The Christian Century, May 31, 2003 | Go to article overview
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This Far by Faith: The Power of the Black Church

JUAN WILLIAMS is senior correspondent for National Public Radio. For 23 years he was a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and is the author of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary and the best-selling Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, which was the companion volume to the award-winning PBS series of the same name. His most recent book, This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience (Morrow, 326 pp., $29.95), coauthored with Quinton Dixie, is the companion volume to a PBS series that will air in June.

What led you to write This Far by Faith?

I am an immigrant to the U.S. I was born in Panama and my mother brought me and my sister and brother to Brooklyn in 1958 when I was four years old. So the black experience in this country was new to me as a child. I started exploring the neighborhood, meeting new people--it all had a sense of wonder for me.

One of the first things I remember noticing was the power and diversity of the church. Even as a boy I was puzzled by the intensity of religion among the black people around me.

In Brooklyn you could go to the street corner and there would be a Black Muslim guy selling newspapers and telling you that you have to straighten up, do away with the religion of the slave master, be a strong man, be yourself, understand your roots. And you could see farther down the street a Catholic church with kids going to Catholic school, many of whom were my friends, and they were very studiously involved with the Latin mass and the rosary. There weren't many black priests, but people found sustenance and a home in the Catholic church.

Of course, there was the Baptist church. It seemed like everybody from the Baptist church came from the South. There was a real geographical connection there. You could get good inexpensive food at the Baptist church--southern cooking on Saturday and Sunday. They would feed the kids for free. There also was the African Methodist Episcopal church with its grand traditions and sense of dignity and history.

And then there was my Episcopal church. My father, who is from Jamaica, was Anglican, and that church was extraordinarily supportive of my family, helped my sister and brother in everything from clothes to spending money as they went off to college. A lot of immigrants from the Caribbean attended that church for the same reasons my family did--it was their anchor in a new land.

The black church in all this variety seemed omnipresent in my corner of Brooklyn. There was a powerful faith in action that you couldn't avoid. People were going to church not only on Sunday but also on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for some auxiliary board meeting, women's meeting or youth group. The black community was defined at the center by the black churches. At the heart, This Far by Faith is an attempt to understand that childhood immigrant experience of marvel at the church's powerful position in the black community.

Your book goes beyond sociological description to state openly that the story about the struggle for justice and freedom in black America is also the story of faith.

I started out with sociological questions that emerged out of that childhood puzzlement about all that religion. But as I researched this book and wrote and rewrote it, it became clear to me that that there is a direction connection between faith and the struggle for civil rights. This is true not only in the period of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, but in every historical period, beginning with the colonial era. In the book I pick up the story in the early 1800s in Charleston, South Carolina, where a charismatic black church leader, Denmark Vesey, organized an aborted uprising against slavery and was executed. You can see the faith connection in the Reconstruction period when blacks were struggling to create a separate black church as a basis for black leadership in the country.

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