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The H3O/Art of Life Blog

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"Notes On Spiritual Direction For African-Americans In Crisis"

By Reverend Dr. D. Darrell Griffin

Presented By Omni-University

The American Pandemic dilemma is growing more and more complex and the African-American community is desperately seeking relief as we try to make sense of these challenging circumstances. In the midst of this perplexing situation, many are finding it increasingly difficult to "keep the faith" in their daily lives. Thus, as a means of bringing forth hope and healing, especially in the midst of the present storm, spiritual direction continues to be a much sought-after objective.

As we search for new and effective ways to maintain our spiritual traditions, we must not forget that our past must be as respected as the present, i.e., that finding precedent in African-American traditions for new practices is not just important, it is mandatory. It is imperative that the faith we practice, today, incorporates elements from our cultural heritage. 

The African-American church is unique in its faith tradition, in that our religious experience reveals an eclectic collection of African beliefs and practices expressed in Christian terms. The four spiritual pillars of the African-American religious experience: preaching, singing, praying and testimony, may be used to garner support and involvement in fostering hope and healing. Vincent Harding suggests that, “We took the religion of the slave masters and transformed it into an instrument of struggle for truth and freedom."(1) It was a gift for me to realize that spiritual direction and soul care have been a force in the African-American community for centuries. In fact, the practice of seeking spiritual wisdom from another has roots in African-American history. “Slaves” would meet in secret with their own leaders in “slave” quarters and ask for spiritual guidance and comfort. In this crucible of separation and suffering, the African-American religious experience was formed. In “Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African-American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction”, authors Bob Kellemen and Karole A. Edwards trace the history and legacy of the African- American religious experience while uncovering the unique streams of spiritual direction for African-Americans. The practices of healing, reconciling, and guiding others along the journey are grounded in the African-American experience. Kellerman and Edwards also note that African-American spirituals and “slave” narratives were full of metaphors that promoted companionship and soul care. These songs, chants, and stories reminded “slaves” of their homeland and sustained them in their separation and bondage. They  were also a means for seeking God's wisdom. Wherever they met or congregated, African-Americans consoled and strengthened themselves and one another with spiritual songs and sacred chants.

In our community today, we still sing stories that are laced with spiritual direction metaphors: "I Don't Feel No Ways Tired"; "When the Storms of Life Are Raging, Stand by Me; and, Jesus is depicted as a companion or guide in “Walk with Me, Lord": "I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, I want Jesus to walk with me. In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me." Regardless of the ethnic community, these themes- overcoming suffering and hardship- have universal application.

Religious sociologist, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes (2), says that, in African-American churches where people have powerful encounters of the presence of God, the church functions as a therapeutic community. Within the worship experience, African Americans are able to work through their troubles and heartaches as if they are engaged in a therapy session. Gilkes points out that other members ''become therapists for their fellow- church members, encouraging them in their feelings and guarding and protecting them from possible harm." Church, then, is an environment in which to express our emotions and find aspects of relief and comfort.

African-American churches have long stood ready to meet the pressing human needs of the community, including providing safe havens, pastoral counseling and care, activism, and much more. It is no surprise, then, that when crises arise in the African-American community, members of the Black church are always the first responders. They work on the front lines to strengthen families, raise awareness of the health challenges facing African Americans, spark economic development, and provide counseling and pastoral care services for those in need.

In recent years, I have encouraged our congregation to embrace the ministry of spiritual direction as a tool for overcoming the array of pandemics that continue to confront our community. We are beginning the return to the traditions and heritage that are so precious to us for reasons we don't always fully understand. The journey home to attend to the needs of our souls touches something central, and it resonates deeply with who we are.

Suggested Discography : 

Blog notes: 

1. Vincent Harding, "The Acts of God and the Children of Africa," in "Roads to Faith: Black: Perspectives in Church Education".

2. Cheryl Townsend  Wilkes. " If It Wasn't for the Women: Black Women's Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community. 

Suggested Reading: 

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