By Episcopal Journal
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is among the faith figures in “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” a new four-hour, two-part documentary series by noted historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The series premieres Feb. 16 and 17 on PBS stations nationwide and is available via PBS on various streaming services.
Gates traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America as the source of “African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.
“The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage,” according to the PBS description.
Besides Curry, Gates interviews Oprah Winfrey; musician John Legend; actress Jennifer Hudson, civil rights leaders the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. William Barber II and gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans.
Gates and Curry discuss the powerful influence of music in the Black church and the emotional pull of traditional spirituals.
“When somebody starts singing in a certain way,” Curry said, “folk, inside, start reacting and responding. And eventually, there may be shouts and there may be silence, but something is moving inside. And that’s where the Black church is found: in those heartbeats.”
“And that heartbeat comes from Africa,” Gates said.
“Straight from Africa,” Curry agreed. “No doubt about it. And it has been integrated with the Christian story and experience.”
Gates himself has Episcopal roots, although he is shown in the series attending his childhood church, Waldon United Methodist Church in Piedmont, W.Va. His mother’s family was from West Virginia.
Gates now is famously the host of “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS show that traces the family histories of celebrity guests.
However, his interest was sparked much earlier. In an article for The New Yorker, written in 2008 and titled “Family Matters,” Gates wrote about his paternal grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, known as Pop Gates to his family. He lived in Cumberland, Md.
“Pop Gates was buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery, where our forebears were among the very few Negroes allowed to disturb the eternal sleep of Cumberland’s élite white Episcopal citizenry.
“The town’s Episcopal churches had been segregated at least since the black St. Philips offered its first Communion, on June 19, 1910. That day, the church’s records show, Pop, his mother, Maud, his wife, Gertrude Helen Redman, and about half a dozen other Gateses took the Sacrament, which was offered by the Diocese of Maryland’s white bishop.”
His documentary on the Black church, said Gates, is “a systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshipped God in their own images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses, to camp meetings and store-front structures, to mosques and mega-churches.
“This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us, and it comes at a time in our country when the very things they struggled and died for — faith and freedom, justice and equality, democracy and grace — all are on the line. No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church,” he said.