Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.
I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007 to teach a course at Brandeis University and use Harvard Divinity School’s library for research for an online theology series I created for the Unitarian Universalists Association headquarters in Boston.
Once a week I passed by St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge on the way to my neighborhood Whole Foods store. But I had never noticed this three-story red brick, A.M.E. church building or the tiny parking lot squeezed next to it on this very modest residential street until I started looking for an African American congregation I could conveniently visit.
I wanted to study how emotions are handled in a black church. How does Cerberus show up when emotions are heightened as a centuries-old African American liturgical practice? The Rev. Richard Allen founded this Christian denomination in 1816, when he and other African Americans rejected the white Methodists’ segregation rules restricting black participation in church services. The A.M.E. church is now one of the largest black church movements in the world.
I wanted to study how emotions are handled in a black church.
The main church service began at 10:45 AM, but I arrived 10 minutes early. The church sanctuary was almost completely full so I had to sit at the back of the church, two rows from the main entrance. The dark wood pews, stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling, chandeliers and red-carpeted floor made the large space feel smaller than it actually was because the setting was not imposing but warmly inviting. The sanctuary with the balcony above would seat some five or six hundred people. Almost everyone in the congregation was African American.
A great many women wore huge Sunday hats and their “Sunday best” clothes. I was glad I had decided to wear my one and only black dress, stockings, and black pumps. Almost all of the men wore suits and ties. There were a few congregants in jeans and t-shirts or other casual attire, but they were a tiny minority. I seriously considered buying and wearing a hat if I ever attended another one of these services. But with further observation, I noticed that hat-wearing seemed for the most part to be limited to the women who were elders of the church.
All of these observations and thoughts were quickly erased from my mind by the music. I was listening to jazz! Not Saturday nightclubbing jazz but Sunday morning go-to-church jazz. The pianist, organist, electric bass player, two saxophonists, the electric guitarist and the drummer were playing gospel music within a jazz motif of blue notes, fluid styles, and rhythmically complex riffs. Surely, the music must have rekindled memories in the older congregants of the classical era of progressive modern jazz in the mid-60s when Miles, Mingus, Coltrane and so many other giants turned jazz into the music of the black intelligentsia.
All of these observations and thoughts were quickly erased from my mind by the music. I was listening to jazz!
A praise team of three women and two men stood at the front of the sanctuary singing. The satin voice of the leader, a jazz singer who could easily have been a protégé of Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, or Ella Fitzgerald turned the jazz music into praise songs to God. By the time the formal service began, most of the congregants were on their feet swaying back and forth to the beat of the music and saying “Amen.”
Next came the long procession of choir members, deacons, and deaconesses, with the five ministers of the church at the very back. A woman dressed in white and wearing white gloves, with one of her hands gently closed and resting on the small of her back, was at the very front of the procession. With a slow, syncopated step, she led the procession to the front of the sanctuary and then turned and extended her arms in both directions. The procession line now split like the Red Sea as the people moved to their designated seats. The processional lasted at least 10 minutes as the congregants sang, swaying back and forth to the beat of the music. The senior minister—a towering grey-haired figure with glistening dark chocolate skin, piercing eyes, a strongly chiseled brow and sculpted cheekbones—walked alone at the very end.
Everyone who could stand was standing. I stood and rocked back and forth with a disco dance beat that delighted me. The movement of my arms and feet, the soft swaying of my hips unlocked something in me and tears streamed down my cheeks as I swayed back and forth. I felt as if a pressure valve inside me had been dis-engaged by the rhythmic heat generated within me through the music and singing, and the slow, steady rhythmic beauty of the procession. The chokehold grip on my feelings was broken and emotions that were triggered in me now flowed out in tears as an unnamed mixture of sorrow and extraordinary joy. I had never felt this way before in my life and I hadn’t a clue as to why I felt this way now. My body and its feelings had become part of my conscious life. My mind was awestruck, stillpoint still like the pause between breaths; quiet as the space between thoughts; soundless as the silence between musical notes. There were no thoughts in my head. Every part of me felt realigned in this awesome resting place of love.
Twenty minutes into the service, first-time visitors to the church were invited to stand and introduce ourselves, and then remain standing. Wave after wave of congregants stopped by to greet me as the music rocked.
As the service continued to unfold, I learned that the senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Leroy Attles, who had been pastor of the church for 32 years and built it into a 1500-member congregation, was retiring. Governor Deval Patrick as well as several members of the Cambridge City Council attended Pastor Attles’s final service to bid him good-bye.
At one point in the service Pastor Attles stood on the chancel behind the altar rail and invited persons who needed special strength to come forward for a blessing. He then waited and was silent for a long moment. And then he said, “Anyone who is in pain, come forward and shake my hand.”
Without a second thought, I stood and walked down the long aisle, up to the pastor, and shook his hand. He smiled. So did I. When I returned to my seat, an elder woman of the church seated next to me patted the small empty space on the pew between us and said, smiling, “You will always have a place here.” This was stillpoint sitting, breathing and living.
“You will always have a place here.”
By the end of the three-hour service, I felt inspirited and elated.
For the next two years, every Sunday that I was in town I went to St. Paul. I sang their songs but was careful not to participate in the congregation’s doctrinal readings that affirmed their Trinitarian faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or to participate in the Lord’s Supper or the altar calls to prayer. I thus honored their Trinitarian religious traditions as well as my own Unitarian faith tradition. Every Sunday I spent in the worship service, I was filled with energy and feelings of extraordinary goodwill as I watched women wearing flowing white gowns dance, listened to the men’s choir, the 60-voice children’s choir, the teen choir, or the chancel choir and so much more. Everyone, including me, was having a good time.
The sights and sounds of the Sunday service began to abound in me throughout the week in stillpoint space and time, in that place between thoughts where the grandeur of life overflows into every moment of my life. I felt the presence of the St. Paul congregants as the new way my spine tingled and a new way life-giving energy coursed through my veins.
I now understood how the congregants in the Church of the Glades felt in their Sunday services, namely, renewed and regenerated. Until I attended the St. Paul A.M.E. church, I had not experienced how the transformative power of a corporate worship life could expand my own sense of self beyond the social constructions of a pod person’s ego.
The congregants knew I was Unitarian Universalist, but this didn’t matter to these Trinitarian Christians. They loved me beyond my religious beliefs that differed so markedly from theirs. They loved me as a child of their God.
If I missed a week, numerous persons would welcome me back when I returned, and they would tell me I had been missed.
Thanks to these kinds of ongoing experiences in this church, I found what I didn’t know I was looking for until it showed up inside me, namely, an inner sense of being an adored and deeply communal self. The inner sense of my self as an isolated soul beholden to no one and dependent upon no one was gone. My interior life was now peopled in ways that affirmed rather than destroyed my emotional integrity.
They loved me beyond my religious beliefs that differed so markedly from theirs. They loved me as a child of their God.
Every time the music director, Donnell Patterson, played or sang, I was swept into a field that gave my emotions the wings of a holy presence. The sights and sounds out there beyond me now whirled around inside me. I felt alive from the inside out and the outside in at the same time.
The experience was akin to being at a rock concert or in a symphony hall when the music gathers all of us up into the same sweep of feeling and makes us one collective soul for the duration of the concert. But now this sweep of feeling didn’t end with the concert because I had been changed. The rhythmic back and forth movement created by the music and the timbre of the spoken word warmed my heart. This heat felt like a Higgs Boson of faith that gave feelings the mass, power, and weight to bind folks together, personally and collectively, as an ingathered community of souls.
The music rocked my emotions and loosened them. And the beat wasn’t singular; it had a rhythmic sweep that made my inner feelings dance. And the dance wasn’t a Five Step Lift but a Three-Step Glide.
Step 1. The Slide. I slid into feelings inside me I didn’t know were there. I entered the underworld of Hades with Cerberus at the gate. I felt sadness, loss, remorse, grief and so much more without being swept away by an undertow that dragged me out to sea and drowned me. I wasn’t flooded. I was fluid and free like a master downhill skier on an alpine slope. My feelings of sorrow and remorse, fear, anger, and rage were no longer hold up in hell. They had been freed and transformed into a rapturous joy.
Step 2. The Glide. As I continued to glide, I was lowered into feelings of being held and cherished.
Step 3. The Love. I felt the infinite expanse of life—all of it—in a finite moment of my own life. I was awestruck with love as every part of my life was taken up into the creative power of the All of life and embraced, cherished, and celebrated.
I now understood a story told to me years earlier by a Catholic priest who discovered the heart of his God beyond the reach of his own religious beliefs.
The Catholic priest had spent several months in Ethiopia doing famine relief work with people from a local village. While in the local village, the priest participated in a dance in which the members of the devastated community spent countless hours rhythmically moving in a circle to the beat of a single drum.
Without food to forage or land to cultivate, the members of the village could do nothing except wait for their next shipment of food to be flown in. But instead of simply waiting, they danced a slow step that consisted of something that by the count of the priest seemed to consist of a “one-two-three-jump” sequence. The villagers did this for hours on end.
Wanting to be accepted as part of the group, the priest joined in, which immediately brought him face to face with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He could never jump at the right time. He jumped too soon or too late, or sometimes he simply forgot to jump at all. Needless to say, these missteps provided the rest of the members of the community with countless hours of laughter.
The children, quite frequently, were so amused that they fell out of the circle, onto the ground in fits of giggling delight. The priest said it was neither intended nor experienced as ridicule. Instead, it felt more like the bemused jesting that goes on in a community when one of their own marches to the beat of a different drummer.
Hour after hour the priest labored to learn to count and then jump in just the right way. How many times did he move into and then out of step with the group’s rhythm? Too many to count, he confessed, but as time wore on, something happened to him that completely surprised him. As he told me the story, tears welled in the eyes of the priest and he was silent for a long moment. And then he whispered to me, saying “You know, until that experience, I thought that I had known God all of my life. But only as I danced with the other members of the group did I actually feel God’s presence in my life.”
The priest felt the full, awesome presence of life itself, the All of life, which for the priest, is the presence of God. Thanks to the St. Paul congregation, I felt a full presence inside me, too.
Thanks to the St. Paul congregation, I felt a full presence [of God] inside me, too.
But I wasn’t a theist. As a college kid, I had dismissed all religious notions of God as cultural constructions. But now I had been swept into cosmic feelings and heard what resounded in me like the heartbeat of God. This wasn’t the sound of a deity, it was the rhythmic presence of the universe sweeping me into cosmic consciousness. I was not praying. I was the prayer.
Cerberus vanished during the church services at St. Paul because I no longer needed him to protect my emotions from the anger, rage, and sorrow created in me by neglect and abuse.
He never failed to rescue me from those bad feelings, but he did not heal them. He protected me without compassion by slaying my ability to feel compassion, or sorrow, or regret, and so much more. Those slain feelings made we weep. I had cried, after all, as the mourner at the wake of my own feelings during my Saturday morning weeping sessions in Los Angeles, even though I was a successful television producer.
Why did Cerberus sit with me as I cried? Why did he take me to church? Was he back in my life again? Had he ever actually gone away?
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