Archive for Black Church

In Defense of Looking Divine

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on April 27, 2014 by playthell


Parishioners outside Harlem’s Abyssinia Baptist Church

Whatever Happened to Sunday go to Meeting Clothes? “I love dressing up, but I don’t want MY church to emphasize fashion. Everyone should feel welcome -sweat pants and all – that is if it is a place of spiritual worship. My fashion choices should not make one feel insulted IN CHURCH. Let’s encourage people to actually practice, live their religion -even the minister.”

I could not disagree with the above comment more.  Who said the church – in this case the world famous Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem – “emphasizes” fashion choices…certainly not I.  What I did was comment on how sharp the parishioners are and celebrate it as a good and welcome practice: decorating oneself to the height of fashion when entering the House of the Lord.

However anybody who knows anything about the history or current activities of this church knows that they are one of the most progressive churches in the nation. This is the church built by Adam Clayton Powell Sr., whose son went on to become the most progressive congressman of his time…and as Chairman of an important committee dealing with health, welfare and labor issues authored and got passed 60 bills that established the laws which are critical to the safety net benefits all Americans enjoy today!

He was also a leader in the civil rights movement and along with his beautiful, musically gifted wife Hazel Scott – and artist whose brilliance is unmatched today – set a standard for high fashion in Harlem that dazzled the world.

The Social Event of 1945 in Harlem

Adam C. Powell and Hazel Scott

The Wedding of Adam Clayton Powell and Hazel Scott
The Performing Artist and the Preacher/Politician
Adam Powell and Hazel Scott
 The Most Stylish Couple in New York!
 The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Marries Nat and Maria Cole
Adam Powell marries Nat Cole 
Elegance and High Style was the Order of the Day
Two Harlem Foxes: New York’s Finest
Adam's wife Hazel and Lena Horne
Hazel Scott Hangin Out with her Girl Lena Horne
 The Elegance of that Era
Abiodun's Tribute 115
Is personified in the high style of Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel
 And the Parishioners of Abyssinia Church
A Fine Straw Bonnet
There are no better dressed congregations in New York City!
Elegance is also Alive and Well on Sugar Hill
On Sugar Hill
The Personification of Old School Cool

The present Pastor, Reverend Doctor Calvin Butts, a minister with a PhD, is one of the most progressive preachers in America whose good works are far too numerous to list here.  Suffice it to say that Abyssinia Baptist Church embodies everything that is great and good about the black American church which Dr. Dubois, an atheist like me – called “one of the most amazing institutions ever created by human beings.”

Now as to the matter of proper attire for church services: I think the comment  “Everyone should feel welcome -sweat pants and all, that is if it is a place of spiritual worship” thoroughly misses the point.  In every society, no matter how simple or complex its development, there are ceremonies and rituals that require the participants to groom and decorate themselves for the occasion.

The elaborateness of the costume is symbolic of the gravitas of the ceremony.  Hence if one believes that God is the creator of the world, and that any good fortune that befalls us is by his grace alone, then not to adorn oneself in finery when you enter his house strikes me as a sacrilege!!!!

Whatever happened to “Sunday go to meeting clothes?”  I was walking around just this last Sunday and saw some young people coming out of a non-black church and I was appalled!  They looked like they were coming from a hip hop show.  If I were the pastor of a church I would have fashion police stationed at the door for the express purpose of turning such people away!!!!

You cannot convince me that you understand the gravitas of the occasion if you are not willing to groom and decorate yourself in your best garments before entering this holy space!!!!  Enough of this disdain for elegance that is plaguing our society…the difference in the attire of black performers like Nat King Cole, Billy Ekstine, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Jackie Wilson when compared to Snoop Dog and Little Wayne is a measure of the degree of decadence that is infecting black American culture!

Standing in the Need of Prayer!


Evidenc of the Hip Hop Fashion Disaster



Playthell G. Benjamin
Way Out West, with Harlem on my Mind
April 25, 2014

An Open Letter To My Friend Bill

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , on August 15, 2012 by playthell

The First Ladies

On God, Science and Gabby

Yo Bill!

You need to take a chill pill!!  Your excoriation of the double gold medalist in gymnastics Gabby Douglass on my wall is outrageous! “The “Brown Butterfly” is an inspiration to us all. … I wish, though, she hadn’t made the ignorant comments about god; but what can one expect from a young girl, especially an African American who are the most religious group in the U.S. Even more than white Southerners.”

Your attempt to add clarity to your original statement missed the mark: “What I objected to was her statement, “God is a win win situation. I praise him and he gives me blessings (gold medals), or something to that effect. … This really pisses me off when athletes praise god for their acomplishments. I understand that she is just a young girl so i will cut her some slack and admire her historic achievements.”

Your insensitivity is exceeded only by your arrogance and ignorance!!!  This young lady is entitled to her beliefs!  She was probably raised in the church: which is a very good thing – especially the Afro-American church!  We as a community and a nation would be much better off if the teenagers presently visiting havoc, committing murder as casually as a walk through the park, were in church, listening to the biblical injunction to “do unto others as you would have them “do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” treat thy neighbor as thyself;” “Thou shalt not kill;” etc.

I also know this young people have told me so.  Once I was sitting in an herb spot in Georgia smoking the high grade Wisdom Weed, when all of a sudden some gunmen kicked the door down ad stuck up the joint.  They were holding their roscoes in that sideways fashion common in gangsta rap videos.  Although they were wearing masks I could clearly see their eyes and I recognized the fear in them.

Since I am trained for trouble I remained absolutely calm as they herded us all in one room and robbed the joint.   I told the other dudes in the room if they came back lets jump them…and I pulled out my blade and waited at the side of the door.  The others began to pray.  After the robbers left, one of the people in the room said the Lord had answered his prayer.  I called his statement of faith nonsense!

At which point another said to me “Lemme tell you something Old School, if it wasn’t for the fact that I believe in god I’b be robbin and killin motherfuckers 24/7.  And I can tell you for a a fact that a lotta othere dudes I know would be doin it too.  So you better be glad we believe in God or you wouldn’t be able to walk the street!”  If you view my debate with Christopher Hitchens on the Iraq War, you will see that I defended the black church against Hitchens’ snide and profoundly ignorant dismissal.  And that’s one of the reasons why.

Not too long ago I participated in a “Great Debate,” where the question upon the floor was: “Has the Bible Been Good for Black Americans?”  To the shock and surprise of many, since I may be the best known black atheist in New York, I argued in defense of the Bible.  Yet I was an avowed atheist before you learned how to pee straight!  And unlike most of you who say that you are atheists, but prove to be “fair weather atheist” in time of trial; I am a tried and true atheists, having successfully passed the “high seas test.”

In case you have never heard of it, the high seas test refers to whether you call on the Lord if you are in stormy seas and believe the ship is about to sink.  Well I have been in a horrendous storm at sea and even the old salty dogs were praying, but I could not bring myself to call on the Lord.  So my atheistic credentials are unimpeachable: I concluded at 13 years old that God was a man made myth and that was over a half century ago!

However I find most atheist to be far too arrogant about their beliefs…you are no exception.  The fact is that your fervent belief that God does not exist is no less an act of faith and has much in common with the religious fanatic.  The fact is that SCIENCE CANNOT PROVE THAT GOD DOES NOT EXIST!   And please spare me the tiresome arguments that attempt to demonstrate the contrary. For  I shall simply dismiss them, and you, out of hand. I have heard every argument on this question, and further discussion would only be a redundant bore: Trust me!!!

You see, I have many friends who are preachers and theologians, more friends who are atheist, and a former student who may well win the Nobel Prize in the biological/medical sciences: Dr. S. Allen Counter, MD/Ph.d, Professor of biology at Harvard, Senior Research Fellow at the Korylinska Institute in Sweden, where the Nobel Prizes are awarded.  Dr. Counter is one of the world’s greatest biological sciences and was good friends with the late Stephen J. Gould, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Dr. Counter tells me that very thing he has learned in science has made him a better Baptist!  He says scientist have no clue whether God exist or how the miracle of life came about…not really!  He feels that all scientist are doing is tracing the marvelous handiwork of God!  He believes that people who think scientist can explain the riddle of creation are fools!

Professor Counter scoffs at the idea.  He also tells me that among his scientific colleagues – the greatest scientist in the world – about half are atheist and half are intensely religious!  Hence if the world’s greatest scientist cannot resolve this question you strike me as the man who tried to be more royal than the king!

The point of this discussion is that you need to show a bit of humility on this question!  Of course you are a grown man and can do whatever you pleas.  But if your convictions lead you to attack a wonderful young lady for her beliefs then  you are an arrogant fool and I will continue to point this out to you.  Consider the following proposition: IT DOES NOT MATTER IF GOD EXIST OR NOT IF THE A BELIEF IN GOD INSPIRES GREAT THINGS FROM HUMAN BEINGS!!!!!!

There can be little doubt that a belief in God inspired Gabby to greatness.  And it’s not just because she is a “young girl.” There is absolutely no doubt that an intense belief in God inspired Muhammad Ali in his astonishingly easy victory over the murderous Sonny Liston to win the Undisputed  Heavy-Weight Championship of the World!

Liston scared the shit outta everybody and won his fights mentally before they ever got in the ring!  Former champion looked like he was going to shit his trunks before a single punch was thrown.  But the time Ali spent with Minister Malcolm X  in the week before the fight gave him a feeling of invulnerability, and he came in the ring talkin smack: Joking. jiving and signifying: as Dr. Geneva Smitherman put it. But Sonny was a an ex-muscle man for the St. Louis Mob who learned to box in Prison; he was a for real killer and there was reason to be scared!

Who but an ignoramus could deny that an intense belief in God inspired the artistic genius Michelangelo displayed when he painted the magnificent Sistine Chapel, or Bach when he wrote the marvelous B Minor Mass, or Mozart’s Requiem. Or George Frederik Handel’s transcendent “Messiah,” or the soul stirring oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King that inspired my neighbors in St. Augustine Florida to walk in the shadow of death and fear no evil!!!  I know this because they told me so!!!

What, pray tell, but a belief in the power of the almighty could have enabled by people to survive the long horrible night of slavery here in America – 250 years – and emerge from that experience where everything around them conspired to deny their humanity, yet emerge with their soul in tack but a powerful belief in a just God who would deliver them on the day of Jubilee!!!

Dr. DuBois, the most broadly learned, prophetic, consequential American humanist intellectual of the 20th century – who was also an atheist – wrote some of the most moving prose ever penned in the English language about the power of religious belief among the slaves, and how it helped them through their trials and tribulations.

Read the chapter “The Coming of the Lord” in his masterpiece “Black Reconstruction.” Read his essay on the Afro-American spirituals “Of the Sorrow Songs” in “The Souls of Black Folks.”    Then read my analysis of that essay in my book “Reconsidering The Souls of Black Folk.”

Few white Americans have any idea what the church has meant in Afro-American history or what it means now.  The church has been an overwhelmingly positive institution despite the ignorant denunciations of the church by Black Nationalists and Marxist; unlike much of the white church- which supported slavery, genocide, and apartheid.  But there is also a heroic tradition in the white American church too.  Both the Abolitionist Movement that ended slavery and the Civil Rights Movement that ended Southern Apartheid are unimaginable without it.

I know of nothing that atheist have come up with that can match the grandeur of the progressive black church: the music, the poetry of the sermon; the magnificence of its life giving message to a people in constant struggle for freedom.  If you know of anything please hip me to it.  Otherwise a little humility on your part would be in order!

 The Greatest!

Belief in God is the wind beneath this Butterfly’s wings


As always, I remain

Your friend, Playthell George Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 15, 2012


Come Sunday In Brunswick Georgia

Posted in Theater, Travels in the New South with tags , , on December 16, 2009 by playthell

A Church For The High and Mighty!

 I had only arrived a little over twenty four hours ago; slipping into town with the rising sun, 7: o-clock on Saturday morning, when the sleepy little town of Brunswick Georgia was fast asleep.   My senior daughter Sandra met me at the bus stop and at my request we drove down to the waterfront to watch the shrimping trawlers steaming out into the Atlantic Ocean, “the biggety blue,” as the old salty dogs I once sailed out of the port of Philadelphia with called the ocean seas.  I looked around and suspected the sea food would be good…and I was right.

Although Brunswick lacks the sheer beauty of St. Augustine Florida, in some ways it reminded me of the nation’s oldest city, which lies perched on the Atlantic coast just 108 miles due south.   It was not only the white washed wooden trawlers, or docks made of faded gray weather beaten wood, that evoked memories of my boyhood home; the gray Spanish moss that drapes the many live oak trees filled me with bitter/sweet nostalgia.  And the quiet ambience of the city compelled me to reflect upon the virtues of small town southern life.  After all, the best things about my own character were forged in one.

The religious passions I had encountered elsewhere in the south were also percolating in Brunswick, and it didn’t take long to recognize that the battle against Satan was in full force.  The spirit of the lord seemed to be everywhere, infecting the believers with a sublime joy.  I first noticed it in the farmers market, where those hawking their wares were certain that the lord had personally blessed them with the bounty of the land.  This was true even among those farmers who seemed threadbare and quietly desperate.  Perhaps they felt that, like Job, the lord was simply testing their faith with hard times.

But one cheery lady, another white haired alabaster Georgia peach, seemed especially animated by the spirit of Christ as she related a yarn about how she was moved by the spirit of Christian charity to give a homeless man a jar of her famous fig preserves and a home made biscuit.  Everyone repeatedly thanked the lord for the beautiful morning, and for sparing them to see it.  They acknowledged each other as Christian solders – especially my daughter and the cheery Ms. Figgie – and they testified that the works of the Lord are good and righteous in all their manifestations.  I had hardly been in town an hour before I was engulfed in a gale of religious passion, and it was only Saturday; Sunday would be a different story.

We spent the rest of Saturday filling each other in with stories about family and friends and preparing a feast of fresh vegetables, rice, potato salad, cornbread, real lemonade and a variety of freshly caught sea foods.  My grandson Kelvin “Big Kel” Whitfield and his wife Lisa – whom I was meeting for the first time – also came over and brought some of their friends to meet me.   It was an interesting mix of personalities.  The young folk were bold, optimistic, and infatuated with various brands of folly.  My daughter’s friends, on the other hand, were mostly middle-aged, man-less but saved women who claimed to be done with the foolishness of this world and were storing up blessings for the hereafter by doing the lord’s work here on earth 24/7.  As they would often reiterate, theirs was a purpose driven life, and their purpose was to serve Jesus Christ and praise his name with every waking hour.  Yet the careful way they decorated themselves, and the sunshine smiles they beamed at the eligible brethren, betrayed a lingering interest in the opposite sex.


 Come Sunday things started bustling around the house early as the Christian soldiers arose with the sun, carefully laying out their uniforms so as to pass inspection with the lord.  This was the day that the pious saved souls lived for.  This was the day that they visited their father’s house and sanctified their souls in the body of Christ.  None was more dedicated to this ritual than Sandra.  That’s why I had turned down an opportunity to travel into New Orleans with the Dillon family, one of the city’s most influential clans, as they returned to assess the damage the wind and floods of Katrina had done to their homes.  It was a reporter’s dream, but I had promised Sandra that I would be in Brunswick to attend church with her; so I cut out from Baton Rouge and headed for southeastern Georgia.  And on Sunday morning I groomed and decorated myself to the height of good fashion and escorted my daughter to the New Covenant Church.

It didn’t take long to discover the high regard with which my senior daughter is held by the members of her congregation.  She was admired as much for her artistic abilities as her tireless work in behalf of the church. I would later be shown several bill boards for theatrical productions she had presented under the auspices of the church.  She had served as writer, director, choreographer, and designer of the sets and costumes.  I knew that by some mysterious alchemy she had managed to touch the sacred fire and become a poet, but I didn’t know that she had also become a multi-talented thespian.  And she is lauded for her talents in spite of the fact that she has no formal training in any of these arts.  Sandra is a true autodidact. Upon reflection I began to recognize that, like the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, she has found her muse, audience and patron in the church.  And that’s about as convincing evidence of God’s grace as I have yet seen.

 From Africa to America: A musical Pageant


 A historical Odyssey into the African Diaspora


 A Swirl of Colors and movement!

 Real Black Magic!


 Written, Choreographed, Costumed and Directed by Sandra

There are many impressive churches in Georgia, grand edifices with steeples that reach for the skies, but Sandra’s church was modest, though well decorated; a church where humble working people could feel at home. Yet in spite of its unpretentious architecture, I’m convinced that if the spirit of God was anywhere in Georgia on that Sunday morning, she was in that little church in Brunswick. You could hear in the music, which was divine.  In this holy sanctuary the worshippers were bathed in the word of the lord as it poured from the mouths of passionate preachers, and the word would rejuvenate them and make them feel brand new, cleansed of the sins of this world.  In church, everybody was bedecked in their finest garments, and it was hard to tell some of the saved sisters who shouted out to God from the painted Jezebels and shameless hussies who were shaking their pulcritudinous “Afri-cans” in the juke joints on Saturday night past.   Some said that’s because they were the same crowd!

Since I was a stranger in town I had no way of telling who’s who, but if they were anything like most other church people I know it’s the same crowd alright. I surmised this from the first hand reports I have received from professional church musicians – most of whom are versatile musical artists who play in a variety of venues – who assure me that they get more action on church gigs than playing the cabarets.  This may sound strange to many readers, especially true Christian soldiers, but there are some fairly obvious reasons why the church choir has often been a cauldron of sexual licentiousness and myriad debaucheries.

First of all, as the most perceptive people who study the mating game and religious ecstasy well know, passion is a class of phenomena; and those who are capable of experiencing it in one of life’s arenas are capable of feeling it in others.  To make a short story shorter: Passion is passion whether religious or sexual.  When we add to this emotionally combustible atmosphere all the lonely people who go to church in search of fellowship of some kind, we have the perfect atmosphere for mortal sins of the flesh such as fornication and adultery.

The Reverend Doctor Michael Eric Dyson has written candidly about the lust and licentiousness that flourish in the black protestant church, and the prolific scholar/priest the Reverend Doctor Andrew Greeley, has pulled the covers back and revealed the tempestuous sexual passions – homosexual and heterosexual – among all levels of the priesthood in his insightful and once shocking novel, The Cardinal Sins.  The powerful novel Elmer Gantry, which was made into the classic movie starring Burt Lancaster and the luscious Shirley Jones that set my youthful erotic imagination spinning out of control, also provides an insightful look into religiously inspired sexual passions.  And what’s more it has long been rumored, and can now be backed up with first hand testimony provided to researchers that the church choir is often a passion pit of homosexual assignations.

In fact, a black gay sociologist based in Atlanta recently showed me a study that he is presently working on that will soon make these suppressed homo-erotic narratives public, exposing the hypocritical anti-homosexual stance of most churches.  One long time church singer told me “If it weren’t for gay men there would be no music in these churches.”  Having sung in the church since she was a young lass, over forty years now, the singer knows whereof she speaks.  Hence it makes good sense for gay men to cruise the church choirs in search of deep inner fulfillment.  In spite of the preacher’s admonitions against it, or the proscriptions against buggery in the bible, the church choir remains a prime cruising ground for love starved homosexual males and females in search of forbidden fruit.  The situation is such that it prompted one devoted deacon to remark to this writer: “All the troubles in the church start in the choir!”

  God’s Eunuchs or Priestly Pervs?

 The rape of children is a recurring sin among the “celebate” priesrhood

Nowhere has the blatant hypocrisy toward homosexuality been more egregious than in the Catholic Church.  Here, where all sexual activity by devotees of the religious orders –priests and nuns alike – is deemed a sin, forbidden fruit is especially attractive. Its human nature and no amount of pious preachment can alter it.   After all, was it not Adam’s inability to resist the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that brought the downfall of man from a state of grace?  Thus when all of those closet perverts who join the Catholic priesthood, desperately attempting to avoid confronting the demons conjured up by their refusal to deal with their lust for forbidden pleasures, are placed in close unsupervised activities with innocent youngsters who are programmed to trust them, the rape of children is increasingly the result.

All this has left an indelible blot upon the character of the Roman Catholic Church and the honor of Pope John Paul II, the late Bishop of Rome, a good friar under whose reign the mass rape of Children occurred while he looked askance in an unholy charade designed to preserve the earthly reputation of the Church, thus failing to exercise his responsibility as chief steward of that church and keeper of the faith.  For this the Pope, now beatified and bound for sainthood, would have had to satisfy the commands of a higher power, not serve the petty politics of the church!


 Compared to such mortal sins against the word committed by the Catholic hierarchy, a few painted and daringly attired Jezebels in the Pews seeking absolution in my daughters church – even if on a temporary basis – was a welcome sight.   It was easy to tell who among us felt in the need of prayer, because at the invitation of Pastor Albert Armstrong – offered with arms outstretched majestically – the congregants flocked down to the well in front of the pulpit to repent their sins and seek God’s forgiveness and blessings through prayer.

As I watched them I couldn’t help wondering how they imagined God would weigh their sins – their failures of the flesh and petty avarice – Vs. George Bush’s fleecing of the poor to further enrich the rich, or the slaughter of innocents for example. And worse still, his unrepentant blasphemy!  I also wondered if they thought having impure sexual thoughts, or lusting after their neighbor’s spouse, was a graver sin than paying taxes to a government that enables the Bushmen to commit mass murder against weak and unoffending peoples, and to witness these crimes against humanity – the most perfect of God’s creations whom she cast in her own dusky image – without protest.

In spite of a burning desire to interrogate them, I never got to ask them these questions because they didn’t think in such terms.  For them morality was personal, these are the sort of people who were more alarmed about Clinton screwing around with Monica Lewinsky in an ante-room in the White House, than George Bush screwing us all from the Oval Office. The truth, as near as I could tell, is that most Christians who are devoted to other-worldly concerns don’t even pay any attention to the news; which, to my mind, is a real sacrilege.

 Dr Martin Luther King

 A Modern Prophet

Unfortunately, the Christian revivalism presently sweeping the south is not the prophetic Christianity of Dr. Martin Luther King, or his longtime comrade in the struggle Dr. Joseph Lowery, who told me in Atlanta a few days after I attended New Covenant Church, that he continues to see participation in the struggle against injustice here and now as the best way to serve the will of God.  But since the fundamentalists are certain that this sinful world is doomed to destruction by fire come Judgment Day, and many believe that we are clearly living in the last days – they can see it in the signs of the times – the truly righteous are spending all of their time getting ready to meet their maker.  And that means, first and foremost, “getting right with the lord,” which leaves them precious little time for contemplating the troubles of this world.

On this Sunday morning the sermon, which they referred to as “Praising the Word,” was delivered by Rev. Catherine Armstrong, the wife in the joint pastorate of New Covenant.  She wore her hair in a short “au natural” style, and was both bright and articulate as she delivered a straight forward message on the need for people to stand up and make a stab at achieving their dreams while seeking the lord’s help through prayer.  She was both erudite and funny, as she lifted the spirits of the congregants with her sermon.  Like the old time preachers in James Weldon Johnson’s epic poems God’s Trombones, this preacher was a poet, “with all the devices of eloquence at her command.”  And she was preaching in just the sort of church the great novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston had in mind when she said a preacher “must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”

 Zora the Word Sorcerer!

 Her poetic prose celebrated the essence of black southern culture

As I sat and listened to this soul stirring sister I was reminded that it was the unschooled divines to whom these praises were addressed, Johnson in his poems and Hurston in her wonderful novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, both written within a couple of hundred miles from each other in the same part of Florida where I grew up.  So by the end of my visit to this little Georgia church with the mighty spirit, after I had joined the congregation in physically driving the devil out of New Covenant’s sanctuary and witnessed my daughter raise her voice in sacred song, waving her hands above her head in time with the music, channeling the holy spirit on sound waves to the soul, I too, unrepentant infidel that I am, felt uplifted by the spirit of their sermons and the spiritual power of their songs.


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

December 15, 2009