This is my tenth A to Z Challenge. My first was in 2013, but I missed 2021. This April I am going through the alphabet using snippets about my family through the generations.
Transcribed from the sermon “On the Origins of Christianity”, December 8, 1967, by my father Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr. You can listen to this excerpt below.
I can remember Christianity never meant a whole lot to me when I was a child. I went to ordinary Negro churches where not too much was being said and not much of anything was being done. My experience with black Christian churches in my childhood was a very disillusioning experience. I wondered why anybody wasted time Sunday after Sunday going into the building and sitting there listening to utter nonsense that had no relationship at all to the lives of the people who were sitting there. It seemed there had to be some tremendous traditional hold upon people to make them continue to go in.
The church I went to was a Presbyterian church here in the city and they had a series of preachers, as I can understand, it was not too prosperous a church at that time, and I can’t remember a one, not a one out of a whole series, a whole childhood that ever had anything to say on a Sunday morning that would make black people come in and listen, that had any message for the world in which they lived. That had anything to do with the problems that they faced. And yet it’s important that we realize that we tend to accept this kind of thing, this is the church. We don’t expect, really, as black people, we don’t expect the church to say anything. We don’t really expect the church to mean anything. We don’t really expect the church to be anything. When we come into church, we expect to get the warm feeling of tradition. Maybe it calls to mind a church down home some place where we used to be young and have friends. It calls it to mind and this gives us a sort of a warm glow which bathes the innocuousness of the minister and the off-beat of the choir into something that we think is pleasant, but it has very little to do with what we are actually getting in the church. It’s some ancient memory that we bring to the experience of worshiping Christ in church today.
Now it’s important, I think, that we realize this. I know during my childhood Christianity had very little meaning. My mother talked about it all the time. Obviously for her it had meaning and obviously it was painful that for me it had no meaning. For most of her children it had no meaning. And she couldn’t see that the church we were going to had anything to do with it. We were supposed to believe. Now that had nothing to do with the church, just you were supposed to believe. Everybody’s supposed to believe. It’s the only way you get to Heaven.
I remember the first time I began to have any conviction that the church could in any way be meaningful, was when one evening I just happened to stumble into the Plymouth Congregational Church when the Rev. Horace White was preaching. And he was the first minister I had ever heard who made the slightest effort to make sense. I was amazed to sit in a congregation and hear a minister who was trying to say something. He didn’t always succeed, but he was always trying to say something. And for him Christianity had to have some relationship with the world. And so, I listened to him. And I said Christianity really isn’t as empty and meaningless as people everywhere would lead children to think. It is possible for an individual to take the Bible and try and apply it to the world. To try and see in the Bible a revelation, an epiphany to see God revealed in the Bible. It’s possible. And I only came to believe it because I saw a man trying to do it. Now he fell far short of understanding how the Bible really relates to the lives of Black people because he was at the beginning of a long process. I mean, much has happened since he tried to preach sense to a black congregation. And we’ve gone through a lot of experiences since then. We are different now than we were ten, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago when he was trying to preach sense basing it upon the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. But I think back now how many things he didn’t understand, that I didn’t understand. I decided at Plymouth church to enter the ministry and I went to a seminary.