Text by Lerato Dumse
Photos by Muholi Zanele
I think black South Africans (maybe even other races) might agree with me that watching African American church services on TV or in movies makes one wish to attend. Their pastor’s sermons are always energetic and the choir, well their choirs can turn any nonbeliever into a believer.
When Zanele Muholi received an invite from Carrie Mae Weems, to attend a morning service at Bethany Baptist Church (BBC), in Syracuse New York, it presented me with an opportunity to finally tick “Attend an African American church” off my bucket list. While South Africa celebrated Women’s Day, which marked 59 Years since the iconic August 9 march to the Union Buildings.
I woke up to a hot summer day in Syracuse. As soon as Muholi was out of the shower it was my turn, we had our eye on the clock, as we did not want to keep Carrie waiting when she came to pick us up in approximately 30 minutes from then.
She called to say she is 5 minutes away, and I rushed to the kitchen to warm up two slices of left over pizza. My experience with church is that you need to eat before leaving home; there is nothing worse than being hungry during a church service. Especially in some of our township churches where there is no set time for when the service will end, you just hear speakers, elders or pastors saying “siholwa wumoya oyingcwele bazalwane”
(we are led by the holy spirit).
We made our way outside and Carrie came out of her car wearing a big smile on her beautiful face and gave us warm hugs. We then drove to BBC, which was established in 1887 (128 years ago).
We arrived just in time for their request for all first time visitors to stand, which as I suspected, was followed by, “please introduce yourselves.”
People were pleasantly surprised to learn that they had visitors joining them all the way from South Africa.
I arrived in Syracuse on August 5, and it is different from many of the places I have ever been to. I was first introduced to the Syracuse University (SU) part of town, where Muholi is participating in a month long Artist-in-Residency program at Light Work. The place is clean and almost deserted since students are still away for summer holidays. Then while biking around the neighbourhood a few days later, trying to find shops (which are very scarce).
I realised there were black families close to the residency who are visibly economically challenged.
However when I sat down after introducing myself, I looked around the congregation and the black people inside the church looked so beautiful. I don’t know if its because we all make an effort when we go to church and even wear our “Sunday best” to ensure we are presentable. The energy inside the church was calm, there were no super hyper pastors, but the sermon was well delivered, and the question they asked was “What have you done for him (God) lately?”
The worshiping group did not disappoint, we sang some fast paced clapping songs, a dream come true for me. Again, I have not been to many different churches in my life, but I was impressed with BBC. They have a bus service that picks up members to and from the church and drops them home. Their services are friendly to deaf people because they project what is said on screens.
They have detailed weekly church service programmes, which includes the telephone numbers of those who are sick and unable to attend and a section listing those who celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries that week. My mind was doing a comparison, and I realised there are also many similarities with the items on the programme, so it was not too foreign.
There was one white woman who looked like she might be a staunch member, no one seemed to mind her, including me.
However to be honest, I doubt I would have been as relaxed had it been a white male. While seated in church my mind started thinking about the nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, who were fatally shot in a racial attack by Dylann Roof (21), less than two months ago.
I tried to push those thoughts to the back of my mind, next to my biggest fear in America, their white police officer, whose favourite pastime appears to be killing black people. Police are so visible in the streets of Syracuse, and every time I see one of these gun carrying ticking time bombs I really do fear for my life. I’m only here for a month; I can’t begin to imagine what it is like for those who call this place home.
After the church service we drove downtown while Carrie continued to point out the most relevant places for us to know, from the printing shop, the Folk Art Gallery, to Dinosaur BBQ apparently one of the best in town. We saw all this while on our way to the Regional Market, where we had a very filling breakfast at a local Market Diner. Then it was time to stroll through the Sunday flea market stalls for Muholi to buy photography props.
Since arriving in Syracuse, the general consensus amongst people we have had conversations with is that Syracuse’s economy continues to face tough times caused by the exodus of industrial jobs. And yes, it seems everywhere one goes black people bear the brunt of harsh economic conditions. What we (South Africans) call RDP housing, they (USA) call projects both inhabited mainly by poor as well as low-income families. The historical divides of Syracuse are still so visible, the short drive between the Westside, East and South side, divided by barriers such as bridges and railway tells a different story about America. It is always sad to note that the American dream is just that, only a dream.
Putting all the heavy and sad realities aside, Sunday was spiritually and mentally uplifting. Two remarkably talented and successful artists surrounded me. They gave me conversations and memories that I will forever hold dear.
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