For The Someday Book

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This Far By Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience, by Juan Williams and Quinton Dixie, William Morrow Press (HarperCollins), 2003, 326 pp.

This project is a follow-up to the marvelous documentary series Eyes on the Prize, a history of the Civil Rights Movement produced by Blackside for PBS. Juan Williams wrote the companion book for that series as well. This book is a companion to the documentary series This Far by Faith, also by Blackside, which looks specifically at African-American religious experience across the last 300 years. The book chapters do not map directly on to the documentary, so I suspect that the content is overlapping, but not identical.

I found this to be an easy, informative, interesting read. I had expected (and hoped) that the book would be a social history of African-American religious life. Instead, it was a traditional “great man” approach to history—detailing important men and women of great influence, critical historical events and institutional developments. The book focuses most intently on Christianity and Islam, the two most popular forms of religious practice in the African-American community, but it also attends to African traditions, Judaism and the African Orthodox Church.

Williams and Dixie tell compelling stories, and they reach beyond the most familiar narratives of African-American history. While Martin Luther King and Malcolm X receive significant attention, they are not given more time or attention than the stories of Denmark Vesey, Sojourner Truth, Henry MacNeal Turner, Ibrahima Abdul Rahman, Elias Camp Morris, Fred Shuttlesworth, Albert Cleage, Lucie E. Campbell, Howard Thurman and James Lawson. The book details the founding histories of the Nation of Islam and most of the major African-American Christian churches, including the National Baptist Church, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian (originally Colored) Methodist Episcopal, Church of Christ (Holiness) and Church of God in Christ. They also pay attention to controversial religious movements like Father Divine or the Church of Gods and Earths.

I had hoped for a greater perspective on the role faith played in the lives of non-famous people, and a deeper analysis of critical turning points in the development of faith in the African American community. Still, I thought this was an enjoyable and informative book. I have done a lot of reading on African-American history, yet I still learned a great deal of new information here, especially about the denominational history of the traditionally black churches. A good read.

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This is my favorite passage in all of American literature—and probably world literature, excluding scripture:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams locked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They then act and do things accordingly.

These are the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s my favorite novel of all time, and one of the few books I read over and over again. I was reminded of it again last night after enjoying the American Masters episode about Zora Neale Hurston on PBS.

What I love about this passage is the proclamation that “the dream is the truth.” What a holy pronouncement! My images of the dream come mostly from scripture:

  • “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2)
  • “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58)
  • “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1, Mary’s Magnificat)
  • “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5)
  • “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21)

But I also think of images from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning if its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

Whatever image we set out as the dream, that is the truth, says Zora. Now act and do accordingly. It reminds me of the old saying among radicals, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the dream is justice, live justice. If the dream is equality, live with all as equal brothers and sisters. If the dream is peace, live peace. If the dream is an end to poverty, live your life against poverty. Because that is the Truth.

In Christianity, we use the term “Word,” capital “W”, to refer to God, with the understanding that God’s word, God’s speech, is so powerful that it is Word, an entity unto itself with a force that can call worlds into being and bring flesh to life and animate the world. I think we could contemplate Word as synonymous with Truth, as Zora Neale Hurston uses it. The dream is the Truth–the promise of God is the Word of God. It is a force that can and will make things happen. The dream is not some fuzzy notion, hardly visible at the edge of sleep. Nor is it a hastily-scribbled IOU for the future. The dream is the truth—hard and fast, secure and tangible, as real as mud.

We who know this act and do things accordingly.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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