Monday, October 7, 2013

I Came To Testify Because I Missed Me So Much. Thank You and Amen

In the Black Church there is a tradition called "testifying" which means publicly acknowledging to all and sundry your happiness, joy and gratitude when something good comes into your life. It's not about giving thanks mechanically or simply for show. Testifying is a phenomenon of being moved by the Spirit and deeply emotional. As a child I remember seeing men and women pop up like jack-in-the-boxes weeping and moaning and raising their hands, calling on God and the Church to "witness" their true and utter joy. 

Older women who were very poor and subsisted on their small wages as cleaning ladies would be moved to witness for the Lord and testify how grateful they were Wednesday when the kind man from the electric company decided to turn his back and not cut off the lights because she sincerely begged his mercy, instead walking away and allowing a few extra days to scrounge up the money so her electric wasn't disconnected. 

Or you might hear someone testify with tears streaming down for happiness that the doctor said the cancer was in remission. The tears and the manner of the testifying sometimes frightened me because the folks telling their stories would sound so fierce that I couldn't tell if they were angry, or maybe ready to fight. They would testify with a violent joy, a tempest of gratitude. Even though I heard the words of thanks their manner seemed entirely contradictory to people who were supposedly so happy and "filled with the Spirit".

What kind of blessing made you jump up and down, cry, and shout all at the same time? Whatever it was I was sure that I didn't want none of it, thank you very much. But then as I grew older I began to discern the interplay of emotion and Spirit and everyday Blues within the testimonies. These men and women came to church every Sunday - and sometimes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday through Saturday as well - as refugees fleeing to sanctuary, as pilgrims escaping the persecution of the World. The Black Church was the place where even the class distinctions and other hierarchies within Black culture itself ceased to make a difference because everyone was a child of God, a soul basking in the love of God. 

But what kind of Love did this God have for his witnesses I wondered because it seemed to me that the troubles these folk spoke of were the most tragic and terrible experiences. Illness and poverty. Injustice and loneliness. Upheaval, loss, death, family disputes. Any and every sorrow you can name is what each church member brought to the congregation like gifts from the Three Wise Men. They offered their troubles up like precious jewels dug from the wealth of the earth with their own hands presenting their bloodied hands and torn nails for one and all to witness. What was this "spirit" they continually spoke of? And how could it be worth experiencing?

My family was not religious. When I was young my mother took us to church with our grandmother more out of duty and tradition, and much less than for true devotion to community or respect for the pastor's word and leadership. By the time I was ten she had quarrelled so fiercely with most of the city's leading Reverends that we just stopped attending at all. Given the opportunity my mother would challenge a preacher with militancy and rage catching the unsuspecting man of guard and placing him on a rapidly diminishing defense like an animal caught in a trap.

My mother studied theology obsessively, feverishly always searching, seeking answers to her questions, and all of my mother's questions can easily be boiled down to a basic essence, to one single inquiry: WHY? When my parents' marriage began to violently crumble they both sought pastoral counselling initially. But the pastoral counselling ended with a tremendous failure during the first session when the good Reverend commanding my mother to submit to her husband's will as her duty to the Lord; no matter if her husband cheated, lied or beat her. "God gave man dominion over the earth, the animals and his wife. You are disobedient," he said. And with that statement my mother's life as a Christian reached its sunset. 

It was the 80s and she dabbled and explored the New Age movement, read extensively
By Vicente Romero Redondo
about Judaism, studied with seminary graduate students whom she befriended when she began working in the seminary book store. Nevermind that she spent all her paycheck on the books in the store, she was a seeker; she was finding her path. 

Still the Black Church had been her home for her entire lifetime and even after running away from home she surrounded herself - by extension my brother and me also - with certain comforts and trappings that were native to the Black Church, her former home. Chiefly gospel music. The sounds of mass choirs raised power and harmony, rich melodies carried by musicians dedicating their talent to God. 

And this is how I began to feel and understand all that talk of the Spirit, its force and power to move one to that state of testimony. The power of gospel music is not something that can be described in words, it must be felt so I shan't waste much time extolling its extraordinary and unique virtues. As I grew older and found myself always returning to those very same comforts at the same time I began to mature enough to experience those sorrows and pains that I saw people bringing to the church congregation as a small child. 

Having felt the force of the music and the harsh chastisement of worldly burdens I then was able to find emotional release in those choirs and those songs that I first heard in church then heard from my mother's vinyl albums. 

I began this essay meaning to sit down and testify for a great sorrow that had found some mercy from the universe but the gratitude that I felt as I sat to write expressed itself in this manner rather than in the confessional witnessing I meant to present. Sometimes in those moments of spiritual gratefulness there is such vast feeling that you often do not realize its complexity until you do testify. In that crying, rocking, moaning, hand waving witnessing you unknowingly run a gauntlet of emotion that appears wild and frenzied. To any outsider with no knowledge of the tradition of testifying as practiced in the Black Church it certainly would seem as a form of madness. A temporary breakdown mentally perhaps. It seemed so to me as a child sitting in the church. 

Yet now it is the greatest blessing, that visitation of spirit. I sat down to give thanks for a healing in my heart and in my mind. It is a small thing to any other perhaps; I was sick with sorrow, depressed and often unable to get out of bed. I went to the doctor, he gave me some medicine. That's all. There is no drama in that, a rather simple account it would seem to another. It is simple. But the suffering was not, the suffering was unbearable, desperate and bleak. In a world of famine and war and governmental breakdown my sorrow is no grand thing when others are so much more needy than I. 

Nevertheless I am thankful, so deeply thankful that there was help. An anti depressant. One tiny orange pill. I took my first dose today and in ten minutes flat I felt the oppressive darkness lift. I got out of bed - lately if I get out of bed at all it's a terrible effort - went to fix my coffee, then sat down to write. My daily routine. Except for such a long time it seems my routine had broken down and in the grip of the depression it feels like nothing will ever be the same again. I knew that I needed help, needed to talk to a doctor but it seemed that it took far more energy than I possessed. The effort in merely picking up the phone to call the doctor's office took several days to accomplish.

And today after one dose I'm back to my routine. 

My routine - waking up, getting out of bed, sitting down to write - is my happiness, my joy. 

It is a small thing probably very frivolous, very trivial, very mundane. Not really worth so

many words maybe. In the worst, darkest days in a depression it feels as if you'll languish alone in isolation and misery for eternity. I don't wish to sound melodramatic or mawkish. But I am so deeply grateful and it was my need to testify, to witness.

The doctor said in two weeks I should be feeling "much better", and that in six weeks I should be quite returned to my old self. This is the first day I have seen even a glimmer of my old self and I'm so happy because I missed HER, my old self. Just the thought that SHE will be returning permanently in a month's time fills me with ecstatic joy. 

I am so grateful. So thankful. 

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