Reclaiming Our Ancestors' Spirituality, Virtually | Sojourners

Reclaiming Our Ancestors' Spirituality, Virtually

I grew up in the Baptist tradition, surrounded by the hymns and prayers of my elders. But I’ve recently come to a new understanding of a song my great aunt would sing: “Put a little oil in your vessel, keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” The song was a warning to the congregation to be “ready when the bride and groom come.” But as a child, I had no idea “Put Oil in Your Vessel” — like many other hymns — offered our enslaved ancestors both melodies of Jesus' prophetic return and instructions for escaping slavery. Like Black people, Black faith is multidimensional.

The lyrics also provided spiritual guidance on how to work an actual oil lamp for manifestation — the bringing forth of energy of blessings or protection in the Black spiritual tradition of hoodoo. Enslaved Africans created the secret system of hoodoo as a way to claim their spirituality and physically protect their families. The sacred tradition is based upon Black lineage and regional geography.

In a violent world, our Black ancestors conjured together a brilliant and all-encompassing faith system at the intersection of hoodoo, traditional African religions, and Christianity. In a way, it’s a spiritual technology, so to speak, culminating the unique and differing spiritual experiences and knowledge of Black people.

Like the words of my great aunt's song, which both preserved and obscured a sacred tradition, hoodoo has been simultaneously present and hidden within the Black church, but with the pandemic, online spaces and churches have helped bring this tradition to new audiences, while also creating safe spaces for those who’ve long understood its genius and healing power. For many newcomers, this communal experience has felt like a returning, even if they never knew they were lost.

A recent study from Pew research found that Black people are more religious than any other demographic in the United States, but Black millennials and Gen Zers are still less religious than their Black elders. Younger Black people have begun leaving the church, interrogating the ethics and theology of the Black church and the Christian religion in which they were raised.

With concern for the pandemic prohibiting many churches from reopening, worship has shifted to online spaces. Online worship has not only made it safer to attend church, but also to church hop, enabling folks to find preachers and theologies that resonate with their spirit.

Lyvonne Briggs, an ordained Pentecostal minister and a licensed Baptist minister, runs the online church The Proverbial Experience. The church, which has grown to have over 200 people tuning in weekly, began on April 5, 2020, about a month after the pandemic forced churches to close their physical doors. Every Sunday morning, Briggs livestreams the service on her Instagram page at 11:11 — which Briggs sees as an “angel number” — and then saves the recording to her page. The Proverbial Experience is simultaneously available on Instagram and the new online platform Clubhouse, an audio-based networking app that allows you to talk and listen to people from anywhere.

“Over the course of my theological education, attending African-centered churches in Atlanta, [and] starting to activate and reclaim my own African spiritual practices, I started to see that I didn’t want to just celebrate being African in the month of February. I wanted to experience an ancestral wisdom that went beyond the Black National Anthem,” Briggs told Sojourners. “No shade to the Negro national anthem — shout out to James Weldon Johnson — but there’s more to it than that. Our story did not start with the civil rights movement. Our religion did not start with chattel slavery. I was like, ‘What happened before?’ And as my own individual practices started to evolve, there was this blending that happened.”

The blending can be seen from the start of Briggs' service every Sunday, when she pours libation for the Creator, the ancestors, the higher self or crown chakra, and the orisha (the deities of the Yoruba people). Her sermons, which are preached from the Bible, are sex-positive and center the stories of people who are Black, LGBTQ, and women. Praise and worship at The Proverbial Experience can range from the sounds of Rihanna to Mahalia Jackson. On a recent Sunday, praise and worship came from the sounds of Nina Simone’s, “Take Me To The Water” and ended with a tarot message for grounding. Briggs said she felt led to incorporate tarot after being introduced to the practice at a women’s retreat in Bali in 2018. Briggs uses tarot cards in conjunction with moon deck oracle cards, both tools for connecting with spirit and intuition.

True to the Black church’s tradition of after-service fellowship in dining halls, basements, or parking lots, The Proverbial Experience invites attendees to a Zoom call for a virtual fellowship after the service ends. The Zoom call, which Briggs calls the Proverbial Afterglow, is a space where congregants can come and reflect on the service and connect with others.

Andrea Pressley, a children's meditation instructor, has been attending The Proverbial Experience for a year and is planning to begin facilitating meditations for the Proverbial children’s church on the @thesunshineprojectkid page. Pressley recalled how folks used to have to travel to find Black spaces, like the juke joint in The Color Purple. She believes the use of livestreaming has helped Briggs reach new people. “You ain’t got to travel to get to this juke joint; just click onto your computer and you’re out here with your people,” Pressley said.

Reimagining a weaponized religion

Every other Sunday, Hakim “Keem” Pitts leads a similar blend of African traditions and old-time “slave religion” on Clubhouse, called “Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs: Slave Religion for an Impossible World.” Pitts is a child of warrior deity Ogun and an aleyo (a non-initiated practitioner) in the Yoruba-Lukumi religion. Soon, he will be ordained and initiated into the mysteries of that Orisa. The room is a rich sound scape where Black people are welcomed to “sing, testify, moan, and gather,” as they “keep on running to see what the end gon’ be.”

Pitts begins service with song and reverence to the spiritual deities he respects. He then invites all who are willing to come on the audio stage and introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns and either give testimony through words, scripture, or song. Those who join the room are invited to come onstage and sing, moan, and cry as long as they are led by Spirit and act, as 1 Corinthians 14:40 instructs, in decency and order with the flow and participants within the room.

Pitts created the space for Black people who practice and honor traditional African religions, all the while tapping into the connection and religion of the brilliant, enslaved ancestors.

Although many see Christianity as a tool that was used to weaponize Black people into submission, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs shows how our Black ancestors used those same Christian tools to rebuke institutional racism.

“Black religion and spiritual traditions do not cohere to religion; it doesn’t fit neatly within it because it can’t be held in those ways,” Pitts said. “I gave my life to Jesus when I was nine; I remember being changed, I remember something happening to me [and] that is true. That is my story. It is also true that I am a practitioner — an orisha devotee. I believe in the ancestors and I have seen them move in my life. When I say, ‘I am saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost,’ I recognize I’m using vernacular, knowing that my understanding of it is not the same as someone else’s.”

Pitts believes that those who come to Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs with an open mind and spirit are able to tap into this dual knowledge. “When Keem decided to do the room I was initially dubious,” said Tea Angles, who is a founder and creator of a Black-owned and operated spiritual apothecary.

“We all carry this kind of wound that comes from these interruptions that happened to our ancestors — whether it was the interruption of transatlantic slavery or the interruption of Christianity,” Angles said. She started as just an observer in the room but was called on by Pitts to read a prayer from the book I Hear Olofi’s Song: A Collection of Yoruba Prayers for Egun and Orisa. After a few visits, she had “a very emotional experience.” In her words, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs “is built on care that is built on Blackness.”

Pitts is no newbie to creating safe spaces for people to congregate and receive the blessings and resources they need. Alongside his best friend, Jade T. Perry — curator of The Churchy Mystic — Pitts has created online spaces for Black, queer, and disabled people in the past. “I’ve been about this digital spiritual work for like a while, but it wasn’t anything to talk about because it was private and we were doing community work.”

For Pitts, community work involves ensuring that Black, queer, and disabled communities have a safe space to exist and honor their ancestors, spirit, and lineage. Although Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs utilizes certain tools identified as Christian, it is not a church or a Christian space. It is a blend of both Christian tools from the religion of Black enslaved ancestors and African traditional spiritualism, and although some may find those practices contradictory, it makes sense to worshippers.

“African traditional religions honor the traditions they come from,” said Pitts.

During a time when in-person church hasn’t been safe, these online spaces have been offering space for both worship and education on the true essence of ancestry, lineage, spirituality, and Blackness. That’s where the true liberation lies.

X