THE CHOIR AT Lexington, Kentucky’s Imani Missionary Baptist Church is revving up for worship, focusing on things above as the cry of the organ and dissonant blues riffs of the piano fill the large, modern sanctuary. The director gives Cathy Rawlings the signal, and she strolls out in front. As they launch into the spiritual “I’m Glad,” she closes her eyes and offers up a silent prayer. Satisfied, she takes the microphone and begins to recite a poem, “The Creation” by famed Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
Published in 1920 and written as a tribute to African-American religious oratory, “The Creation” occupies a hallowed place in black American culture. In the poem, God seems to take on the style of a black preacher, walking around, emphasizing specific syllables, and pausing for breath at particular points during the creation story.
People across the sanctuary are responding to Rawlings’ impassioned rendition, lifting their hands and interspersing her pauses with shouts of praise. By the time she comes to the part where God breathes life into humanity, “Like a mammy bending over her baby,” many are in tears. Even with long experience in music and on the stage, Rawlings herself is overcome with emotion.
“It’s just hard to get through it without just breaking down,” she recalls later, “without just shouting and rejoicing, because God is real.” She shakes her head as punctuation. “This is not a play. God is real.”