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The #ChurchyMystic: Blackchurch Ritual & Healing Possibility

These days, when people ask me about mysticism, ritual, or healing practices, I can tell that they are looking for something very specific. I know this because there is a mystical “come-up” happening on social media forums like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook – and I’m here for it (to the degree that it doesn’t appropriate & desecrate other sociocultural-spiritual practices). This pattern of moving towards more contemplation – of the self, of the stars in astrology, of tarot cards & intuitive healing arts – is something that I celebrate. When I’m working with a client, we may even discuss or use some of these modalities. It is hardly a secret that I read tarot cards for intuitive coaching, got attuned to reiki, and certainly know how to work my way around crystals & herbs. All of this, I learned along the way and become ever-proficient. But to be clear, my first initiation into mysticism & the contemplative came from experiences in and around the Black, charismatic, mystically-centered (“Spirit-led” is the lexicon most used in these spaces where there is potential for the mystical), church.

My family of origin are church goers to this day – although I lapsed in regular attendance years ago. Each week of my formative years were punctuated by our visits to the all-day affair that was Sunday church service. Each Sunday the ushers would give us fresh, warm copies of the program. Yet, our pastoral leadership (like many in Black charismatic church spaces) referred to the program as more of a living document or merely suggestions for our time together – because “Spirit* was not bound to a program”.

This reorienting of time meant that if something spontaneous, fascinating, or unexplainable happened, we would give free space to see it through. When used with integrity & the absence of White, Western, imperialistic, repressive theology – it seemed that practices of healing were made more possible.

I don’t believe that I’m the only one whose noticed that deep practices of intuitive listening, personal contemplation, personal connection to the Divine, as well as guided rituals, and varied healing modalities (e.g. energy healing through consenting touch, sound baths, intuitively led conversations). This occurs despite the often restrictive theologies which present in these spaces.

A few questions emerge from that understanding:

  • How do those of us who understand this specific tradition & are attuned to the mysticism in these places – eat the meat and spit out the bones” (to quote some of my Gramma’s wisdom)?

Moreover…

  • How do we embrace the contemplative & mystical practices of the Black charismatic church in ways that help us to deconstruct repressive theology and the suppression of our identities?

One of the things that I think scholar & friend, Ashon Crawley, does beautifully in his book BlackPentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility is digging deeper into the possibilities of some of these practices. I’m particularly struck by his notion of the musicians in these spaces playing “nothingness” music – a padding of sound that erupts during certain spaces in service e.g. altar call, transitions, pastoral reflections. The musicians improvise with lulling chords which in turn encourages contemplation in the parishioners in the spaces of those sounds – rather than the ‘silence model’ so typically espoused in Western contemplative circles & schools of thought. (Seriously, get Ashon’s book).

My work here (and beyond) is to interrogate the following:

  • How do we embrace the contemplative, mystical, and intuitive practices of the Black charismatic church – as re-imagined, expansive, & important healing modalities to be used with the utmost integrity?   

I’m also ever-pondering my own questions around these practices and how we use them to help each other heal. (Healing, as I’m defining it here, includes deeper understanding, compassion, and integration of any disparate / disembodied / fragmented pieces of the whole Self; to bring into deeper balance with Self & others). 

For example, might it be possible that these chords act in the same ways that sound baths do? In those sonic spaces or ‘pauses in service’, does the vibration of sound act to soothe us & ground us again after highly intense spiritual experiences? I believe so.

For example, in the practices of consensually laying hands on someone who is feeling fragmented or disembodied, there remains the possibility of reminding someone how to feel safe within their bodies and to embrace the limitlessness of their soul. There is even the possibility, with directed intention, integrity, and much practice to facilitate energy healing within someone’s auric field (that is – to use consensual touch to detect where there might be imbalances or blockages to their highest potential & to assist that person in letting go of blockages, tensions, burdens that now have an energetic ‘life’ in someone’s personal space). I got this in the hugs that the church mothers would give. The guides & mothers that combined integrity, consensual embracing with directed intention often gave the back rub, the touch, or even the extension of hands through prayer that made me feel physically and energetically ‘lighter’ – more integrated & comfortable with myself, the Divine, & others.

Is it possible to look at ‘speaking in tongues’ as improvisational & intuitive sound-making? If so, it may work toward the end of intuitively communicating a reality in the space where language has failed us. We might open up the possibility that ‘speaking in tongues’ becomes a healing method to help both speaker & community feel seen & understood BEYOND words. Through intuitive improvisation, the practitioners offer sonic metaphors for inexplicable grief, joy, ecstasy, consummation, tension, and energy. The art itself – varying pitch, arrangement, and delivery of ‘tongues’ – creates a self expression that heals both the practitioner & the parishioner. (In my personal life, a connecting metaphor is that there are some healing modalities – reiki, for example – that work to also heal YOU as you practice for others). This practice is HIGHLY dependent on context & community – so it is not my recommendation to bill this as a ‘service’ in an ‘intuitive healing suite’. (I mention this lightly & jokingly but the thing is…)

It does not feel like such a tall order to acknowledge that many of the threads of the Black charismatic ‘Spirit-led’ church has hints and reminders of culturally specific, historical understandings of healing. It does not feel strange (to me) to acknowledge that so many in the lineage of the Black church were also root workers, mystics, and conjurers of various levels of integrity & power (see much of Dr. Yvonne Chireau’s work). In some of our ancestry, that work morphed into practice through ‘socially acceptable’ modes within the life of the church (e.g. healing prayers, divination through opening up Bible text to “see where it lands”, faith healings, spontaneous & intuitive ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’, etc).

I want us, ESPECIALLY us mystics who have come from the Black church, to look deeply into these practices and to deconstruct them to see if there is any fruit that may be yielded. Is there a way to re-imagine the ritual, detox from repressive theology, and unpack healing art or story in the overall experience?

To be continued… 

Until then, let me know your thoughts!

 

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – The Devil is in the Unknown

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Let me tell you about one of my favorite people on this side of the sphere: Ebony Janice of the Free People project. In addition to her vlogsjustice work, and philanthropy, Ebony Janice is the author of a few books. #PutyourfriendsonFriday

The point is that in one of these books she coins the term #ChristianDemonicFilter. This is the notion that everything that is not EXPLICITLY in the Bible with EXPLICIT EXPLICITNESS in all EXPLICITRY… is not just unknown… it’s demonic.

And anyone who grow up under the influence of folks who interpreted the Bible literally knows exactly what I’m talking about:

Under this type of teaching, you begin to (either ignorantly or arrogantly) think that the only acceptable spiritual practices happen within the confines of Evangelical Christianity.
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This post is not intended to debate on whether malevolent forces are real. It’s to share a personal understanding: the devil, demons, and / or malevolent forces are not involved in every thing we do not OR willingly refuse to… understand.

When I was in high school, there was a “minister” who came to prominence by the name of G. Craig Lewis and Ex Ministries. In high school Bible study, we watched one of Lewis’ dvds (lol) in which he posited that hip hop music & artists were demonic. As in… literally transferring demons through our “ear gate”.

Ya’ll think I’m kidding. I can feel it through the computer screen. Yes, this is a real dude. Yes, he really taught such drivel. And yes… this was the topic of an entire high school Bible study. #IdontlooklikewhatIbeenthrough (LOL).

It seems far-fetched now, but I can see how this type of teaching came to prominence at the time. It was the time where everything, anything could be cause to cry out “Demonic”! And unfortunately, some of this rhetoric still persists. It often confounds me.

For more on this, consult Bartlett’s 2006 work, Rachel Pollack’s 1998 work, and Katz & Goodwin’s 2015 works (to name a few).

As a note, if it was not clear, these same spaces are where some of our chakra centers are!

Given this logic, we could also have an entire conversation here on the ideas of cultural arrogance / dominance that comes from Christian religious privilege. Because these are practices that have also been in place for thousands of years. For now, I will say that this is a thing… and folks have to do better about acknowledging it – and fixing it.

According to this logic, there are thousands of trap doors – thousands of levers that the enemy can pull. So, as you can imagine, this gives way to a dominating fear… a fear that renders people incapable of exploring anything outside of their own understandings of the Bible (oooorrr their pastor’s understanding).

This simply wasn’t a sustainable way to live for me. The concept was toxic because it bred fear, constant penance, and even a bit of arrogance. And this is not the type of person, I believe, we are actualized in the earth to be.

I’ve benefited from a variety of spiritual practices through the years but in the past 3 years I have been increasingly vocal about it. My friends will tell you, if you come into my home with low vibes… we’re doing an aura cleansing at the door. Saging or burning palo santo happens at least once a week in my home and as we speak, my crystal is charged to assist me in the work I’m doing on my crown chakra.

I’ve learned to sit in meditation and it’s absolutely necessary and non-negotiable for me to do this. It calms me, grounds me, helps me remember why I’m here. And I do all of this in addition to prayer and other forms of charismatic spiritual practice I grew up with in the nondenominational (but Pentecostal-leaning) Black church (the irony is that those things aren’t spelled out literally in the Bible either… they are a product of cultural / ancestral lineage i.e. shouting, “catching” the Holy Ghost, etc). These aren’t necessarily “new” practices for me – it’s simply that for a while, I had to go through the process of being unbothered. It is through pursuing these practices that I have found no slippery slope – simply more expressions of & languages for the Divine / G-d in my life!

This year, I decided to fully embrace the things that once caused me inordinate (and unnecessary) amounts of fear. I decided to trust that God was within me; that God would guide to me the things that served me… and away from the things that would harm me. This year, I decided to pursue the “spiritual technologies” that called out to me the most (Lomax, 2016).

Through reading & speaking with various ministers & healers, I also began to understand a bit more about my social location as a Black American Christian. Perhaps you can imagine my *mind-blown* moment, when I realized that in a not-so-distant-past, Black ministers were often diviners as well. There was room for spiritual syncretism (and there still is, in many traditions). For example, in the 1997 text Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic, Chireau unpacks:

“For generations, magic has persisted in black culture, often obscured but deemed compatible with other spiritual traditions. Its widespread appeal is attested to by numerous accounts describing conjuring relics, supernatural rituals…among African American churchgoers. From slavery days to the present, practitioners and clients of the magical arts have moved freely across ecclesial boundaries, drawing copiously from the symbols and language of Christianity”. (p. 226)

Yet, given all this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked “But are you still ‘saved’ (in the Evangelical sense)”  more than enough this year. I’ve realized that this question is not necessarily about me and that it is, to some level, socialized into people. On an individual level, there will be (and are) practices that we may be uncomfortable with. However, I think it’s time to (at least) consider that there’s toxicity in believing that everything unknown, unexplored through evangelical Christian lenses or fundamental Christian lenses = demonic.

Read the rest of the ‘toxic concepts’ series here.

Additional Resources:

Yvonne Patricia Chireau. (1997). “Conjure And Christianity In The 19th Century: Religious Elements In African American Magic”. Religion And American Culture. Volume 7, Issue 2. 225-246. http://works.swarthmore.edu/fac-religion/38

Lomax, T. A. (2016). “Technology of Living” Toward a Black Feminist Religious Thought. The Black Scholar, 46(2), 19-32.