Besides making me angry and sad, the recent burnings of three historically African American churches in St. Landry Parish brought back memories, some great and some painful, but all grounded in love of the black church.
By my grandmother’s edict and by my choice, too, I was in somebody’s church every Sunday. Religion was one thing, but without a TV and having no siblings around, church was a place for me to be with people.
Church didn’t start out as a truly spiritual or educational institution for me. I didn’t focus a lot on the preaching. I zeroed in on the minister who chewed tobacco and who would stop intermittently to fire a missile of tobacco spit into a spittoon on the side of the preaching stand.
I would drag my grandmother as close to the front as possible. She didn’t know I wanted to be there so I could see if one of those spit rockets would miss the spittoon and hit one of the women in white, seated at the front. It never happened.
I was attending Vacation Bible School at that church in the summer of my sixth birthday when I disobeyed my grandmother. She told me to go home and stay there after VBS ended. She had to go to catch a bus to Big Charity in New Orleans for her checkup.
Instead, I got my prized butter cookies and a cup of punch at the end of VBS and marched merrily into the street headed to my cousin’s house. I was hit by a car and left with injuries to my head, arms and legs. Lesson learned.
When I was 8 years old, I had a huge thirst for knowledge, which the church helped quench. There, I was hearing about this black guy, Martin Luther King, and how black people were marching for their civil rights, whatever that was.
Then the news: four little black girls were blown apart in a bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
I was confused as to why people would kill children or blow up a church. I even wondered why the Lord let it happen. Could it happen to me? As I got older, I understood that was the point. Those cowards and their crew wanted people like me to be afraid.
The milksops in Birmingham, and those who burned black churches during the 1950s, 1960s and later, knew that those buildings were power houses of the community. Most of them were places to talk politics, education and the latest news affecting black folks.
The dummies didn’t realize that what they were doing was galvanizing a community and hardening a group of African-American youth who would grow up to take the mantle of civil rights and run with it faster and more determined than their forefathers.
A staple of the black churches was the discipline and education they fostered on its youth. You had to read Scripture in Sunday school, and sometimes the instructor would correct you and have you read it again. There would be discussion about what the verses meant. You didn’t just read; you had to think, too. That’s education.
If the Sunday school teacher noticed you had the aptitude for reading, you would be selected to be “on program” to speak to the church. And, at least at my churches, you didn’t read “your part.” Instead you had to do it by heart, meaning you spent all week memorizing what you had been assigned to say.
And there was discipline. You didn’t speak out of turn. There was a lot of “Yes, Ma’am” and “Yes, Sir.” Any other response could result in a long stare that drove home the message that the last word coming out of your mouth soon would be “Ma’am” or “Sir.”
The church was also the place where you heard about the news affecting black people both locally and around the country, and what black people should be considering politically. It was a weekly civics and current affairs class.
How much did black folks believe in the importance of the church? Two people put their houses up as collateral 100 years ago to complete construction of New St. John Baptist Church, which I attend now. I’m told that happened at a lot of the old black churches.
The son of a sheriff's deputy was arrested this week for the St. Landry church burnings. I hope anyone responsible for such a crime realizes the futility of it. Those churches will return.
Here’s hoping the person or persons responsible will have a discussion with the ghosts of those four little Birmingham girls, or with the spirits of those old soldiers in Christ who risked everything to help build those churches.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at email@example.com.