Tribute

A few years ago, on my first ever trip to the USA to visit my bro in Brooklyn, I made a point of seeking out some ‘real deal’ gospel music as I’m a big fan of its raw energy and not least, the Message underpinning that energy.  Also, for reasons I don’t fully understand but possibly to do with various personal struggles, I feel a certain empathy with what’s generally referred to as “black history”.  Being from a middle class rural English background that might seem a bit odd to some but meh, as my kids say.

2008 ish. It’s a sunny March Sunday morning in the ubiquitously brown-painted Brooklyn streets, freezing cold and I’m jet-lagged, looking for a place to experience church USA-style.  I ask an old lady outside the Brown (obviously) Memorial Baptist Church what time their service is and it’s in half an hour.  Did I want to come on in Sir?  Sir. Wow! That’s new.

We go inside an architectural classic with upper balcony and the bespectacled Lily tells me I’m welcome and asks where I’m from. All the while the place is starting to fill up with these beautifully, fearsomely, immaculately turned-out women in crimped, feathered hats and smiling guys in suits and glinting cufflinks.

Fifteen minutes later there are a few hundred or so souls in the place and it’s surely only a matter of seconds before Whoopi Goldberg comes in to sit behind me.  Here, suddenly, is one drawn-looking Anglo-Saxon among a sea of colour, being welcomed by all those around as though I’m just another guy, which … I am. But this is the USA anyway and nobody here has that British reserve, reserved specially for “the outsider” do they?

There is a tradition in most churches, to acknowledge visitors, so it is a little strange to be asked to “Stand up if y’all a visitor here today, we all wanna welcome you to God’s house”.  I oblige in a pathetic attempt to not be noticed too much. I mean, isn’t it a little bit obvious as I am the only white face in here?  And then a realisation.  God, seriously!  This country really is still segregated isn’t it?  In London there would be at least a few other white or other ethnic faces.  I hope this is a one-off Sunday but suspect not.

Then, oh Glory! The music strikes up.  I swear, I’ve never seen a keyboard player before who was actually as wide as the keyboard and whose giant, fat hands are as nimble as those of a seamstress.  In the past I’ve devoured ‘The Color Purple’, Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’, Mississippi Burning and anything to do with injustice.  Now, I’m tired, far from home, hearing my favourite music and being reminded of a special time being sung to in full Dolby surround sound by an exuberant crowd in Rwanda.  Where, oh where did you get a chord sequence like that from people?  One more button gets pressed and I will end up looking very daft indeed attempting something I’ve never done in my life – dancing.  (I’ve always maintained that I’m more than capable of making an idiot of myself;  I just don’t feel compelled to do it to music.)

The preaching begins; slowly and deliberately structured, by a sober and wise man. But you just know that tone is going to rise to a crescendo of Hallelujahs and sure enough, ten minutes in as he is yelling, “I want someone to say Amen-uh and walk down the red carpet with me-yuh. Who’s gonna walk down the red carpet with me-yuh?”  Lily turns round to me to smile proudly saying, “That’s my pastor… he wants someone to walk down the red carpet with him”.

“I know!” I nod enthusiastically.

Fast forward to 2012 and a boy called Trayvon is, on the face of it, murdered for being black. It happens too often everywhere.  Chances are if you are reading this, you’re not likely to be a gun-wielding, racist vigilante, but in case you are… whatever your skin tone, you were never designed to handle a gun so you probably won’t be able to handle the consequences of using one.  It has to stop.  If you want to protect your community, start singing.  Dance if you want. I’ll even join you if it means saving a life!

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