Sunday evening I had the privilege of sharing a moment in the amazing cabaret performance “Rev. Yolanda’s Gospel Hour” at the Duplex on Christopher Street in NYC. Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes is a performance artist and social critic and deeply gifted singer songwriter…a man in a dress, joyously singing the Good News.The core of Roger’s message is about love. ..and about his faith and his journey to express the full range of his gender expression. It is an inspiring show, and he is an inspiring person.
The story I told in my section was about the different layers of meaning in the slave songs, which used the metaphor of the biblical Exodus story and various cues to send instructions about the Underground Railroad. Wade in the Water is one such song. While referring on the surface to the biblical book of John telling of the angel “troubling the waters” to turn them into a healing stream, the undercurrent, or meta message- was a warning to step into the water when running from the slave masters, so that the bloodhounds would lose the scent. They were sung in plain day, but a revolutionary message was being sung.
In 1965, Jose Sarria, a gay man who lived in San Francisco, CA sang at The Black Cat, a rather famous gay bar. He incorporated similar hints and instructions through his lyrics…warning people in a cabaret about news of raids on gathering places of gay people. He was using the creativity of the oppressed, who are not smashed into silence by their condition, but are able to find a song to sing which frees their soul, and ministers to others at the same time. Mother Jose, later founded the Imperial Court, which is one of the largest philanthropic ongoing organizations in the U.S.
This double meaning is the root of the power of much of gospel music. It isn’t about just feel in’ good. It is about resisting the silencing of those who would muzzle and accessing the power of the Spirit right out loud, which is the very Ruach, the breath of life.
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, in his recent book, “God, Gays and Guns; Essays on Religion and the Future of Democracy”, makes the analogy which so many in the African American church have vociferously denied- between the oppression of citizens of color in the U.S., and the continued oppression of LGBTQ persons. With his roots in the historic black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, Rev. Sekou is in a unique position to bring this critique forward. He spoke recently at West Park Presbyterian Church in NYC, with Dr. Cornell West, and these two intellectual giants unpacked this idea that LGBTQ persons have become the new n-word…the latest sub group of U.S. society to be ok to torment and oppress. And these two African American intellectuals were able to discuss what I as a white woman can only say with measured breath…that it is appalling that the connection between the oppression of people of color and LGBTQ persons is hotly denied by many in the black church. And that not only denial but active harm is being done “in the name of Jesus”, to so many young people in that community who dare not allow the full flowering of their individuality to come forth. The risk of ostracism, condemnation and worse is simply too great.
And so as I stood on the stage of the duplex, and looked into the beautiful faces of the gathered group of Sanctuary NYC members and many new friends, I felt a sense of great hope. I was honored to be performing, if even for a second, with Rev. Yolanda and her amazing band. And I felt God all over that place. Fifty years ago the gathering would have been illegal. As with slave gatherings for worship in the brush arbor, the gathering was so recently punishable by arrest or worse, that the feeling of doing something secret is still present. Meeting, like in the praise houses in the middle of a field of cotton, to re-fuel for the week spent in a world in which “freedom-to-be” isn’t yet a full reality, the place was packed and the joy was tangible.
Right down the street from the place where the Stonewall riot burst forth in 1969, a diverse group of straight, LGBTQ, African American, Latino, European …whatever… All God’s Children-were loudly singing along to “I Come to the Garden Alone”, And ‘Just A Closer walk With Thee” and “How Great Thou Art” Harmonies rang out. Faces gleamed with the joy of praising a connection to a God who loves…And I could see these same folk as children…some of them the most devout and serious lovers of God, in their churches at a Sunday evening hymn sing in Kentucky or Missouri…We all knew all the words. And Rev. Yolanda brought us together, in high heels and a fabulous wig and a heart filled with love- to get our shout on. We had church.