I love Kwanzaa. Yesterday, I got to spend time with a group of friends who have become like family at our 5th annual Kwanzaa karamu. It’s a potluck dinner filled with kids, and adults, and elders, and lighting candles and good food…and spontaneous moments of drumming, and singing, and chanting, and remembering our ancestors. It reminds me so much of my own childhood, which was filled with poets, and musicians, and non-profit folks, and community leaders; people who would get together once a year to just be, and celebrate, and remember. As a teen, we jokingly called it the Annual Tofufest, because, you know, Black conscious folk always care about eating right. And now this teen has grown up, and it is such an honor to carry on the tradition today to a new group of children who will one day carry on the tradition in their community.
So, I’m feeling full this weekend. But let’s get to why we’re here: the sermon.
You know that I always include the lyrics of a song in my writing and sermons. Usually, they are the lyrics of a Negro Spiritual, but today I decided to do something a little different. We’re going meditate on song that came much later, still being born out of that spiritual tradition. As always, this is an interactive experience and not a performance. When I was younger I was told that singing is such an important part of the African American church tradition because singing is an African means of prayer, that songs are a way to let our prayers and thoughts find their way up to God, and we know that God had heard and answered our prayers when our bodies begin to move, and dance. So it’d be wrong of me to stop you from communicating with God. So, sing with me. Join in on the chorus or the verse, hum or ooh if you don’t know the words. And definitely, clap and tap along.
Clapped in church on Sunday morning
Played a tambourine so well
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
“Might be snakes there in that grass”
Today is December 31. It’s a special day. On our church calendar, it’s the First Sunday after Christmas. On our American calendar, it’s the last day of our calendar year, New Year’s Eve. On our family and community calendar, it’s the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Kuumba, the day of creativity. On our faith calendar, our Black Church calendar, it’s the morning of a very special night: Watch Night.
This is really rich and potent and powerful day. It’s filled with so many traditions. There are people right now scrubbing every inch of their homes to make sure no old dirt comes into the new year. There are pots of greens being prepped to bring good luck. There are candles being lit and libations being poured. And tonight, we tell stories of men, women, and children praying unceasingly on their knees while a night watchman stood over them woke and awake, eyes carefully peeled as they waited for midnight to come calling in the new year and new law; the Emancipation Proclamation which legally ended slavery on paper. And brought in a new era in our ancestors’ right and fight for freedom.
Today’s Gospel reading John 1:1-18 focuses on the light of the world that John came to testify about.
Verses 6 through 8 say, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
When I first read the verses, I thought “Am I hallucinating? We just had this sermon. Didn’t Rev Janice just give a sermon on John being witness to the light from this same book?” A quick skim through the Episcopal Church’s lectionary calendar allayed my fears. Yes, we had read about John bearing witness to the light on Dec 17, the third Sunday in Advent. We read John 1:6-8, 19-28.
So now I’m confused. I’m wondering why we retell this story?
Then I remembered my then 80 year old sociology professor Chuck Willie. Professor Willie was born in Dallas in 1927, was a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr during their Morehouse days, is an extremely active and noted lay member of the Episcopal Church, a scholar, an author, and a longtime fighter for civil rights and desegregation. Every week at Harvard, Professor Willie told the same stories over and over again in class. This fact annoyed many graduate students. Me, at first I found them charming. I love storytellers. Then it dawned on me that Professor Willie wasn’t forgetful or senile or whatever attributes people like to assign to octogenarians. He was repetitive for a reason: he wanted us to remember the stories.
His favorite story is the Noah story. He’d say something like “You know the story of Noah? It is one of the Bible’s creation stories. God called Noah to build an arc to prepare for a mighty flood. Noah brought his wife and children, and 2 of every animal onboard, then the rains came. Noah and all the inhabitants of the boat were the only survivors of that 40 day storm. They in turn, repopulated the earth.” Professor Willie often asked us to take stock of who was on the boat. We’d say “Noah, his wife, his children, and the animals. We know this story.” “Exactly,” he’d say. And then he’d end his classroom homily with this, “The world can start over without the best and the brightest.”
I heard him tell that story a lot of times. And like anytime you hear a story again and again, you may hear something different. That story kept us humble. (The world started over without the best and the brightest.) It also kept encouraged.(The world can start over without the best and the brightest.)
This time of year is filled with moments when we try to remember the story.
We grab our chins with folded arms and focused eyes staring off into space trying to recall exactly how to make that sweet potato pie crust the way our late grandmother did.
We listen with glazed eyes and burning ears to countless living room sofa lectures, I mean conversations, that start with the phrase, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” and we listen.
We scour bookshelves, attics, and closets to find that book from childhood as we nestle our favorite littles and retell our treasured stories to new ears and eyes.
Soothed a local unwed mother
Used to ache sometimes and swell
Used to lift her face and tell her,
She’d say “Baby, Grandma understands
That you really love that man
Put yourself in Jesus hands”
We tell the stories in the Bible within a cultural context of what was happening at the time. It’s why so much of the story surrounding Jesus’s birth is about the men. The shepherds. John. The wise men. These are the stories that were important at the time to put on paper. We argue about what’s missing from the story. Sometimes we’re ready to throw the story out. I’m no different. With the stories of Mary and Jesus, I wonder who taught Mary how to nurse her baby; where were the shepherds wives who showed up to feed her, change her and her baby then slip away, unspoken. What else was stashed for the baby and the mom in the travel packs of the wise men? But, as this story of John reminds us, the details are important; a fully colored story is amazing, but John also reminds us that the heart of the story–the main point is most important. Let’s refocus on the light.
That brings me to today, the context of celebrating Kwanzaa at St James Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by activist and then UCLA doctoral student Dr Maulana Karenga.
Reflecting on the holiday’s 50th Anniversary, Time magazine’s Olivia Waxman writes, “The fact that Kwanzaa was conceived in 1966 is no coincidence. The festival of lights, which is rich with symbolism, was conceived during one of darkest periods in Los Angeles’ history, during a key moment in the civil rights movement.
A key event that sparked the idea began in August of 1965, after the Watts riots, a series of clashes between police and African-Americans in the L.A. neighborhood, which left 34 dead, 1,000 injured, and $40 million worth of property damaged.”
It was a time when Los Angeles was dealing with high levels of unemployment and segregation, cuts to federal anti-poverty programs, and a lack of affordable housing. Tensions were high.
It was a time when our nation was dealing with 4 Little Black Girls killed at a church in Birmingham, the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This idea of openly celebrating Black pride after generations of having every attempt of exhibiting and celebrating pride in Africaness was stripped away. Hundreds of years of enslavement and Jim Crow laws had taken away the tribal diversity of our cousins across the water in West Africa, who speak different languages, argue over whose Joloff rice is better, and know by a glance or a name if someone is, say, Igbo or Yoruba, and instead, in the US, fused us into one tribe: Negro. Black.
The foundations of Kwanzaa were an attempt to get some of that back and also to recognize what still was there. Like our food traditions, our ways of worshiping, our music, the rhythm of our language, our childhood games, even some of our words, like “Mmm, hmm, uh-huh, and okay,” are examples of Africanness that is still here.
The 7 principles of Kwanzaa were recognized and born:
Collective Work and Responsibility.
To make a connection to our diverse African ancestry, the 7 principles were named in Swahili: Umoja, Kujichagulia. Ujima. Ujamaa. Nia. Kuumba. Imani. (As a people who were descendants of slaves who lost many languages, they decided to reclaim at least one, Swahili.)
Kwanzaa is a good time to dust off our stories. This is the season to get more details surrounding the light. Stories of 1941 when our founders couldn’t join the Episcopal Church in Austin because they were Black. Stories like the one Joan Khabele told in an episode of KLRU’s Austin Revealed, when she shares about not being allowed to swim in Barton Springs. This is the season to ask about the faces on the walls of St James, like Father Hugh, who’d tell stories about how he went being a privileged white son of the south to what he’d like to call himself, “a recovering racist,” who gave many years of service to this historical Black church. Now is our booster shot, to inoculate us with stories that will sustain us and keep us healthy for years to come, and our reminder that we need to make the time to sit and listen and remember.
Used to hand me piece of candy
Picked me up each time I fell
Boy, they really came in handy
She’d say, “Matty don’ you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core”
But I don’t have Grandma anymore
If I get to heaven I’ll look for
So what are we called to do during this time of year? John 1:16-17 reads as follows, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Each generation is open to experience both new and old things. It’s important that we keep traditions, knowing that we are not bound by them.
We know Jesus was more likely to have been born in the spring closer to when the census was taken, yet we celebrate every year in December because it fit in better in our cultural context of celebrations around this time of year. We can choose to argue about the history and semantics of the date, and trees, and Santa. Or we can focus on the light. A child was born during extreme adversity, and grew up to be someone who forever changed the world as we knew it. And there are those who to told the story.
Focus on the light.
We can argue about what tradition looks like, for example, whether or not we should put salt or sugar in grits–the correct answer is salt.
We put ham hocks in the pot to season our greens. Or we change it to smoked turkey wings. Or evolve to a generation that keeps things meat free. What’s important is telling the story of our ancestors who turned limited, throwaway rations like ham bones with little meat into a culinary feat that fed many. What’s important, is that during Kwanzaa we are encouraged to reach further back and make the connection that greens and black eye peas are a foodways that we began eating on the other side of the Atlantic well before the Middle Passage.
Focus on the light.
Kwanzaa may or may not be a part of our individual context. We are a diverse congregation, in ethnicity, race, and places of origin. And lest we forget, that while some in the world, due to so many years of trying erase details, may see one color as they look in: Black, we, who are looking out into the world, see a myriad of shades of brown and black, and tones and experiences rich and diverse. What I mean is our Blackness is celebrated and lived in many different ways. We don’t all celebrate Kwanzaa.
And yes, there are some painful stories that go along with the beautiful ones that make up the legacy of Dr Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa.
But whether we formally light the candles symbolizing the Nguzo Saba, or attend a public ceremony, or eschew the practice altogether, the seven principles of Kwanzaa stand on their own and are things that we should strive to live (repeat after me):
Collective Work and Responsibility.
Focus on the light.
We may chose to change our church or church traditions. With music. Without. Contemporary. Traditional. But Bill Withers‘ song reminds us of the beauty of old hands that “played the tambourine so well,” and we picture the pew and sound and the joy and passion and heartache and prayers that went into every hit, and strike, and shake, and we recall this is why we came to church. It is for that feeling and light that fills us.
Focus on the light.
One day soon soon, we will walk into the narthex of St James and see pieces of artwork, hand carved, and hand stamped by our own Arleen Polite; artwork that will embody the seven principles of Kwanzaa. They will be hung adjacent to the photos of our founders of St James. But donating money for the artwork to be installed, or being here to celebrate it is not the end of your to do list. Your job is to be able to tell the stories behind those images.
Tell the stories of this church. Tell the stories of East Austin. Tell the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. Tell the stories of your family. Tell the stories of your neighbor.
Tell those stories, seek those stories, read those stories, and listen to those stories, again and again.
And when we ask ourselves “why are we reading or listening to this story again?” we will remember that some things bear repeating.