By way of my mother, the deacon with the slick gray hair and money
clip in his pocket can claim a percentage of my body like tithe rights.
And on this Sunday, as with every other Sunday, he is a slender
ebony panel in the fence of faith, one man in the company of men
standing shoulder to shoulder in suits, tapping their toes, clapping
their hands, putting muscle to work in the making of praise music.
We Baptists call this devotion, my working definition of which
is faithfulness to the light. To the extent that God is as white
as the clouds of heaven, this theory holds. To the extent these
particular men are dark, I must consider other possibilities:
that God remade himself in my image so that we could be closer
or that devotion means the commitment of black men to stand
with one another, form a barricade of soldiers against anything
as necessary, the Lord being the force holding them fast in line.
It isn’t always easy for me to see these explanations as separate:
any film, any photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march,
with his position centered in a line of bodies covering the entire width
of the frame — if I take a wide view of that scene, I see the Lord at
work. If I zoom in, on a single person or the breach between two, I see
no trace of the Lord at all, a hint that He can’t exist in small spaces.
And what’s more, consider this:
say Chicago PD pulls a long line of youths into the precinct for
photographs — all of them dark, all of them wearing the same colors —
and stands them shoulder to shoulder. Zoom in: nothing. Zoom out:
the Lord? Why not? There’s clearly commitment there, devotion.
They’re all definitely soldiers, on the battlefield for something:
maybe it’s white, maybe it’s green, maybe it’s a colorless
feeling. I’ve got no good answers, only darkness. I’m still trying
to decipher if it means anything that Dr. King lived in Vice
Lords territory when he spent ’66 in Chicago, that the words
“vice” and “Lord” are affiliates, homeboys, next-door neighbors.
I think about their coming up together in the mind of a boy
living on that side of town, a percentage of his body, perhaps,
claimed as a tax; I can’t shake this feeling that when he throws his
muscles into praise music, when sound leaves his precious mouth,
people scatter. I can’t help but believe our songs, to one another,
would be familiar, church family:
I am on the battlefield for my Lord
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord
and I promised Him that I
would serve Him till I die
till I die, till I die, till I die