Late Thursday night, I was in the middle of a rocking revival service for one of the oldest churches in Columbus: The Old Ship of Zion. The church was founded in 1900 by the Rev. James E. Bellamy, son of Columbus slaves. Did I mention this is a fictional church and I was watching a play rehearsal?
"The Old Ship of Zion" opens for a two-week run at the National Civil War Naval Museum this Friday. It follows the last members of a historic church in present-day Columbus, as they wade through personal trials of health, loss and identity, all while working to save their dying congregation with an unforgettable revival service.
When I began writing the play back in 2007, I visited many of Columbus's traditional black churches for research and inspiration. Unique as they are, each takes pride in its rich, storied legacy.
Take First African Baptist church, for instance. V.J. Roberts, TSYS specialist and an actress in the "Old Ship" cast, is a member at F.A.B. and proudly celebrated the church's 174th anniversary last Sunday. Quite an age, isn't it? Twenty-five years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves that worshipped alongside the members of (what was eventually) First Baptist Church inherited the old building when the white membership moved into a new one. First African Baptist was born.
F.A.B. now operates out of a different building on Fifth Avenue, one they moved into in 1915. V.J. and her husband, Oz, invited my family to worship with them for Easter this year. It was a lovely experience. The service was warm, impassioned and steeped in the black gospel tradition. After service, the children took a group Easter photo outside the church. This is a custom at F.A.B. that is probably older than all of those kids combined. It moved me to watch my daughter participate in the group photo, knowing she was stepping into a yearbook that extends
back generations. It was readily apparent to me that this church has enormous respect, both consciously and unconsciously, for its legacy.
Legacy is an important tool of progress. It gives a community or family a sense of identity, rootedness and confidence to push on.
Alternatively, legacy is capable of stagnating a community's growth.
To that end, I am concerned about the longevity of the traditional black church in an increasingly progressive world.
Many churches work to keep up with modern times, but the black church -- with its history of social justice and our continual emphasis on its unforgettable impact on society, as if its heyday is only in the past and not the future -- seems under unique stress to stay relevant to its community.
I applaud those churches that are encouraging dialogue about topics and issues that challenge and complicate the historic status quo. When new ideas are exchanged in a spirit of love and respect, community and relevance exist in fullness and power.
What do you think about the future of the traditional church in the modern world?
Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent correspondent. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @cafeaulazy.