Just the other day, I attended a funeral at an African American church. Like most attendees of funerals, I was going to show respect for the grieving family I had come to love. Well, you have heard the old joke: I went to see a fight, and a hockey match broke out. In an odd way, that is what occurred to me.
I had emergency patients to see at my medical practice and traffic on the road was slow. It was only a sense of obligation that kept me moving; little thought given to the fact that it was I who needed to be there, for myself. I arrived just as the service began. In a way similar to the above jest, I attended a funeral and a worship service broke out.
So many things struck me: First, the congregation was not happy, but they had immense joy. Second, they treated the body in the coffin with a kind of reverential dismissal; an emphasis that the ‘remains’ were just that: a former habitation of a spirit that they all still loved, and that this spirit still existed. The joy was animated by the certainty that this death was merely a transition from life into reward; as well, the certainty of ultimate reunion with this loved one. Yes, I have attended Christian funerals where the same elements presided, but never had they been so manifest.
Another interesting revelation came to me: this 90 year matriarch had a large pyramid of family descended from her. These people were accorded the respect appropriate for any bereaved family. Yet, an even greater emphasis was placed on this woman’s spiritual descendants; people who, but for her influence, would not have followed a righteous path, not experienced a life suffused with joy. One got the feeling that had they all been present they would have tested the capacity of Vatican City’s largest cathedral.
I went to the service from a sense of duty; came away blessed (means ‘made happy many times over’) beyond measure. I had attended a farewell consecration; a celebration of a life well lived.
In recording this, I know that I run the risk of spiritual racial profiling. I wrote this anyway, knowing that readers will be divided into those who already understand and those who possibly never will understand. I believe the African American Christian community has a superior grasp on the gospel message: the duality of body and spirit; the doctrine of sin and forgiveness; more critical, the difference between happiness and joy. I believe that African American Christians permit a deeper application of their faith into their everyday lives.
As a Urologist, I was surprised when I learned that the way to get increased prostate cancer surveillance amongst the African American male population was to promote and provide screening in the African American churches.
What part of this previously oppressed population’s heritage can account for this closer bond with their church? Was it previous indignity, poverty, disenfranchisement? I learned, from my medical mission work in Haiti, that the fewer material possessions of a group of people, the greater emphasis they place on the love they exhibit for their family, friends, and for their Lord. Is it as simple as that?
The word ‘contagion’ suggests the transfer of a disease. In truth, the origin of the word, through Old French, is from the Latin contingere, which means ‘touch closely.’ Applied here, I can bear witness that this woman had initiated a contagion of faith, a faith that touches closely. While some disease contagions, such as Ebola, convey a nearly certain death sentence, this spiritual contagion conveys a sentence of eternal life.
I only know that this was a time of ‘blessed sorrow’; a time that I was privileged to share. If those two words seem wrong to you, do yourself a favor: consult your nearest Bible; or better, ask an African American Christian friend of yours.
– Dennis Garvin