Suffering is a part of the human experience. No one is exempt from this unsavory element of life. While we may be familiar with the word, the concept and the multifaceted aspects of suffering, we struggle to understand. Death comes and invades our lives, causing pain and suffering. Sickness – unexpected, out of the clear blue – attacks and the body we once knew betrays us. Catastrophic events, such as fires, hurricanes and floods, bombard us. We suffer the loss of homes and treasured possessions; sometimes lives are lost in these heart-wrenching occurrences.
This past year, I encountered several conversations about suffering. Over coffee, a white male colleague and I discussed his upcoming sabbatical. It is his plan to explore how African Americans deal with suffering. In his words, “African Americans appear to be resilient when it comes to suffering.” While I tried to contain the many questions that statement raised, I listened to him. He shared his journey with rheumatoid arthritis. For him, this genetic disease was progressing and making his life difficult. He walked in with a cane and struggled to stand when we left. Noting that he was suffering with pain and the other discomforts of this illness, he wanted to figure out how to take this journey of suffering gracefully.
Prior to that conversation, there were conversations with friends about suffering in general. Many of us on this spiritual journey called life raise the questions—why do good people suffer? Why do children have to suffer? These conversations caused me to reflect on my work as a chaplain. I have worked in the field of chaplaincy for 15 years. On the journey of chaplaincy, I have had the privilege to walk with people who have dealt with suffering so gracefully, I was moved to tears. A woman dying of cancer shared, as I sat at her bedside, that she was not afraid of death. She was not afraid of her mortality. As her time drew to a close, she noted that she wanted to leave behind a testimony of strength and grace for her family. These two words are descriptive of people who suffer sometimes in silence. Yet they are not silent.
As I pondered my colleague’s appreciation of the resilience of African Americans, I cannot help but reflect on the suffering of African Americans historically and a faith of perseverance. From the Ivory Coast of Africa to the shores of the then thirteen colonies, Africans were shipped to America. Along with the African Diaspora came a tenacity to survive amid adversity. America’s history is filled with stories of the strength and grace of countless African Americans who in the face of adversity persevered. This tenacity was not birthed in this country, but brought to this country. It is carved into the slave ships at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and written in the fabric of our history. The ancestors of the African Americans nurtured for future generations a legacy of strength and grace.
It was through the bloodiness and brutishness of slavery that African Americans solidified the strength and grace to endure hardship. Suffering was an everyday occurrence for slaves and descendants of slaves. The will to live and be free surpassed the bitterness of suffering. While the African Diaspora did not articulate a theology of hope as scholars, the theology of liberation is a theology of hope that describes a people marred in suffering, yet they rise above it. The late Maya Angelou captured the daily struggle of African Americans in her poem, “Still I Rise”:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt.
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” (46-49) (1)
While poets like Angelou gave voice to the struggle of her people, the African Diaspora cultivated music that not only articulated the struggle but gave hope. Formed out of suffering, songs like “Oh Freedom,” “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “We Shall Overcome” not only told the story but pointed to hope. These are the tools, along with the biblical narrative of hope, that my ancestors used to traverse the tapestry of suffering “in the days when hope unborn had died.” (2) In “days when hope unborn had died,” there were preachers who lifted up the banner of hope in the black church. Each Sunday, a message of hope was proclaimed from the pulpit of black churches that refreshed, revived and restored hope for another week. Each week, congregants heard the message of hope from the likes of Gardner C. Taylor, James Farmer Sr., Vernon John, James Massey, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and James Earl Massey. At the center of the African-American community was the black church. It was the black church that anchored the Civil Rights Movement. In the black church, Jesus was the victorious conqueror. It was the message of the Social Gospel that provided the sinew for African Americans to press forward amid suffering.
To my colleagues and others who are inquisitive about the resilience of African Americans, it is found in the ethos of the black church experience. It is found in the history of America. It is found in the music that mends broken hearts. It is found in the literature that gives voice to the downtrodden. And it is found in the faith forged out of the necessity to not only survive but to thrive. What makes us so strong? The strength to press through suffering is in the spiritual DNA of the black church. It was stamped into the consciousness of a people who refused to be silenced.