Black church, white church

Charvis Harrell converted from Christianity to Islam. Courtesy photo.


I hated church. It took me away from the thing I most wanted and that was “USA’s Kung Fu Theatre.” “Rasslin” ( or wrestling) was coming on also and we couldn’t watch that either. My brother and I didn’t “eat” food. Rather, we consumed as quickly as we could so we could get back to doing what we wanted to do. On Sunday morning after we ate breakfast, we put on our church clothes, which had been neatly ironed the night before, watched TV, and waited in vain as all the good stuff was about to come on. My Dad would come into the den and wait while my mother got ready. He would turn to CBS and usually, he would change in time for “Abblasen” to start playing and we would have just enough time to see the opening introduction to the stories they would profile. 

It wasn’t that I hated what church was or what it stood for. I just wanted to see Kung Fu Theatre so bad. Looking back, the amount of mysticism and spirituality is mesmerizing if you open yourself up to allow it.  It can also be a thing to amplify the critic inside the skeptic if you enter with assumptions. Church was a part of my life since my earliest recollections, and my father deeply loved two things in life: my Mother and Jesus. If you knew the way he loved my mother, to tell you she was second to Jesus shows you how important religion is in our family. We would arrive at Sunday school for a 9:30 session, separated into age groups, and go over Bible lessons in an age-appropriate fashion until a quarter to 11, with church starting promptly at 11:30.

No place in America shows as many cultural differences as in the religious services of a “Black” church and a “white” church. In America, the church is actually two different things because one of those buildings is filled with a bunch of Muslims and they don’t even know it. Very little is known about Africa from the descendants of Africa in America and it is easy to be ashamed of everything African. America had three television networks that were all programmed by white men, as was every magazine and any other source of information, from history books to movies. The parts that showed Africa was like watching a documentary that was filmed by someone who hated the subject. It was years before I realized that I saw the world through “white men’s eyes” that programmed everything I saw and it affected the way I thought about Africa and the part of me that is African.

There was the idea that Africa was either a wasteland of savage people dancing around a fire or people in a famine so desperate that the “world” had to feed them, but it wasn’t until I began to read the narratives of people who invested in the truth, such as Mark Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Crime Of The Congo,” that I began to understand that Africa was the most brutally pillaged misunderstood country ever. Their descendants suffered from an invention that left them disenfranchised in America.

According to the research of Theodore W. Allen in “The Invention of the White Race,” when the first Africans arrived in 1619 there were no “white” people. It took about sixty years for “white” people to be created by the ruling class as a way of social control, in response to the labor unrest of Bacon’s Rebellion when Jamestown was burned to the ground. In other countries, people were known by their tribe, region, country of origin, faith, or socioeconomic status. People who were born in France are French, people born in Ireland are Irish, and so on and so forth. However, in America, a new identity was formed. English, Scottish, Irish, French, and other European colonists were lumped into one new class, “white,” and as a result, the people of  African origin were defined as Black, showing the very fact that even your religion becomes a form of assimilation, even if the ways of your ancestors are still exuded. 

One of my favorite parts of the church service was a strange spiritual thing called ” Raising a Hymn.” It is a call-and-response played out in moans between the preacher and the rest of the congregation. This doesn’t take place in the white church, but it does take place in the Black church because it is a direct imitation of the Muslim tradition in Africa. That call and response sound like a Sudanese Dhikr ceremony.

In the church I attended, it started with the preacher saying, “Turn your hymnals to page …” As the congregation would turn to that page on the hymnal, words would not be spoken. The Reverend would start a long guttural moan that would seem to change to a higher-toned wailing that came from the throat. The whole time, the congregation would chant in unison in a rhythmic way that can only be described as seeming if they were singing the words to an ancient song with words unwritten. During this process was when you would first begin to see it.

A spectacle in all of its definitions is the only way to describe it. The stomping of the deacons, the swaying of the rhythm, the shouts and uncontrollable movements of the women would begin. As the wails became more intense, more would begin to fall victim to the uncontrollable movements. Slowly, the moans would die out as the ladies of the church in white would come over and fan the women who had overexerted themselves. The moans fading into the words of the song were the introduction to the “holy ghost” experience that was about to take place all day until church let out. As soon as we got home, my brother and I would rush back outside in our play clothes and black church socks to mock those seeking attention, acting like they had received the “holy ghost.”

I have always had an appreciation for spirituality in almost all of its forms and my thirst for knowledge and inquisitive nature has lead me to participate in spiritual experiences more than most people. In high school, I started to smoke marijuana daily at the age of fifteen. It had such a positive impact on my life that I began to study Rastafarianism. I was almost always high and weed changed me in the sense that it calmed me down. I had a breathing problem and one of the medications I was given at a young age was Theophylline. The side effects of that were something I didn’t understand until years later when I could meditate and reflect upon my life. I realized that not many people would know what it’s like to be an insomniac, constantly stimulated by something that was like high doses of caffeine ever since the age of seven. If it was in your system when you had a fever, it could be something like the worst acid trip ever.

Religion had become like, much of everything from my youth, a distant memory. Some smells and sounds would take me back to church, but it became only a place we would visit for the rare funerals for those who still attended. Their funerals are rare now because they live longer, usually dying of natural causes or accidents. All my friends that live like I did have services in funeral homes instead, with those often being because they die of different causes. 

There is a saying about people in the hood being crabs in a barrel. A man once answered how true that is, because a barrel is not a natural habitat for a crab. It’s an instrument designed for its oppression. If you crowd anything in an instrument of oppression, you can’t be surprised at the actions or results. In the 1625 Virginia census, “Antonio, a Negro” was listed as an indentured servant captured from Africa who arrived probably a year before, in a time before there were any comprehensive slave laws in place. Without a set structure to prohibit Antonio’s freedom, he was able to marry “Mary, a Negro woman.” Court records indicate that by 1641, Antonio was recognized as “Anthony Johnson,” a free man with his own land and a master to a Black “servant,” Jon Casor. In 1654, Robert Parker fought for the right of John Casor to be free. However, after lengthy court battles, Casor was returned to Johnson in 1655. There had been previous incidents in the thirteen colonies where both blacks and whites had been sentenced to lifetime indentured servitude, one of the most notable being that of John Punch, who most historians note was the first “documented” slave in America. Punch tried to escape along with two other white servants. The two white servants’ time of servitude was extended for a few years, while Punch’s was extended to lifetime servitude. However, the Casor case was different, because it was the first time it was ruled that a man could be held for lifetime servitude for not committing a crime. That is how we treat each other in America.

The way history is told has the ability to shape how generations see things, The people of the Mayflower are often referenced as coming to the “New World” for religious freedom, but that wasn’t the case. In England, there was only one church in the 17th century, the Church of England. In order to flee prosecution from the CoE, the pilgrims fled to Holland around 1607/1608. The pilgrims had a major problem being with the Dutch, considering them very strange and too liberal. They believed the longer they stayed there, the more their children would assimilate to their customs, completely eradicating their way of life. The Pilgrims left Holland, a place where they were free to practice their religion, searching instead for a “New World” where their religion could dominate. Soon, religion was used as a weapon to justify slavery.

To understand the role of enslavement in the Americas, it’s important to first understand how far back the history of slavery goes. Throughout history, those conquered in wars have been taken as slaves, as was the case on almost every continent, such as in pre-colonial Latin America when the Aztecs and Mayas enslaved captives from wars. As Spain and Portugal began their conquest of Latin America, they began to set up the same system of enslavement of native people, but on a much larger scale. Raphael Lemkin, the person who invented the term genocide, described slavery as “the most effective and thorough method of destroying culture, of desocializing human beings.”

In 1614 an English explorer named Thomas Hunt captured natives from the Patuxet village of New England that he lured by the promise of trade, transporting them to Spain. Once in the city of Malaga, the captives were sold to monks, who educated and tried to evangelize them. One of the captives spent four years in Spain and eventually made his way to England. Seeking to make a fortune in the “New World,” the former captive was able to make his way to Newfoundland. In 1619, he was finally able to sail down the coast of New England and upon finding the site of his former village, he came upon the brutal realization that his entire tribe had been decimated and he was the only remaining member of his people. Another native of that same time who was also fluent in English was Samoset.

Shortly afterward, when The Mayflower pilgrims came into contact with the natives, they were able to meet the former captive who knew English and was able to show them the necessary ways to survive. This former captive’s name is Tisquantum, but most history books refer to him as Squanto. The reason the Mayflower pilgrims were able to survive was because of a former slave from a completely decimated people.    

I live in an area that is now almost completely decimated, where the church I once attended as a child stands adjacent to two other churches. They appear, like all the decimated neighborhoods in my city, like abandoned oil rigs in the prairie, a relic to remind anyone who sees it that all the resources were sucked dry from this area. On Sundays, you see fancy cars driving through the decimated area, pitifully looking at those who dare to live in need of charity. Glamorous and fashionable, they actually bypass those in need to go into a building to hear stories of a man who dressed simple and loved the poor. 

I never fell out with religion. It just became something I didn’t participate in. Nonetheless, my spirituality was something that was a part of me. Like anything that is a part of you, the smaller it is for you creates a smaller effect upon your life. The larger influence it is for you, the bigger effect it will have upon your life. Since I’m halfway through with mine, I felt the need for two big things to find out who I really am and to learn to forgive myself for who I was.

I never forgave myself for having sarcoidosis. I was so angry for what had happened and what I lost, I couldn’t appreciate what I had become and the things I gained. I so dreamed of being a mason like my father and with my father, I was devastated when I lost that dream. Art became a distraction so I wouldn’t have to deal with what I was going through, and I was so busy being distracted, it was as if nothing else mattered. I should have appreciated the things that made me happy more, but art was my religion and everything else was a way distant second. When you place anything in that position, it’s only natural to find a place where it comes first.

Harrell found art provided him a strong sense of catharsis. Courtesy photo.

 “If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

 If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

 And treat those two impostors just the same…”       

 Experience is the best teacher, and going through the experience as a child of   joining the ranks of my friends, who stood wide-eyed and open mouth frozen   as their mothers became the ones moving uncontrollably, soon becoming   surrounded and  comforted by the ladies in white, you knew it had to be real   because your mother is a reserved person who wouldn’t act like that for   attention. You knew there must be some truth to this ghost’s existence.

My thirst for knowledge, as well as my insomniac nature, lead me to read any and almost everything. The mysticism of “Way of The Sufi” by Idries Shah had always opened me up to a new way of thinking and seeing the world. One of the secrets that I always thought I would never share was one of the things that helped me to identify who I am and finally admitted something I did. I practice Wajd, which the Sufis refer to as the recitation of the Qur’an. Even before I knew how to practice the Sufi devotional act of Dhikr, I always practiced Wajd while going through Fana, which is described as the death before dying, where you lose your ego as to live in your best way. As the dangers of any journey without a map, it’s easy to get lost and I was so deep in that journey, it took the help of someone that was also going through it for us to guide each other out. We had destroyed our egos because we both sought validation in a way that we could never receive and instead of accepting it, we both had resigned to a position of defeat. We were unable to see ourselves in the way of the people who loved us, but we slowly worked towards a place where, although it still matters, it doesn’t affect our worth, and that has changed the world for us.

One of the things you learn about spirituality is that people have different names for the same spiritual experience and we all have something preventing us from having from this experience, the ego. The “holy ghost” is when someone enters a state of spiritual ecstasy so profound that they lose their sense of ego, moving and acting as if nobody is aware of them. The Buddhists call this form of spiritual ecstasy Nirvana. To Sufis, this state of ecstasy is called Wajd and there are different levels that express themselves in different ways. The Wajd of dervishes produces a rhythmic motion of the body, similar to how Black women move about in church as if nothing matters. 

Poetry makes me cry and I use that to make art. The Wajd of idealists is expressed by a thrilling sensation of the body with tears and sighs. It doesn’t happen with all poetry, just some poems, and it happens more often now when I hear the Qur’an. Before I even heard the Quran, I had begun to research what Islam was and what it was about. I instantly fell in love, but I kept it to myself because I already had enough problems with the way people perceived me to put angry Muslim on top of that, although Islam had brought out the opposite in me. I learned that the first martyrs in Islam were African and that one-third of the enslaved Africans in America were Muslim and I even learned of a very special one in Georgia.

“Bilali Mohammed was an enslaved West African on a plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia. According to his descendant, Cornelia Bailey, in her history, God, Dr. Buzzard, and The Bolito Man, Bilali was from the area of present-day Sierra Leone. He was a master cultivator of rice, a skill prized by Georgia planters.

William Brown Hodgson (1857) was among scholars who met Bilali, and wrote that he was born in Timbo, Guinea around 1770 to a well-educated African Muslim family.  He was enslaved as a teenager, taken to the Bahamas, and sold to Dr. Bell, where he was worked as a slave for ten years at his Middle Caicos plantation. Bell was a Loyalist colonial refugee from the American Revolutionary War who had been resettled by the Crown at Middle Caicos. He sold Bilali in 1802 to a trader who took the man to Georgia.

Bilali Mohammed was purchased by Thomas Spalding and assigned as his head driver at his plantation on Sapelo Island. Bilali could speak Arabic and had knowledge of the Qur’an. ‘Due to his literacy and leadership qualities, he would be appointed the manager of his master’s plantation, overseeing approximately five hundred slaves.’ In the War of 1812, Bilali and his fellow Muslims on Sapelo Island helped to defend the United States from a British attack. Upon Bilali’s death in 1857, it was discovered that he had written a thirteen-page Arabic manuscript. At first, this was thought to have been his diary, but closer inspection revealed that the manuscript was a transcription of a Muslim legal treatise and part of West Africa’s Muslim curriculum.

The Bilali Muhammad Document is also known as the Ben Ali Diary or Ben Ali Journal. On close analysis, the text proves to be a brief statement of Islamic beliefs and the rules for ablution, morning prayer, and the calls to prayer. It could, justifiably, be called the “Mother Text” of American Islamic literature according to Muhammed al-Ahari due to it being the first Islamic text written in the United States.”

I learned to Dhikr and began to study Arabic so that I could learn to proper Salah, or pray. I was scared to pray because the sacredness of the ritual was something I didn’t want to take lightly. You are doing something different when you practice this, by doing the exact same thing the exact same way at the exact same time that those before you have done and those after you will do in unison as one. You would think that to pray five times a day would be bothersome, asking why that would be an obligation, but it’s quite the opposite if you are a Muslim, because prayer is something you desire to do and the benefits you get from it far outweigh the few moments it takes. The Qur’an has become something so beautiful and useful and has changed so much of me. It even changed my name. I looked down upon myself because of a disability and I hated the way the scars on my face made me look and always made my face rest in a frown, and I found a name to express all of that in one word.

I’m back at my mom’s house working on my new direction in life and I’m putting a new show together, and as all moms do, she still worries about me. The other day, she looked concerned and asked if I was alright. I had never told her, but it came out.

“Mom I’m a Muslim, I’m always alright.” 

She laughed, “Like the people on the corner that sell them papers?”

We laughed and I said “No, Mom, like the Sufis in Africa, and so are you, Momma, you are a Muslim too,” and we both laughed again.

Allahu Akbar

…..Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim,

Abasa Aziz ibn Horace

28 Shaban 1442, 

Two days before my first RMD, “Scorching Heat.”


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