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By Dr. William M. Young, Sr.

The scene was a poignant one, played out night after night all over the deep south. An exodus of dusty, overworked field slaves trudged through the darkness on their way to a “meeting on the old camp ground.” It was an appointment they had to keep – even after picking and gleaning in cotton fields since the sun’s rising.

Weary bodies were powerless against the compelling draw to the old camp meeting. Soaring spirits sparked exuberance and hopeful anticipation of the transformation about to take place. Some only had an open brush arbor, sometimes called a “brush harbor,” as a place of worship. Others had a little wooden structure they called “the praise house.”

Look now as they gather, singing and strutting on their way. Someone might raise a chorus of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and everyone would join the refrain:

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Perhaps a verse or two of “This Train Is Bound For Glory,” might be heard:

This train is bound for glory, this train.

This train is bound for glory, this train.

This train is bound for glory,

Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.

This train is bound for glory, this train.

Or the abiding favorite, “Steal Away to Jesus:”

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

My Lord, He calls me,

He calls me by the thunder;

The trumpet sounds within my soul,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

The mood was jubilant and free because something wonderful was about to happen. These oppressed were preparing for the rapture of emotion and release that would sweep them up and take them beyond their mean and present fate. God’s hope of glory in Jesus promised something wonderful beyond the earthly realm in the hereafter. But a succulent foretaste was available to all every time they gathered for worship.

The itinerant black preacher made his rounds throughout the region, belonging to no one but God. He was the chosen conductor, anointed by his Creator, to lead the flock into an abandon of woes and cares weighty enough to rob them of life. Worshippers filled the arbor and packed the praise house to overflowing. They knew the bonds of depression and hopelessness would soon be unshackled.

God’s conduit of deliverance was the passionate swell of their preacher’s voice, recounting the well-loved Bible stories of “Ole Dan’l in de lions’ den,” or ‘Lil’ David slayin’ that big ole giant Goliah.” That “call-and-response” tradition brought over from the shores of Africa “helped the preacher preach.” He shouts a phrase, and the congregation roars an enthusiastic response. Back and forth, back and forth – the scene builds into a peaking crescendo when he proclaims the Lord’s deliverance in the sermon’s end.

The joyous throng fills the air with unbridled shouting that can be heard for miles around as dancing feet on the old wooden floor planks rumble underneath. What looks like a nonsensical and pointless display of emotion to outsiders is actually a liberating and transforming journey on the glory road. The genius of black preaching brought a cathartic, therapeutic relief that saved a race from committing suicide.

The shouting would go on late into the night and early morning. When the sun rose once more on the monotony of another work day in the fields, new strength and spiritual fortitude had somehow dispelled the fatigue and psychosis brought on by their hapless circumstance.

The black minister “preached them happy,” inciting the frenzied release of the emotional and mental anguish that struck at their sanity. What the black preacher did for his people was a reality, I don’t believe, that was ever lost on him. He understood his call. He understood his mission – the very survival of a race most assuredly rested upon his shoulders.

Today’s call-and-response practice in black congregations with their pastors is derived from those foregenerations. Indeed, the modern role of a pastor and the church family is as vital to African-Americans as ever.

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