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The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (February 16 and 23, 2021 at 9:00PM ET)The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (February 16 and 23, 2021 at 9:00PM ET)

As I write this review, Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father both served as pastors), was elected as the first African-American US Senator from Georgia, and the first African-American Democrat from the Southern US to serve in the Senate. And as he liked to say about his inspiring story, his mother picked cotton for other people. Warnock's story is just one of many reminders of what the country owes to Black America in general, and in particular to the unique relationship between the Black Church and its politics.

On February 16 and 23, 2021 at 9:00PM ET, PBS will air its four-hour (in two parts) mini-series by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Harvard) on the 400-year history and culture of the Black church. From the PBS press release: 

Renowned participants in the series include media executive and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey; singer, songwriter, producer and philanthropist John Legend; singer and actress Jennifer Hudson; Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church; gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans; civil rights leaders Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. William Barber II; scholar Cornel West; and many more. Through their interviews, viewers will be transported by the songs that speak to one's soul, by preaching styles that have moved congregations and a nation, and by beliefs and actions that drew African Americans from the violent margins of society to the front lines of change.

For many, the Black church is their house of worship. For some, it is ground zero for social justice. For others, it is a place of transcendent cultural gifts exported to the world, from the soulful voices of preachers and congregants, to the sublime sounds of gospel music. For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., going to church in America also was "the most segregated hour" of the week. THE BLACK CHURCH: THIS IS OUR STORY, THIS IS OUR SONG will explore the changing nature of worship spaces and the men and women who shepherded them from the pulpit, the choir loft and church pews. The churches are also a world within a world, where Black Americans could be themselves; and the epicenter of the freedom struggle that revolutionized the United States across slavery and abolition, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration, and the civil rights movement. 

"Our series is a riveting and systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshipped God in their own images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses, to camp meetings and store-front structures, to mosques and mega-churches," says Dr. Gates. "This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us, and it comes at a time in our country when the very things they struggled and died for - faith and freedom, justice and equality, democracy and grace - all are on the line. No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church." 

Throughout the series, viewers will witness much of this world expand out to politics, culture and education, as churches are born, denominations are fractured, and leaders are made and critiqued in their quest to bring the Word to the world and the world to a higher ground. At once a liberating and traditional center of power, the church in Gates's telling is at a crossroads today, torn between social issues and justice, human rights and inequality, secular and spiritual trends, the past and future, prompting many to wonder whether the churches of their parents and grandparents have become closed off to the most important issues of the time. The Black church has taken people from the valley to "the mountaintop" and, as some of the most influential Black voices today reflect on the meaning of the church in their lives and to the country, the series will contemplate where the "promised land" is for this generation and the next.

Dan Clendenin:

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