Grandson of a slave on the legacy of prayer
Late on New Year's Eve 1862, slaves gathered in churches, particularly in Confederate states, to await Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln promised to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It would bring an end to the nightmare of slavery for more than 3 million African-Americans.
Gathering for worship that evening, they offered prayers of thanksgiving to God. As midnight approached, they were convinced that the hand of Lincoln would sign the Proclamation, but it was God who had made them free.
Prayer has a rich history and a treasured heritage for African-Americans. Often, communication with God was the only hope in desperate situations. My parents told me of enslaved people on plantations who were forbidden to pray, but who would go downfield and beat on kettles to hide the sounds of prayer. In many instances during those times, prayer came at a price. Faith, an enduring factor for millions of slaves, kept them going even though they were still in bondage.
My grandfather, Stephen Brown, was born a slave in Virginia in 1827. A very religious man and a farmer standing 6 feet, 10 inches, he eventually became a preacher, then a pastor in Winchester, Va. He collapsed while giving the benediction one Sunday evening and passed away at 81 years about the same time the following Sunday.
Having married a much younger woman, he left a widow to raise three small children. I'm told that my grandmother relied heavily on prayer for God to meet their survival needs. My mother recalled that when they occasionally ran out of food, there would be a knock at the door and upon looking out, they would find a bag of groceries left by anonymous donors. The young family attributed all their blessings to prayer.
My parents were unapologetically prayerful. Having to recite a Bible verse before we ate, we always prayed over our meals. We prayed in the evenings before bed, but we also uttered thanks to God whenever there was an inclination to do so. It was stressed to us that God, through Jesus Christ, hears our prayers and is fully capable of answering them -- even if the answers we receive are not what we wanted.
We were also taught to ask God's forgiveness for all the wrong things we did. We were to confess our sins because that was the only way to be forgiven. My mother also said that there was nothing we could not tell the Lord because he knew everything anyway.
My father, a Baptist pastor, prayed the formal prayers at church and at home. But as a youngster, and mostly around my mother, I would hear her fervently petitioning the Lord for any and all needs in our lives. When times were tough, she called on the Lord, fully expecting him to respond. I would see tears and beads of perspiration as she had serious dialogue with heaven. That got us through some pretty tough times.
Our parents did not limit their prayers to the household. Of course, they prayed for us kids, but they extended their supplications to all the children and families in the neighborhood and the church. They called out people by name. Moreover, the exercise of prayer did not stop in the home.
Every Wednesday evening, the members would gather at the churches to "talk to the Lord." With a mixture of Scripture reading, singing, testimonies and prayer, the older saints would lead things off. Their prayers were nearly the same week after week because their struggles were the same week after week. The rent was due, bodies were sick, fuel for heating was low, and wayward children needed to come back home. Those folks carousing the streets needed to be saved and the nation needed to turn back to God.
At prayer meeting and even at Sunday service, a deacon would kneel to pray. The utterances could easily run 10 to 15 minutes. Though talking to God, the prayer was audible and punctuated with groans of agreement from fellow parishioners. "He's brought us a mighty long way, saints," the deacon would say. And the people would say, "Oh yes; yes Lord."
February is Black History Month, and as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we are cognizant that God has brought African-Americans "a mighty long way." But as the old saints used to say, "We still have a long way to go."
However, no matter the culture or ethnicity, black people are able to testify to others that prayer works. People speak of a "game changer"; for me that's prayer. I could not enjoy the blessings I do today had it not been for the legacy of prayer left by our forebears. They understood the power and the practicality of prayer.
The Rev. Louis A. Butcher Jr. is pastor of Bright Side Baptist Church. He is also a correspondent for Lancaster Newspapers Inc. Email him at email@example.com.