My beloveds, summer is upon us! I know full well the solstice is not official yet, but my deodorant has been putting in overtime with this heat, so it might as well be summer. I’ve already attended the first cookout of the season (at my apartment complex). It was unexpectedly and delightfully Black, with a golden moment of me mouthing the words to T.I.’s “What You Know About That” with a friend. I even broke my self rule of never eating potato salad again. Black Twitter prizes The Cookout as a prime space of Blackness — and that it is. We even joke tirelessly about what White celeb will or won’t get invited to The (proverbial) Cookout based on relative wokeness. But summer also presents a lesser-known, quite ignored opportunity for White inclusion into a Black space: Friends and Family Sunday at one’s Black church.
Now, I get it. All Black folks don’t go to church or believe in a God who would call for you to sit in a building to worship Him with people you don’t like. But for those of us who yet cling to faith as the familiar, the Black church is home. Church is often the Blackest place I enter at any given moment. Without apology. Black churches are complicated arenas rife with social and cultural traditions. I am far more likely to feel discomfort inviting a White friend to my Black church than to The Cookout. At least I would not have to explain what potato salad is (I hope).
That’s not to say that Black churches aren’t welcoming to White visitors. On the contrary, most White folks — our friends, pandering politicians, Dylann Roof — receive open arms and hearts when they walk in. So, White people, don’t fret if you’re sitting on a rare invitation to a Friends and Family Sunday at a Black friend’s church. My unease comes from the awkwardness of having to explain what goes unsaid in Black churches. In the spirit of love, I’ve decided to compile a glossary of popular Black church phrases I hear often. That way, you don’t have to look confused at which sayings are call-and-response and which ones are rhetorical.
I must warn you that The Black Church has more than one denomination even though it is perpetually written in the singular. My tribe is Baptist, Southern, but not to be mistaken for the historically White and racist Southern Baptist Convention. No matter the affiliation, most Black church sayings I know permeate Black church culture in general. These sayings make me smile or chuckle or roll my eyes with exasperation. I’m writing them in part to translate for you in a place where Black culture is lingua franca. But honestly? I am sharing these customs and phrases because I love them like I love myself.
Black Church Sayings You Need to Know So You Don’t Embarrass Your Black Friend
“All hearts and minds are clear”: I think this term entered prayer lingo to give folks a chance to voice any last-minute issues or prayer requests. But now, it largely just signifies the speaker is almost done. Don’t you dare raise your hand to interrupt. Translation: “I’m about to wrap up this prayer. Hush so we can go home.”
“Building fund”: An additional offering asked of the congregation to fill a pot of money that goes toward a (new?) building that never seems to get built.
“Christian experience”: Pastors or clergymen often say this when they are describing people coming to join the church, “on Christian experience.” It’s a traditional phrase that basically means they’re going to trust you know Jesus and not give you a Bible quiz here and now.
“Doors of the church are open”: Visitors can now come to the front for membership. Clearly, the literal doors of the church have been open for quite some time, because the sanctuary is full of people.
“Do you hear me what I say?” Translation: Please clap. Say Amen. Wave a hand. Do something, otherwise, the pastor will keep asking you if you hear him, when he knows you obviously do.
“First Lady”: The pastor’s wife, often unanimously praised as beautiful, regardless of her physical appearance.
“God is good”: The correct response to this prompt is not “Yes, He is” or “Amen.” You should always respond to “God is good” with “All the time.” And if the speaker continues, “And all the time?” the logical conclusion is to say, “God is good.”
“Good morning, church”: This greeting is not the same as the potentially rhetorical “good morning” you hear from a chirpy coworker at 8AM on Monday. The “Good morning, church” in a Black church is a call, requiring response. The speaker will pause. Don’t leave them hanging– this is anathema. Wait a blink and then raise your voice to chime in with the congregation. That united chord of “Good morning” echoed in a sanctuary never fails to send a chill down my spine. A vestige of Africanness in America.
“Hand praise”: Also known as a “hand clap of praise,” this is Black Churchese for simple applause. For some reason, church folks decided against just saying “Give a round of applause for…” So we give a “hand praise” for people coming onto the platform, for people about to sing or dance, for accomplishments, for special occasions, for space filler when we need to stall. Oh, and sometimes we even clap to praise Jesus.
“Is there anybody here who can say…”: Please clap or shout “yaaaassssssss.”
“Love token”: Despite the phrasing, this is not a hug, or a kiss, or anything to do with affection. A love token is always money.
“Mothers of the church”: These are the female elders of the church, whether they’re mothers or not. The term “Mother” in this context is an honorific bestowed on a woman by virtue of her age. In a very traditional Black church, you might spot them sitting at or near the front, dressed in all white with hats.
“On yesterday”: Plain old yesterday. It has long tickled me that my beloved Black church folks stick a superfluous “on” in front of “today” or “yesterday.” I hear that quirk of Black vernacular most often in pulpits, although it’s not limited to this space.
“Rest on your feet”: Stand up. Although, standing through four consecutive praise and worship songs isn’t exactly restful.
“Touch/Look at your neighbor and say, ‘Neighbor?”: Black pastors love this interactive, mnemonic tool. You can touch the scowling auntie next to you if you want to pull back a nub. It’s best to just let your hand rest in the air above her shoulder. If you are feeling adventurous, you get one “touch your neighbor” per sermon to actually make physical contact. The subsequent ones are just rhetorical devices.
“Won’t He do it?!”: A friend of mine once exclaimed, “Won’t He do it?!” to a Black non-churchy friend of hers, and the other woman responded, “Won’t who do what?”
I. FELL. OUT. She was clearly in the Sunken Place.
This saying is more exclamation than query; it’s firmly part of AAVE for even non-believing Black folks. But if you must take it literally, if someone asks you if God will do “it,” the answer is always, “Yassss!”
“Ya’ll don’t hear me”: For the love of God, please clap so we can go home!
Saints, what are some other church sayings or customs you’re familiar with that make you pause when you think twice about them? *A brief note about the title: Even if you believe in White Jesus, there is something heathen about clapping on the one and the three in a Black church. But if you can clap on beat, any Mother of the church would consider you “Saved.”