‘The Butler,’ the usher and music of the Gospel

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On the movie level, “The Butler” is getting mixed reviews, while also causing quite a bit of public discussion of race relations in recent decades of American life. Was Eugene Allen, the real man whose life inspired the film, a hero or a living symbol of a humble age that has thankfully slipped in the past. Is it possible that he can be seen as both?

However, one thing is clear. It’s impossible to tell his story without considering the role that faith played in his life.

That’s why it’s important that veteran Religion News Service writer Adelle Banks went looking for people who knew the man behind the scenes, producing a feature that focuses on the church “usher” who was also the White House butler. Banks has been covering evangelicalism — all races, all styles — long enough to hear the religious themes that others, somehow, manage to miss in public life.

Here’s the overture near the start of her piece:

… (M)embers of The Greater First Baptist Church knew the man who died in 2010 by other titles: usher, trustee, and a humble man of quiet faith. “The attributes that made him a great butler made him a great usher,” said Denise Johnson, an usher at the predominantly black D.C. church where Allen was a member for six decades.

Those qualities were both external — black suits and white gloves — and internal — a dignified, soft-spoken manner.

On a recent Sunday, parishioners recalled Allen as a peacemaker, someone who never raised his voice.

His devotion to service extended far beyond the public and private rooms of the White House to the doorways and kitchen of his church. In African-American churches, the usher is a special role bestowed on highly regarded members. Allen joined others to open doors to visitors and pass out fans and offering plates. He also would roll up his sleeves and help prepare fish and chicken at church fundraising dinners.

“He was not only a servant there,” the Rev. Robert Hood, an associate minister, said of Allen’s White House work. “But he was also a servant doing the work of the Lord.”

That nod to the traditional role played by ushers in African-American churches is crucial because, year after year, symbolic events happen in black churches linked to that leadership role.

For example, I remember when the “iron man” streak of Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was nearing the mark of 2,131 games without missing a start and a newspaper (I wish I could find the clip) offered a fine feature on a church usher who had served 40 years without missing a Sunday. I think it was 40 years. It might have been longer.

The key is that the service that grows out of deep religious faith can take many shapes and, often, there are news stories hiding in that corner of life. This is one rather obvious example of that kind of story.

So, near the end of this piece is a quote that is the main thing I wanted to spotlight in this post.

Banks notes that the movie clearly portrays the fictional Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria as Christian believers. Was that automatic in Hollywood today?

Maybe not. Note the word “fought” in this next passage:

Director Lee Daniels, a Philadelphia native who grew up in the oldest black Episcopal church in the country, said it was important for the movie to include religious elements. He fought to include a scene depicting a church fundraiser for the Freedom Riders in which a choir sings “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom.”

“You can’t tell a story about the civil rights movement without the Gospel and gospel music,” he said. “You just simply can’t. It’s impossible.”

Oh my. Are we still at the point where people have to be reminded to add “the Rev.” to references to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Would anyone dare to produce a movie about the Civil Rights Movement that failed to contain both the CONTENT and the style of its message, which was rooted in biblical themes of repentance, justice, dignity, freedom and ultimately mercy?

For nearly a decade, one of this website’s major themes has been that it is — to be blunt — almost impossible to tell real stories about real events affecting real people all over the real world without taking the symbols, traditions, content and power of religion seriously. You just simply can’t. It’s impossible.

That’s a great quote. By all means, read the whole story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    Today MSNBC had an interview with the Wash Po news reporter who wrote the article about this butler back when Obama was about to be elected that inspired this movie. Among other things he noted that the movie was not a documentary and changed a lot of facts. But the part that was striking: there have been criticisms of the movie indicating that it was demeaning to have a film about a black servant. The news guy heartily disagreed and spoke of how much the man loved his job. Your piece here about church ushers helps explain the dignified role of service that maybe the younger generation doesn’t appreciate. I knew a black lady in East St Louis whose greatest pride was her position as an usher. Servant’s hearts are revered in Christianity.

    AND haven’t any of those critics seen Downton Abbey? The Butler, Mr Carson, is the big cheese of the household. Talk about dignified.

  • boinkie

    The movie “The Butler” overlooked the invisible men of the USNavy: The many Pinoys (including some of my relatives) who joined the US Navy but for “security reasons” were only allowed to work in the “mess” (i.e. kitchen). The Navy also staffed the WH Kitchens, but of course one doubts any were shown in the movie.

  • Steve

    Too many times the story is made to fit the paradigm, rather than tell itself in its own terms. From Hollywood we expect it; some of us, though, still remember a higher level of coverage in the media. Perhaps, now, the distinction between the two things – presenting fiction and reporting news – isn’t so great.

  • Unforgettable Ladi

    Can anyone please tell me the ladies name that sung lead in the church scene?