‘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.

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Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

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Behold: A pretty fair tribute to George Beverly Shea

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Longtime GetReligion readers may recall that I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and early ’70s, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. Suffice it to say that I have been to my share of Billy Graham meetings, back then and as a reporter on the religion beat in Denver and elsewhere.

So I heard George Beverly Shea sing on multiple occasions.

The purpose of this post is quite simple, but I will admit that it is a bit strange. I would like to thank the editors of The Washington Post for running a non-snarky obituary for Shea, who died April 16 at the age of 104. I don’t think I have ever heard a single person say a bad word about Shea, which would have raised the degree of difficulty in writing an obit with some teeth in it.

It is estimated that Shea sang — in person — for an estimated audience of 220 million in a career that spanned seven decades. Toss in television and shelves of albums and he would have to rank near the top, in terms of impact, in the world of gospel music.

Shea was never the main attraction and he knew it, a fact noted in the Post report. Here’s my favorite chunk of the story:

When Graham devoted himself to his evangelistic “crusades” in 1947, he invited Mr. Shea to join him. From then on, wherever Graham preached, Mr. Shea sang. He was known for his clean diction, perfect pitch and a robust bass-baritone voice that was as sturdy and as flashy as a tree trunk.

Mr. Shea had a repertoire of hundreds of hymns — some of which he composed — but was identified with a few familiar favorites, including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and, especially, “How Great Thou Art.” He began singing “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish hymn written in the 1880s, in the mid-1950s. When Graham preached to more than 2 million people during a prolonged crusade in New York City in 1957, Mr. Shea sang his signature number on more than 100 consecutive nights.

Two alterations he made in the lyrics of “How Great Thou Art” became so well known that the original words were almost forgotten. Mr. Shea changed “consider all the works thy hands have made” to “all the worlds thy hands have made” and “I hear the mighty thunder” to “I hear the rolling thunder.”

“I got a bang when I used to hear Elvis Presley sing my two words,” Mr. Shea told the Kansas City Star in 2004.

The connections with the Graham family were strong at every possible level.

How strong?

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