African Americans celebrate resiliency at Framingham church service


FRAMINGHAM — Rhythmatic foot stomping, synchronized chanting and cheers of “Preach!” and “Hallelujah!” echoed through the Greater Framingham Community Church Friday night as a female gospel singer from the D.M.J. United Voices of Praise energetically chanted “You can make it,” pointing to individual audience members and granting them praise the way Oprah Winfrey gives away free cars.

A wooden cross glowed behind the choir on stage as another gospel singer pulled out a tambourine and aggressively shook it, intertwined with the hypnotic trance of a bass drum and church organ, more than 50 pairs of feet stomping in harmony.

And then, Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Pennsylvania, placed her hand on her forehead, overwhelmed by more than 50 community members, including state and local public officials, swaying back and forth in the pews to the song led by Elder Terrance Haynes, but also overwhelmed by her own excitement.

The plight and courage of black residents and ancestors was commemorated Friday night during the three-and-a-half hour service called “May We Forever Stand: Massachusetts Commemorates 400 Years of Black Resiliency.”

Black church leaders from throughout Massachusetts led the service and commemoration to end racial injustice. Earlier, in the afternoon, they were in Boston to train black pastors. Both events marked the 400th year since the first Africans were brought to the colonies and enslaved, in 1619.

“In the face of unthinkable adversity and evils, terrible trials and tribulations, these resilient people of faith knew how to call on the name of Jesus, so we’ve been called to this place to worship,” said Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, of Union United Methodist Church in Boston, wearing a fitted purple suit and bow tie. “We’re called to worship because we have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”

Massachusetts ended slavery in the 1780s – one of the first states to do so – but was also the first colony to establish slavery within its 1641 “Body of Liberties,” said Rev. Carrington Moore of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. He acknowledged the “sacred ground” under the church, referring to land originally owned by the Wampanoag people.

“In many places, native and African peoples found common cause in the march to freedom,” he said, requesting that attendees be mindful of elders such as Crispus Attucks, a man of native and African decent who was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre. Attucks was born in Framingham in 1723.

“From every corner of Massachusetts, African Americans have tread a path through the blood of the slaughtered, stood firm and marched forward. And in every corner of Massachusetts, the black church has been a beacon of hope and a way station in the storm,” said Moore.

“We can’t forget that we stand on the shoulders of so many who never made it,” said Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, mentioning her great-grandmother — Annie — who lived to be 102 years old. She was a slave for a portion of her life, she said, and thinks of how proud she would be of her great-granddaughter’s position today.

“We cannot forget — 400 years of history, and we can do better, we still need to of better,” said Spicer, the humming of the church organ playing behind her.

Similar words were echoed from state Sen. Karen Spilka, who said systematic racial injustice and violence continues today, admitting that, “We can, and must, do better.”

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark recalled the two times that U.S. Rep. John Lewis took her to Selma, Alabama. The most recent visit was in March to the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.

“You cannot go in there and come out the same person,” Clark said.

Calling attention to the “rise of white supremacy” today and comparing mass incarceration to immigrant families separated at the southern border, she said white Americans need to recognize the benefits they continue to receive from slavery.

“I’ve been to a lot of places before… this might be a new one for me,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, speaking at the service the night before he formally announced his campaign against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey.

“Few places have been more squarely at the epicenter fighting for equality, for justice, for dignity, than the black church,” he said. “You have carried our country toward light, even when we did not deserve it. You have anchored Massachusetts in progress, even when it was stubborn.”

Later into the service, two white preachers read a prayer for repentance, an apology on behalf of the church for neglecting black voices and contribution.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches has “failed and fallen short over these past 117 years,” said Rev. Jennie Barrett Siegal, president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, stating that the church “failed to see black resiliency,” and rejects preaching white supremacy.

“We confess that this expression of Christian unity was founded by white protestant clergy men, which set the standards for what it meant to be ‘church,’” she said.

Preaching loudly into a microphone during his sermon, Bishop Claude Alexander, of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, said, “Those of us that are of African descent owe our existence in this land to somebody who was captive on the continent, loaded on a ship, endured the Middle Passage, sold as property somewhere along the Mid-Atlantic coast and now here we are – 400 years later.”

Naming slavery as the first system of globalization, Alexander said there are two words that speak to black resiliency, and they’re quoted in the Bible.

“Thus far,” shouted Alexander. “The Lord has helped us — thus far. It speaks of the direction of God’s help.”

Likening today’s climate to that of Samuel’s situation in the Bible – and eliciting an encouraging “c’mon” from an audience member – Alexander stated it’s “becoming a time where lies are blurred, distinctions are diminished, standards are seen as suggestions and laws don’t mean anything anymore.”

However, despite 400 years of setbacks, church-goers across a spectrum of religions waved about their paper pamphlets, others fanning themselves with them amidst joyful singing and praise.

This is the visual of “resiliency,” said Kennedy, “the history that echoes through these walls.”

Lauren Young writes about immigration, politics and social issues. Reach her at 315-766-6912 or Follow her on Twitter @laurenatmilford.