The following article is a modified excerpt from Liberating Church: A Hush Harbor Manifesto, which was released in April 2022. The author participated in the 2019 workshop Writing for Mystic Activists, and was a guest on the Collegeville Institute’s Unlikely Conversations podcast. This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.
In pre-Civil War America, time was indeed a luxury… and white folks owned it. Not only were enslaved bodies the property of white slaveholders, there was no place in the plantation economy that was not under the gaze of white patriarchy. Black folks’ time was expected to be fully in service to white desires. The law justified it: it was illegal for black folks to congregate. Black folks were constantly under the surveillance of white folks, including being watched by the black folks that white folks controlled. Breaking this law meant being whipped, and at worst death. When they sang “steal away, steal away to Jesus… I ain’t got long to stay here” in the plantation fields, enslaved Africans were signaling in code that freedom would never be given to them. The untrained ear thought they were talking about the afterlife. The trained ear knew they meant they’d have to steal away freedom, to take it in the here and now if it were ever to come. Stealing away became a metaphor for a lifestyle of fugitivity and holy deception. The bending and twisting of lyrics and branches gave cues to the path through the woods of one of the most significant sites of freedom, the hush harbor.
…they’d have to steal away freedom, to take it in the here and now if it were ever to come.
There were regular opportunities for enslaved Africans to worship on the plantation—in racially integrated churches led by white folks. They could also attend segregated worship gatherings led by Black preachers. Even Black worship on the plantation was supervised by a white minister and assimilated to white religious structures and customs. Plantation church was shallow, operating by a religious and racial symbolism, a performative Christianity and blackness that accommodated racial capitalism and kept the chattel slavery system uninterrupted. Yet a remnant of enslaved Africans chose to steal away to worship in the hush harbor, dissatisfied with white and black plantation churches. The appeal of the hush harbors was both liturgical and political. Like the liberation they sought from the plantation economy, the hush harbor was a site to liberate Christianity in service to the well-being and freedom dreams of enslaved Africans. This meant participation in the hush harbor was by invitation. Enslaved Africans were vetted and vouched for to demonstrate political solidarity to enter the hush harbors. The integrity and safety of the hush harbor depended on a vow of its members to betray the plantation religion and economy. To steal away was an act of putting their lives and bodies on the line. One formerly enslaved African says this about the quality of the commitment of a member of the hush harbor, preferring it to the open weekly worship in buildings made accessible after emancipation:
Meetings back there meant more than they do now. Then everybody’s heart was in tune, and when they called on God they made heaven ring. It was more than just a Sunday meeting and then no godliness for a week. They would steal off to the fields and in the thickets and there… they called on God out of heavy hearts. – Raboteau. Slave Religion, 217.
The practice of stealing away put enslaved Africans squarely within the tradition of Jesus. Jesus engaged in holy deception by speaking in parables, riddles, and questions to confound the comfortable and comfort the castaway. Jesus engaged in fugitivity by breaking the laws and customs of the religious and social establishment in service to the poor, the imprisoned, the stranger, the unclean, the sick. Jesus vetted the crowds to invite comrades into an underground circle of revolutionary friendship to transform the society from the inside out.
Plantation church was shallow, operating by a religious and racial symbolism, a performative Christianity and blackness that accommodated racial capitalism and kept the chattel slavery system uninterrupted.
There are no longer laws that forbid Black people from congregating together, or from worshiping in the manner we choose. Black people are no longer forced to hide our ways of being from the wider society. America and the institutional church would have Black people believe that we can be Black in plain sight. And yet visibility is fool’s gold. To be seen is not freedom, not when under the gaze of empire and its chaplains. My ancestors were not forced to steal away. They chose to break rank with the visibility of the plantation culture. They chose risk that brings change. And real change is never about spectacle.
The spectacle of church stood in the way of me truly living into my call as a pastor. Visibility is climbing the clergy corporate ladder. Saying and doing everything that makes a pastor worthy for the bigger church, bigger salary, bigger brand. Once you reach a certain status then you can say and do what you really believe, not only what would make you likable. This is the social contract, the grand bribe of the church industrial complex. But I could not fully take the bribe. I could not unhear the closeted stories of queer churchgoers. I could not unsee church members’ disgust and discomfort when they were serving houseless neighbors. I could not unfeel the despair in the pit of my stomach from being asked to not preach about and against police brutality. It wasn’t long before I reached a breaking point. Not unlike these words from James Baldwin describing his own version of stealing away from plantation religion: “when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike.”
I could not unfeel the despair in the pit of my stomach from being asked to not preach about and against police brutality.
It took my neighbor, a secular community organizer, to agitate me to steal away. I was complaining about all that I believed was not right with church, and telling him I felt I didn’t know what to do. My neighbor said: “That’s bullshit, that’s internalized oppression. You can learn what to do. If you don’t commit to doing things differently, nothing will change.”
There were no cameras, no fanfare, no spectacle. This wasn’t tweetable. This encounter flies in the face of social media activism and showtime religion. We faced each other. My neighbor practiced the rigor of persuasion and agitation. He challenged me to do something brave. I no longer serve in places I cannot tell the truth and be authentic. I experienced transformation. It hurt like hell. Because hell is what needed to come out of me, all of the conditioning that tells us that everything that glitters is gold and that some expert is going to save us. To steal away is to practice a different conditioning, of regularly challenging each other, as everyday radical disciples, in small, discreet, and direct ways, to break free from the assimilating patterns that prop up our own and others’ oppression. No mics, no stages, no shortcuts. Some might call it old-fashioned discipleship, or organizing conversations. We must normalize these conversations, of stealing away to meet on porches, at bars, in parks, on the block, at the corner store, on hikes, at dinner, in the garden. Everyday people who make sanctuaries of the ordinary, the profane, the small. In these encounters we can be brave with each other. Conversations between those of us already in the movement, to help each other develop and deepen our skills and commitment. And meeting with neighbors who have not already committed their lives to liberation. To help them see their own power. To bring them into the movement, one conversation, one small group at a time. This is stealing away, falling in love over and over again with making dissident disciples of the justice and love revolution.
We must normalize these conversations of stealing away to meet [in ordinary places].