Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s as an independent Baptist in an all-white church, the first 20 Februarys of my life came and went without any awareness of either Lent or Black History Month. Liturgy was considered something the evil Catholics did. And each week, we kept the Black kids in their own separate service on the other side of the parking lot.

When I joined an Anglican church in my mid 30s, I had recently deconstructed much of my conservative evangelical faith. And like many progressive Christians, I felt anchored by the practices of liturgy and the seasons of the church calendar. While it seemed a little weird for this former Baptist hearing Christians talk about whether they were giving up chocolate cake or alcohol for Lent, the idea of entering into a season of identifying with the sufferings and emptiness of Jesus for 40 days, as Christians have done for many centuries, had an intriguing richness to it.

Rick Pidcock

My theological journey out of conservative evangelicalism was ultimately a journey into healthy relationships. Through my growing self-awareness, I began to realize how I was carrying my wounds in my body during worship. As the healing from this journey continued, my self-awareness began to expand to include the wounds of my neighbor. And in this growing neighbor awareness, I began to see the suffering of the Black community.

Jesus and the Disinherited

In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman distinguished between the religion of Jesus and the power structures of Christianity by identifying Jesus as a Jew, as a poor Jew, and as a member of an oppressed group under the control of Rome. For this Jesus, the social challenge of his community was survival. Its focus was an inner, radical change that would foster a love-ethic toward personal enemies, traitors and even the empire.

Thurman said, “The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts.”

As Dominique Gilliard details in Rethinking Incarceration, the injustices of institutional racism, sexism, classism, privatization of the prison system, the evangelical obsession with law and order, the juvenile justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the culture of harsh punishment within the mass incarceration of Black men all have grown from the theological seed of penal substitutionary atonement and retributive justice fueling a violent, retributive response to whatever the ruling class labels as crime.

The embodied wounds of Black worship

In The Spirituals and the Blues, James Cone said: “The spirituals are songs about Black souls, ‘stretching out into the outskirts of God’s eternity’ and affirming the Word that makes you know that you are a human being — no matter what white people say. Through the song, Black people were able to affirm that Spirit who was continuous with their existence as free beings; and they created a new style of religious worship. They shouted and they prayed; they preached and they sang, because they had found something. They encountered a new reality; a new God not enshrined in white churches and religious gatherings.”

For the community at Christ Temple in Jackson, Miss., during the turn of the 20th century, led by pastor C.P. Jones, worship services were viewed as an oasis from the hardships of life, where they could “dip our tired bodies in springs of hope.” They poured out their worship with groans and shouts, leading some to characterize their worship services as “the preacher, the music and the frenzy.” Their embodied worship was fueled by their embodied wounds.

Lent from the margins

In Might from the Margins, Dennis Edwards wrote: “Worship is about following Jesus in order to understand and practice love for God and love for other people … . Worship is about moving in the right direction — along the path that Jesus paved.”

“What if instead of giving up cake for 40 days, we spent that time learning about and grieving for the broken, hungry bodies of our Black neighbors?”

As I consider the simultaneous celebrations of Lent and Black History Month through the lens of Jesus, I wonder what it would be like to converge the two conversations along the path Jesus paved.

What if instead of giving up cake for 40 days, we spent that time learning about and grieving for the broken, hungry bodies of our Black neighbors? What if, instead of not drinking wine, we became more aware of and lamented the shed blood of our Black neighbors?

In the song “Rose Petals,” Dee Wilson of Common Hymnal sings:

The blood of my brother was spilled on the street.
He was the rose that grew out of the concrete.
The same ground where his body lay
Like rose petals on a stony grave.
Why do we fear each other from the lies of yesterday? I’ll never know.

But look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
They called this one Mike Brown.
I’m asking you to look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
They called this one Travon Martin.
I’m asking you to look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
They called this one Tyshawn Lee.
I’m asking you to look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
It’s far too many for me.

The tears of my mother were spilled at his grave.
She knows the cost the whole world could not repay.
And when she should’ve felt our sympathy,
All we told her was that her baby was guilty.
Do we even have compassion?
Do we even want to see? I’ll never know.

But look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
They called this one Freddy Gray.
I’m asking you to look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
They called this one Eric Garner.
I’m asking you to look at all these roses with petals on the ground.
They called this one Sandra Bland.
I’m asking you to look at all these roses with petals on the ground …
’Cause they will change the story in our history books.

I wonder how many people of privilege this month longing for cake and wine aren’t aware of the stories of Mike Brown, Travon Martin, Tyshawn Lee, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.

For many Christians, Lent is seen as a season of posturing ourselves in the waiting emptiness of Jesus in the desert, longing to be filled. There is something beautiful and profound in that willing humiliation.

But where is Jesus now?

Perhaps it would be better for those of us in places of privilege in America to stop thinking about Jesus currently sitting on a throne in some other world ruling the entire cosmos through us and begin seeing him in the bellies of the hungry, in the throats of the thirsty, in the eyes of the exiled, in the need of the unclothed, in the groaning of the sick, and in the loneliness of the incarcerated.

While some Black churches and denominations practice Lent, there’s a reason others do not. Black Americans don’t need seasonal reminders of suffering. They bear the wounds fueled by white theological privilege in their bodies every day.

“We do need to recognize how much deeper this season of Lent could be if we looked for ways to meet Jesus in the ones we have oppressed.”

If you are reading this as a white person practicing Lent who really misses your cake or wine, I’m not writing these things to shame you for entering into that season of self-emptying and waiting to be filled. I affirm your willingness to dip your feet into that river. But we do need to recognize how much deeper this season of Lent could be if we looked for ways to meet Jesus in the ones we have oppressed. If we did, then this simultaneous celebration of Lent and Black History Month could converge into a single dance and likely would change our entire cultural and political system to make this experience last far longer than a season.

Perhaps then, we could answer Dee Wilson’s call to look at all the roses with petals on the ground. And in the concrete soil of our privileged, unaware hearts, the blood of our brothers spilled in the street could grow the hope of new communal life out of the stony graves that our retributive theologies of justice built.

As you begin to ponder the possibilities of converging these conversations, listen to this Lenten prayer by Obie Wright Jr. from the book Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans

“God of all good life, on our journey toward Easter, cleanse our hearts of every desire to mimic the violence of wrongs that befall us. Save us from becoming the evil we hate. Save us from denial of abuses which daily crucify Christ afresh. Drive away the chilling cold, the wintry frost, of numbing detachment from others’ pain, and our own hurts, also. Breathe, O breathe your empowering Spirit into the troubled hearts of your children who wish they could wish to love but cannot.”

Rick Pidcock is a stay-at-home father of five kids. He and his wife, Ruth Ellen, have started Provoke Wonder, a collaboration of artists that exists to foster child-like worship through story and song. Provoke Wonder’s first album, Consider the Stars, was released in March 2020. Their first children’s book, What If, will be released soon. Rick is pursuing a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary.