Burks Chapel United Methodist Church, one of those humble, three-room church houses, sits along a stretch of red clay in the backwoods of LaGrange, Georgia. It’s a small, unimposing structure, with plum trees out back, a hand-painted sign bolted down in the front, and a small choir stand inside; it sits on a green field with a small cemetery. It reminds me of the church Shug Avery burst into singing “God Is Trying to Tell You Something” in the movie version of The Color Purple.
My Big Ma raised seven children among the wooden pews and dusty hymnals and weekly fish frys of Burks Chapel. It was such a prominent part of my mom and her siblings’ upbringing that I can map out half of her childhood memories on the church’s land, which the original trustees bought for $10 in 1881. On the left are the fruit trees that my Uncle Cedric and Uncle Bo used to climb to get their mid-service treats. Close by is the stream that my mom would play near, dirtying up her church shoes and Sunday-best dress. The whole road, my aunties always tell me, would be filled with cars for the annual homecoming service every second Sunday in August, when cousins who had moved up North as part of the Great Migration came back home to visit family down South. There’d be a potluck picnic after service, with fried chicken and potato salad and, of course, Ms. Eleanor’s sweet tea. To this day, my family still honors that hallowed space and the role that it played in our foundation by going back to Burks Chapel every second Sunday in August.
Burks Chapel, like many black churches in the segregated United States, was an epicenter of African American social life. One of the few places where black mothers could let their children roam free; where traditions could be passed from one generation to the next. Yet the black church as an institution has an ugly and heartbreaking origin simmering just beneath its surface — one born out of slavery, a systematic demonization of native African belief systems, and the severe restrictions on black people’s interactions that made church houses one of the only places they were allowed to congregate. But, as black people have always done in America, we managed to transform something that originated as a tool for our oppression into something that fortified and protected us from that oppression itself.
There are many fair critiques that can be levied against the black church: its role in enforcing the patriarchy, homophobia, and respectability politics, for starters. But historically, it’s been an institution that provided a basis for community and fellowship among people who needed a safe space from the rest of the world, where something beautiful would be able to flourish. That beauty is evident in so many facets, from the soul-stirring gospel music to the resplendent church hats, to the hand fans used by the ushers to cool off “shouters” who had caught the Holy Ghost.
The fans were practical instruments that were necessary before the proliferation of air conditioning, but even after churches got their first units installed, many of the fans kept on swinging. Long after the scorchers of July and August, too; they swung on through December and January. The fans said words when the women were too overcome to speak, waving them furiously at the pastor when the sermon really got good. They were status symbols for those who were able to get theirs personalized or sport a different one to match their outfits each Sunday. They were silent metronomes, keeping the pace of the long services. They were something that everybody in the church used and had access to, but in the hands of black women — the ones who kept the church’s books and arranged for communion and fried chicken for later — they seemed to be something else entirely. A quintessential accessory for the prayer warriors who line the front pews; the women who made Sunday service seem like their only moment of respite from a week of child-rearing and clothes-washing and food-making.