Going to Church
One Sunday in November 2015, during my first semester at RISD, I woke up with a determined thought: “Go to church.” Up until then I had ben feeling pretty lackluster about what I was doing with my time; my art practice wasn’t challenging me or moving forward ideas I cared most about. So I prayed about it.
I had passed the Olney Street Baptist Church countless times on my commute to the studio, often telling myself that eventually I would go in and “see what those folks are about.” Not every church houses the Gospel. When I walked into Olney that Sunday, I was greeted by an usher who looked pleasantly surprised to see me, a young-adult black man, walk into a sanctuary that was otherwise filled strictly with members above the age of 50 and below the age of 12. Young and middle-age adults like me were apparently busy with other things, or at least other churches. Taking a seat in a pew close to the back of the church, I felt wholesomely welcomed, and I connected to the preacher’s apt sermon on the importance of acting on faith. I noted small differences from my home church experiences in Chicago—the music’s slower tempo, how the sermon happened near the end of the service—but the overarching message of salvation, love, and hope found in the Gospel of Christ was markedly consistent.
Following the benediction, as I made my way toward the center aisle to exit, a woman approached me and asked plainly, “Are you a musician?” “Yes,” I replied, wondering how she knew and why she might be asking. She then introduced me to the choir’s president, who told me that the church’s current musician was planning to leave the position within a few weeks. At this point, I entered into a strange psychological time-space, being fully aware of what was happening as it was happening. As though it were scripted, the choir president asked, “Would you be interested in taking on the role of musician for us?” There it was, the apex of various reasons for my visit revealed, the meeting point of future and present time embodied. Though I had some hesitation—I had absolutely no experience playing gospel music—I immediately agreed.
I made this commitment on faith, through which all things are possible, and within a few weeks I was behind the piano playing—not always perfectly, but nonetheless playing. With no prior experience, no references, and no credentials besides knowing how to read music, I was appointed the head musician for an historical black church that began 115 years before I arrived. I went to church one Sunday and left with not only a new line of work but moreover an extended family, and with an epiphany that would lead me to articulate the voice of my practice and consider my role as artist within the context of social change more seriously.
In performing and hearing the spiritual music for the church, I realized two things about my studio practice: that it lacked a sense of purpose, and that it was creative but not courageous. I now believed that two separate platforms of expression in my life—art and faith—could resolve these realizations if I were to turn my studio practice toward the Gospel as a source of social inspiration and change. So I did.