Lent is a season of darkness just before the light that comes with the celebration of Eastertide—a time where we are reminded of our mortality. It is a period of reflection, repentance, and preparation when we seek the Lord in prayer and commit more deeply to Scripture, in addition to practicing almsgiving or engaging in self-control through fasting.
Each year the season of Lent briefly overlaps with Black History Month—and yet I’ve noticed there are very few resources on the potential ways in which these two traditions might engage.
As a biracial child, I was baptized in the Catholic church with my mom’s white side of the family, but I also spent time with my dad’s side of the family, who worshiped in a variety of Black churches. This created a unique experience for me, where I had some understanding of the liturgical calendar as well as an exposure to the Black church and its traditions.
I loved the liturgy in the Catholic church—the smell of the incense, the reading of Scripture each week—but I also loved the Spirit-filled worship of my Black family on my dad’s side.
Many of the more liturgical spaces I’d worshiped in lacked the celebratory and charismatic aspects of my experience in Black churches, which felt like a significant deficit. So, I tried to find a tradition that made space for both things, which has ultimately led me into vocational ministry within the Anglican church.
The churches my dad’s family attended did not observe Lent, but they faithfully engaged in the spiritual practices associated with it, such as prayer, reading of Scripture, service, repentance.
Their congregations did, however, have jubilant Black History Month celebrations—lamenting and educating others on the dark history and enslavement of our people in this country, while also acknowledging the many achievements of Black people throughout history.
Conversely, the churches attended by the white side of my family observed Lent but did not celebrate Black History Month or incorporate Black church traditions into their practices.
During Lent, we are called to reflect deeply on our faith, consider Scripture, and honor Christian tradition. This seems like an especially significant opportunity as we consider the overlap between Lent and Black History Month. What if majority churches and white Christians engaged in Lenten practices that were informed and shaped by the historic Black faith tradition?
In his recent book Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal, Esau McCaulley discusses how, although he was raised in a non-liturgical Black Baptist church, he has since rediscovered the beauty of liturgy through Lent. He also argues that “we should not see the season of Lent as a series of rules but as a gift of the collected wisdom of the church universal.”
And all too often, Black church traditions and their wealth of resources are overlooked in the “church universal,” even during Black History Month. As a result, majority white churches frequently miss the opportunity to press into the rich teachings of Black believers and their embodied way of living out their faith.
What if the intersection of Lent and Black History were an opportunity to celebrate the many achievements of Black believers—and the role Christianity has played in both the oppression and the liberation of Black people?
There are many historic examples of Black Christians who integrated spiritual practices into their public work of furthering the cause of justice. Such figures were engaged in a faithful prayer life, deep Scripture study, and selfless service, both inside and outside the church.
People like Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Dr. King rooted their lives in the teachings of Jesus and allowed them to inform both their private and public lives.
Richard Allen is especially significant since—out of frustration with the ways Black parishioners were treated in the Methodist church—he opened the first African Methodist Episcopal church, one of the few Black denominations that is historically liturgical. Some AME churches celebrate Lent and even publish their own Lenten devotionals.
In many ways, Allen’s establishment of the AME paved the way for Black Americans to establish their own churches of varying denominations and affiliations all over the United States. This has also created opportunities for Black churches to develop their own worship traditions and liturgical practices.
In his book The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that “the Black Church was the cultural cauldron that Black people created to combat a system designed to crush their spirit. … And the culture they created was sublime, awesome, majestic, lofty, glorious, and at all points subversive of the larger culture of enslavement that sought to destroy their humanity.”
My aunties who were born in the Jim Crow South are now in their 70s—and they have always remained faithful followers of Jesus, always looking toward the resurrection of the saints. To this day, I find myself in awe of the steadfastness of their faith. Their deep love of Jesus, even during dark times, has been formative to my own faith.
It is in part because of a deep faith in a God of liberation that Black Christians have remained in the faith even when they’ve been sidelined and oppressed by their fellow siblings in Christ throughout history. A commitment to faith and justice, a nonviolent ethic, and African American spirituals have all come out of the deep Christian faith of Black believers, even amid great pain and suffering.
What would it look like if liturgical traditions, especially predominantly white ones, looked to the example of how the Black church has historically engaged in Lenten practices like prayer, service, and repentance?
Prayer in particular has a rich tradition among Black Christians—encompassing the practices of confession, praise, adoration, supplication, intercession, and so much more.
In her 2019 talk on the tradition of prayer among African Americans, Dr. Anita Phillips shares that in many ways our faith and tradition of prayer were born out of suffering. She discusses the fact that as enslaved people embraced the Christian faith, they were not allowed to pray.
An excerpt from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938 tells a story that illustrates the dangers faced by enslaved people who were caught praying. In it, a plantation owner overheard an enslaved person praying for his master to have a change of heart so he could enjoy freedom—and the next day, the enslaved man went missing. Later, on his deathbed, the plantation owner confessed to his pastor that he killed the enslaved man for praying.
Despite such risks, the Black church has given a significant place to prayer—and in many ways, it is still influenced by African traditions with its emotive intercession, jubilant music, and celebration. Written prayer, specifically, has played a significant role in both Black church history and liturgical traditions like Lent.
Howard Thurman, an author, philosopher, and theologian, has written a number of prayers that can serve as helpful guides during the Lenten season. One such prayer is “Lord, Lord, Open Unto Me”; with its opening line of “Open unto me, light for my darkness” and its repeated supplication of God, this prayer fits well with the themes of Lent.
There is also an opportunity to reflect on Scripture and the ways of Jesus and what Christians are called into as far as caring for the marginalized. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, our mandate to “act justly and to love mercy” is clear (Mic. 6:8)—to “learn to do right; seek justice” and “defend the oppressed” (Isa. 1:17) and to repent when we fail to do so.
As McCaulley writes, “Lent is inescapably about repenting. Repentance is a change in direction, a Sprit-empowered turning around. Repentance, then, is the first step we make toward God. But to turn toward God we must turn away from something else. That something else is our sins.”
While, of course, Christians are called to repent year-round, there is a focus on this practice during the Lenten season. While recognizing and turning away from our sins should be taken seriously and brings with it a sense of heaviness, there is also space for celebration and a reminder that we are recommitting ourselves to our faith and to God.
As we repent from our personal sins and turn toward God, there is also an opportunity for the majority white church to repent of its collective sins—including its history of complicity with racism and Christian nationalism. More specifically, we should lament and repent of a past in which Black people were unable to take Communion with their fellow white parishioners, contributing to Sunday morning services as the “most segregated hour” of the week.
While most white individuals today are not directly connected to these things in the present, they are part of a past system that has perpetuated them. And as we see throughout Scripture, God recognizes and cares about systemic sin—as evident in verses like Lamentations 5:7, which reads, “Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.”
Engaging in the practices of Lent allows us to come face to face with our individual and communal sins, the sins of our ancestors, and the sinful systems and structures that we are part of. But we also celebrate the Good News that God is with us in this process and that he forgives and covers our sin in his grace.
Lent is a beautiful season in the liturgical year—it is a time of spiritual renewal in which we draw closer to Jesus and more committed to furthering his kingdom on earth. And in the overlap of Lent and Black History Month, we have a unique opportunity to press into a deeper understanding of and unity with our Black brothers and sisters in Christ, both past and present.
Kimberly Deckel is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She serves as executive pastor at Church of the Cross in Austin, Texas.