Photo caption: True Vine Church of God In Christ on Chicago’s West Side circa 1970s, the church founded by John Fountain’s grandparents
Amid Easter 2023, the author reflects on Easters Past and Present
On the Sunday after Easter 2023, I wonder whether “the church” will be filled. Whether the pomp and circumstance that encompassed Resurrection Sunday at churches across America will have ceased.
Whether the poor, the widow, the orphan and the indigent, those societal castaways, or those who feel cast aside, forgotten by the church, will feel any more welcome to enter its doors.
I wonder whether the power of God will affect and finally overtake neighborhoods where crime and violence flow, where mothers of slain children wail, where the death bell tolls endlessly. Where evil seems to prevail and a deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl now leaves a new trail of drug-addicted souls who stumble through streets and vacant lots in a zombie-like stupor, or overdosing and falling dead.
I wonder whether the darkness that reigns here in Chicago, on so many blocks that can no longer be called “neighborhoods” or “communities,” will begin to dissolve, giving way to penetrating light and promise. To healing and hope that resounds as loudly as church bells that rang in celebration and commemoration of a risen Christ on Easter Sunday.
Or, on the Sunday after Easter, will the spirit of Easter die, languish like a dream deferred? Amount to little more than impassioned but empty words spoken amid an atmosphere of good feelings on a religious holiday filled with piety, ritual and emotion that comes once a year, then vanishes like good intentions that never materialize. Like a vapor.
Amid a world long on troubles, sorrow and hardship and too short on hope, a world searching for answers, meaning and solace in this life and salve for what ails the human soul, I wonder. As the sun rises even on the morning after Easter Sunday, I wonder.
No, I think I know. That is why I stayed home this Easter, away from church and the ceremonials, my head swirling with questions and with misgivings. My heart’s memory awash in past church hurts and also sweet memories of Easters and Sunday worship services past.
Incapacitated on Easter Sunday by my angst and also my love for and yet my disappointment in the church. By my belief in the transforming power of God through his son Jesus Christ and also, once upon a time, my belief in the church as change agent, and yet its disconnection from poor Black communities that languish somewhere between desolation and death.
My relationship with the institutional church is complicated. I have one foot in and one foot out, having joined a church I love less than a year ago, but finding myself currently in a state of limbo. It’s not the church but me.
It is the juxtaposition of the supposed light of the churches that dot the urban landscape, particularly in places that are the darkest. Places where systemic issues help form a potpourri of endemic poverty, and socioeconomic and mental health chains from which there can be no escaping without supernatural intervention that begins a radical re-education, restoration and redemptive plan to remedy what ails us as a people.
We must save ourselves from this swirling sea that generations now drown in. And we must rely upon the faith of our ancestors, of our spirit angels who were sustained through bitter African captivity and the cruel Middle Passage, who were raised from chattel slavery, from lynching and Jim Crow brutality, and who remained deeply rooted in our soul’s song to the creator and an irrepressible, unfailing, hope and faith in God.
In the belief of our collective power, in community—in the church as organism rather than the church as distilled, even classist, and an aloof organization. In the inevitability, over time, to achieve social uplift, even in an America that hates us. To be resurrected.
That’s the message of Easter I believe in, even as our people perish and far too many of our neighborhoods crumble, even as churches bling, the awe-inspired choir sings, and once a year we do this religious thing.
But what about Christ’s resurrection power on the other 364 days of the year? What about tomorrow? Next Sunday? Or will it lie dormant until next year?
A Recovering Churchaholic
Written originally in 2019
On this Easter, I am still a recovering churchaholic. But, thank God, I’m free.
Free from religion. Free from the vexing of religious traditions, isms and schisms, abuses and dogma. Free to see, beyond the clouded veil of man, the matchless risen savior: Jesus Christ.
Mine has been an unenviable journey on a still unfolding, nonlinear walk of faith as I—an imperfect Pentecostal grandson—continue to work out my soul’s salvation with fear and trembling.
I am a church misfit. I have come to accept that maybe I always was and always will be.
I am a square peg perhaps not meant to fit into the church round hole. And I have found in the church no place for me. “A rebel without a cause,” I have been called by good church folk. “Anti-church.”
And yet, I am open to the possibility of someday returning to the institutional church.
But whether that day ever comes, I stand with my faith intact, having discovered no better place for worship than in His presence—whether in a church or in my living room—in spirit and in truth. I still believe.
And what I have also come to believe—to know—is that there is a place for me. Always was. Always will be: At the cross of Jesus.
That discovery took many years of heartache, soul-searching and heartbreak. The deepest hurts occurred not from outside the walls of the church but within them.
And yet, I am not angry with anyone. Not bitter. Not spiteful or vengeful. For I believe that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
I believe that God willed it so. I believe the blood of Jesus is still the cleansing pool that washes away a multitude of sins.
I have also come to believe that He has called some of us to endure certain hardships, to plod by faith sometimes beyond the beaten path—not for our own sake alone but for the good of others. For His glory.
Some who read my words about the church hear only anger, but not my pain. They see in my writings “hate” for the church instead of my deep love for the church ingrained in my bones.
Some have labeled me a whiner with an axe to grind. But I have no axe to grind, only a cross to bear.
That cross, in part, includes sharing my experiences within the institution in which I have known some of my greatest joys but also my deepest pain. An institution that has perfected the public display of piety and pomp and circumstance but too often appears devoid of grace, mercy and compassion.
In my twenties, as a deacon and minister in my grandfather’s church, I imagined I might someday become a pastor.
But that is not my calling, as far as I can see. The last thing we need is another church.
What the African American community needs most is more truth. More love. More caring. More people willing to be the church than going to church. What brothers—and sisters—who have been church hurt, church devastated, and church abandoned, want is to hear a voice of compassion, to see and feel the hand of restoration and healing that guides them in love rather than with criticism and harshness, not back to the institutional church but back to Christ.
No, my calling is not to be a pastor—unless I might be pastor of the pen—to speak to the wind in this generation of the grace and mercy of God.
Unless I might, by the words of my pen, flowing with the meditations and longing of my heart, help us to remember and resurrect the church I once knew.
To tell others who also find themselves this Easter outside the church’s walls that they too can be free. Free indeed.
Pomp, But No Power
Written originally in 2017
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” –Matthew 16:18
Resurrection. From the cold, cold clutches of death, it springs. And the gates of hell shall not prevail. Let all in earth and Heaven sing…
And yet, I stand within these earthly gates of hell that swell with unremitting death and destruction. In neighborhoods where Murder and Mayhem need no introduction.
Where “the Church” lies asleep and is complicit in the reduction of dreams to ash and decay. And life fleets with illicit dismay.
Where the scorn of poverty looms heavy, like the stench of sulfur. And the children suffer.
I see crumbling brick houses neglected and battered. Neighborhoods where “life” once mattered. Callous corners where shameless drug boys wearing white T-shirts peddle. A Church that seems to have lost its mettle. I see addicted souls, wandering aimlessly in a heroin-induced stupor, down dreary streets awash in tears and blood. Streets too filled with hate and not enough love.
I see the glory of another Easter Sunday morn, rising across a forlorn stretch of land, where churches cluster, but mostly bluster.
Churches where the Resurrection story is recited in resplendent pomp and circumstance. Where choirs sing and banner wavers dance. While beyond their walls, poor Black and brown communities gasp, clinging desperately to consciousness amid fading hope for one last chance. Golgotha—place of the skull—where suffering and sorrow today spill like sweat from pores.
And consuming waters of bleakness rise like a cresting merciless river. I shiver. At the gulf between “them” and “us.” Even as I remember the reason for this season.
I imagine that Calvary’s hill more than 2,000 years ago must have looked a lot like this. The circumstances are this hopeless. This wretched. This abandoned. This unfathomable. This irreparable. This irredeemable. The human suffering incalculable.
And yet, resurrection…From suffering and shame. From blood and pain. Eternal gain.
From the inhumane cruelty of the cross arose a transcendent emblem. A faith born from the teachings of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who conquered death and the grave—who willingly suffered to heal “them.”
Who declared to His disciples after resurrection: “All power is given unto me in Heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…”
Resurrection… I rejoice in resurrection. But I am troubled by the lack of reflection of the divine power we the Church claim we possess. All the while neighborhoods, where our steeples tickle the high heavens, languish in dire distress.
I wonder: If we really believe in Easter’s glory, why is the narrative of life and death in the ’hood the same old story? Or if Jesus Christ has commanded the faithful to carry the cross, why do we stay holed up inside instead of seeking out the lost?
Or in troubled neighborhoods where churches dot every corner, how can so much so-called light and darkness co-exist? Why do the gates of hell seem so successfully to resist?
I stand within these gates and I see the living dead. I see entombed communities and the ravages of death, though visions of their resurrection dance inside my head.
I see the lame and the blind, the captive and the poor. A people whose fates have been silently auctioned to the Grim Reaper who lurks just beyond the church’s doors.
And yet, by faith I see possibilities of so much more. I see a Church moving beyond the walls. A Church renewed by a resurgence of love, faith and power from God above.
I see resurrection. From the cold, cold clutches of death, it springs. And the gates of hell shall not prevail. Let all in earth and Heaven sing…
Beyond The Walls
Written originally in 2014
They sing. This collection of humanity: The halt. The lame. The withering.
A preacher and his wife, plainly dressed, wearing no vestments, neither bathed in pomp and circumstance, administer the Lord’s Supper. They lift the bread and cup to the mouths of some of those gathered here for a morning service.
Tears. Whispered prayers. More tears—of sadness and also joy. The preacher’s wife gently dabs eyes, mouths and noses with tissue.
“Always remember, there is power in the name of Jesus,” she intones to the group of mostly elderly, some in wheelchairs, some unable to speak.
Those who can speak lift their voices, filling the basement of this nursing home—that has become their sanctuary—with spiritual song.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jeeee-sus,” they sing a cappella. “There’s something about that name…”
A sweet, sweet spirit fills this place where the scent of sickness overpowers the arresting smell of antiseptics.
There is also here a palpable thirst—for hope, for comfort. The need for human touch, for love. Room for “the church.”
One by one, they ask for prayer. The preacher’s wife lays her left hand on the head of a man attached to oxygen and lying in a reclined chair. She places her right hand on his belly. She prays.
Sitting in the back of the room, I take it all in: The love of this praying couple that visits this nursing home faithfully, moved by their conviction to “be” the church; the absence of “the institutional church” in places where it is most needed: on the fringes and in society’s shadowy corners, where the poor and the forgotten dwell.
I think of how this assemblage of humanity inside this nursing home must have been how the biblical Pool of Bethesda looked: the aging and the ailing, languishing beyond the temple, looking to God rather than to man, awaiting the angelic seasonal troubling of the waters.
I thought about how we—the church—have become more fully engaged in ritual and religion. Less connected to the real work of redemption and restoration, reflective of the love of a God who gave His only begotten Son.
I thought about Easter Sunday. How there undoubtedly will be much fanfare and myriad celebrations, Easter plays and reenactments of The Passion, but on that day few collective acts of compassion for the poor and forgotten.
And I wondered: Should, for the believer, the celebration of the death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, occur only once a year?
Isn’t, for us, everyday Easter?
This much I have reconciled: That Easter baskets, bunnies and bonnets, Easter egg hunts and supper, and even Easter services vastly pale in comparison to Easter serving. That servanthood is a daily affair—not an hors d’oeuvre, but the main course.
That a church that fails to carry out the Christ-ordained mission to seek to restore and redeem mankind beyond the church’s walls does not embody the life and heart of Christ.
That today’s church is in need of a resurrection of love, of a heart transplant—of one more filled with compassion and caring—and desperately in need of a transfusion of fervor and fearlessness for the protection and care of even the least of these.
That couldn’t have been any clearer at that service inside a nursing home one Saturday, many weeks before Easter, where by two humble servants I witnessed the hands and heart of Christ.
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John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”