Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Orleans 3: Juke joint theology

Dan and I have found our way to the Candlelight in the heart of Treme. Earlier today we visited the Backstreet Museum across the street from St. Augustine Parish and the memorial to the Unnamed Slave. The former Blandin’s Funeral Parlor has been turned into a repository for a breathtaking collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and finery from the Social and Pleasure Clubs Second Line parade units. Towards the end of our visit , the proprietor hands us a sheet with important information. 
Over the years of my visits here, I’ve pretty much learned which regular gigs take place  where every night of every week. But now a new door has opened. For the first time I know where the same groups play on which nights every week in the black neighborhoods. And so we have come to hear the Treme Brass Band. Earlier in the evening, we’d run into them ready to parade on Bourbon. We chatted with the tuba player and he was surprised when we told him we’d be heading to the Candelight later to hear them.  
From the outside, the Candlelight is a plain concrete block box.Looks like a roadside juke joint from an earlier time.  A tarp hung from the roof on one side covers a woman with her grilled meats and jambalaya stand. Inside rows of long tables and plastic chairs, a bar and the table with the free red beans and rice. A few players are sitting in the band area, waiting for the rest to arrive. 
As the show  begins, I begin to realize why Dan has been drawn  away from classic jazz to brass band. By now, classic jazz, ending with Be Bop, has become almost like an artifact,  under glass, something to be studied, or performed in a concert. Precise charts, well defined form. It’s a long way from the sweaty hot spots described in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Beautiful,and yet...
Brass band, on the other hand,  has its life in the streets, in the midst of community.  It has roots in the European brass band tradition, but made its music from what flowed out of the whorehouses, and churches. It has never left the streets, from the weekly second lines to funeral parades to these neighborhood gigs.  It listens, converses, picks up whatever’s going on, r&b, hip hop, funk and keeps adding it into the flow. Can move from Jesus to reefer to salvation and lovesick blues seamlessly. And keeps on flowing, like a river. 
So why am I writing about this?  Because I covet that for the church. Not the music, but the way of being, creating. Our mainline denominations have become like classic jazz, at their best, with some congregations presenting beautiful embodiments of a classic faith expression. But the vast majority simply echo the past with the same well worn charts. 
What we need is a church that is in the street, moving, flowing, interacting, leading the followers into dance and at the same time being reshaped by what they bring. A pulsating rhythm of life flowing through the streets and carrying the people who flow with it.
But there’s more. As I watch the room fill, the dance floor bounces with a crowd of black and white, rich and poor, all shapes and sizes, including people with various disabilities clearly a part of the community. This scene in the same place could be happening anytime over the last 100 years. 
The shameful reality is that when it comes to the integration of white folks and black folks at the most intimate levels, the jukes got there long before the church. These joints with their music born at the  crossroads of sacred and profane engaged in the transgressive act of bringing black and white together  to dance, to drink, to love the music to...everything the dominant society feared.  And we’re still trying to catch up.
I’m not saying that the church should become a juke joint. They are each their own reality. But there’s a lesson to be learned about an ethos, a way of being. That embraces and accepts life in all its reality and rawness. An uncompromising authenticity.  If the church can’t do that, it’s over. Or should be. If it can’t go there, its not worth it. Seems to me that’s what incarnational theology is all about. 

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