Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’
(‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’)
‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
To Make the Wounded Whole: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
A mourner’s bench is a site of Christian conversion. Charles G. Finney, one of the most influential preachers of the Second Great Awakening, developed the practice of having what he called mourner’s bench, which would also become known as an anxious bench, right up front at the revival meetings, next to the pulpit. As people were spiritually and emotionally compelled by Finney’s powerful sermons and the general intensity of the services, they would physically move from their seats in the congregation up to the mourner’s bench. According to scholar Jay Mazzocchi, the physical movement to the mourner’s bench was a visible sign of the person internal conversion... a sign that they were ready “abandon their life of sin” and follow Jesus.
The ones who had been convicted by the Holy Spirit might weep or pray aloud or testify to their guilt and salvation. The preacher and others who had already had similar conversion experiences might pray with them and encourage them. It could be a raucous and moving and terrifying spectacle to witness. The practice was so powerful that it spread beyond the ministry of Charles Finney, who first utilized them in the 1820’s. There are still congregations that use them, and an adjacent practice called at altar call, to this day. I know many people who cite altar calls and mourner’s benches as vital parts of the development of their Christian faith. I also know many people who describe them as places of spiritual coercion and shame. Both things are true and we should hold both truths together when we hear about a mourner’s bench.
“Mourner’s Bench” is also the title of the central solo in a longer dance piece called Southern Landscape. Lousiana-born, Chicago-raised Talley Beatty choreographed this piece in 1947, inspired by Howard Fast’s novel Freedom Road. In a recent talk about Beatty’s work, Dr. John Perpener described Fast’s novel as a fictionalized recounting of a true story from Reconstruction- era South Carolina, where, like other parts of the defeated Confederacy, formerly enslaved people were able to build coalition communities and governments with poor white people. When the federal government abandoned the protections of Reconstruction, removing the troops who had kept former-slave owners from retaliating against the formerly enslaved, the Klan and other white supremacists were able to destroy many of these coalitions and communities, usually with violence. In Freedom Road, they siege a community, killing many of the Black inhabitants as they tried to protect their homes.
Beatty, whose own family had had to leave Louisiana due to threats from white men who were trying to coerce his father into selling them his land, was deeply moved by Freedom Road. Dr. Perpener quotes Beatty as saying “It was staggering” how cruel people could be. In an interview for the documentary Free To Dance, Beatty say that he was “compelled to do this dance.” In the talk that I watched in preparation for this sermon, Dr. Perpener said Beatty, like other Black choreographers of the same era, would craft pieces that were, at once “part socio-political commentary, part fiery protest and resistance, and part desolate commemorative.” Beatty, in an act of resistance, places his commentary and grief within the bounds of the mourner’s bench, a common part of so many of the lives touched by racialized violence.
Perpener argues that Beatty is making use of one particular idea about the mourner’s bench. In many Black churches, the mourner’s bench was a site of redemption, salvation, rebirth, and spiritual renewal. The figure in the dance, who has just buried his friends, family members, and neighbors under the cover of darkness so as to hide from the still lurking Klan, has come to the mourner’s bench to grieve was has been done to him and to the people he loved. Unlike Finney’s raucous revivals or even a typical Sunday service, the mourner is alone, with only the Spirit to pray over him and guide him through his grief. In his description of the dance, Beatty said that every movement, from the wide-open arms to the curling into his chest, is the mourner’s reflection on the horrific events of the day. Beatty described the dance as both a group expression of grief and one individual’s personal grief.
In his talk, Perpener reminds us that the mourner’s bench is a site of transformation. When we remember that fact, it become clearer why this man, who is not lamenting his own sin but the sinful actions done to him and his community, would choose to grieve on the mourner’s bench. In choreographing this tremendous grief in a physical space known to represent transformation, we witness Beatty’s creative shifting the meaning of the mourner’s bench from a place of repentance of the sinful to a space of welcome to the grief-stricken. The dancer does not need to repent. He does need to be healed. Beatty, in what Perpener calls “artistic license,” and I might call theological imagination, wants to find a measure of transformative healing for the man and community represented in the dance. That healing begins by holding space for deep grief right on the mourner’s bench, the site where many people were welcomed into Christian community for the very first time. Transformation comes through recognizing that grief is a part of faith, not something shameful to be hidden away in the midst of it.
As we watch the dancer, we see the potential for healing transformation, even as he is wracked with grief. Remember the ways he moves across and around the bench. He still reaches out and up, he still opens himself to the possibility of comfort and healing, even though, by the end, it is clear that the healing is still in the hoped-for-future, not the freshly painful present. And, the song that accompanies this grief is a hymn... a hymn that quotes the deeply grieving words of the prophet Jeremiah. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
I don’t know if Talley Beatty was thinking of all those words when he danced this grief across the mourner’s bench, but I cannot imagine a piece that could more clearly captures the emotions of this text. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. I feel like I know more about Jeremiah because I have watched this dance. In a commentary on the Jeremiah text, Dr. Steed Davidson describes today’s reading as “recognition of the consequences of disaster and destruction.” To me, the consequences of destruction are written all over the dancer’s face and body as he grieves. It should be remembered that the dance and the scripture speak of different kinds of disaster, of grief in response to different kinds of trauma.
We should note that Jeremiah often thought the people deserved the pain they got where Beatty absolutely did not. However, we can still hold this dance and this scripture together and be reminded that grief is a reasonable response to tragedy. Anyone who expects us not to show our pain after significant loss or tries to ignore the pain of trauma that affects an entire community is disregarding the lessons of both Jeremiah and “Mourner’s Bench.” Grief does not need to be hidden away. Transformation can come, but the grief must be felt, deeply, in a space made for renewal and rebirth. Beatty found that space on the mourner’s bench. We can make that space in our church and our community. We need not forget the losses that pain us. And, our grief need not be a beautiful as Beatty’s dance. But, it needs to be felt. And, God will be right there, on the bench, with us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Jay Mazzocchi's definition of Mourners Bench: https://www.ncpedia.org/mourners-bench
Talley Beatty talking about Mourner's Bench: https://www.thirteen.org/freetodance/about/interviews/beatty2.html
I am grateful for John Perpener's work, which I encountered in these two forms:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.