Lament: Forbidden Prayer

By Karen Mahan

CHALLENGE. I’ve been listening to Dr. Anita Philips on the “African American tradition of prayer.” (See link below). She speaks of the powerful prayer in her parents’ church, the Church of God in Christ. And this powerful prayer should come as no surprise, as they are traditions “born in blood”, as she puts it, in religious persecution. Many slaves were forbidden to pray under penalty of beatings, and so took to praying at night, in the woods, surrounded by wet quilts to muffle the sound. Some slave owners not only forbade prayer, but enforced laws preventing literacy and reading the Bible. This testifies to the fear that their slaves would be saved, and so show they have souls! Souls that might discover in Scripture that God wants them to be free! I didn’t know this growing up. Frederick Douglas was the first person I read who linked the prohibition on literacy to a desire to keep salvation from the black population.

And who would want them kept in bondage, and would want their souls to never know the love of Jesus? Whose plan was this slave culture in service of? Who wants to prevent us from hearing God’s word, from understanding God’s word, hearing words of eternal life? Rev. 12:9 NIV “…that ancient serpent called Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” We must say, this racism was nothing short of Satanic.


Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I am outraged by injustice, and I long to be merciful, to let kindness be the rule for everything I do. But when it comes to the command to  “walk humbly,” I must confess this is not my natural posture. Walking humbly isn’t affirmed in our culture at large, and even in the church, where we want to follow Jesus, we still also want to be “right.”
And I lament the ways I’ve heard the story of our country, and ways I’ve read scripture. Bits that have been edited out, or that I just didn’t notice! The ways I thought I knew the whole picture, but was in fact wrong!

ACTION: To learn from and embrace the historic witness of our African American brothers and sisters.

I highly recommend Dr. Anita Philips’s message on the “African American tradition of prayer” (see link below) if you desire to be blessed by this tradition.

Dr. Esau McCaulley, Anglican Priest and Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, comments on how critical Genesis 1 is to the black church that teaches that we are all created in the image of God. And in Genesis 8, God says the taking of human life is of highest moral culpability.  In Exodus, we find that Ephrahim and Manassah, Joseph’s two sons, are half Egyptian. They’re African boys, and namesakes of two tribes of Israel. How did this escape my notice?

Today, in defiance of the enemy’s plans to “lead the whole world astray,” when it comes to religious commitment African Americans exceed every other ethnic group in the United States. 83% of African Americans are completely certain God exists. 84% believe in miracles, 83% believe in angels and demons, 79% identify as Christians. 55% believe Scripture to be the literal word of God. 83% go to church regularly, 47% weekly (statistics quoted by Philips). This is a phenomenal heritage of faith, born out of religious persecution, as Philips says .

PRAYER. Listening to Dr. Phillips’ mother, Shirley Graham, praying at the end of that service, I felt I needed her prayer over my life too. I need her faith, her tradition of trusting God, her dynamic heartfelt prayer. I need this church, the Black church! I don’t stand alone. This is my family too, and as the Apostle John declares, the way we know we’re in Christ is how we love one another.

Lord, I’m so grateful for your family, and I need your family, your whole family! Right the wrongs in our country and in our hearts, and give our love “feet” to work for justice. 


Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Dr. Anita Philips: “The African American Tradition of Prayer”

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