Excavating the Spiritual Genius of Black People

Worshiper in an African American Church

“Mouths don’t empty themselves unless ears are sympathetic and knowing,” wrote the twentieth-century anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston in Mules and Men, her collection of African American oral histories, sermons, songs, and folk tales. Hurston’s words could have been a mantra for sociocultural anthropologist Todne Thomas, who embedded herself in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American religious communities in the American South as research for her forthcoming book.

“I attended as many church services as possible,” she says. “I attended the breaking of bread service in the early morning. I was there at Sunday school, Bible study, worship service, and in the parking lot until every car was gone. I was a vacation Bible school teacher. I tried to be as integrated into religious and congregational life as I could in order to listen for the deep stories of the people there.”

Thomas, Assistant Professor of African American Religions, is one of the newest members of the Faculty of Divinity, which has expanded and diversified over the last five years, thanks in large part to support from the Campaign for Harvard Divinity School. Like Hurston, whose work was the subject of her undergraduate thesis at Cornell University, Thomas focuses on Afro-diasporic religious communities in the southern U.S. and the Caribbean.

“Zora Neale Hurston showed me the kind of conceptual vigor it takes to do vigorous ethnographic research,” she says. “Seeing the way that she thought very carefully about methods really appealed to me. I look at the intersections between the Caribbean and the U.S. south in a different way than Hurston did, but I’m very inspired by her work.”

For her new book on black evangelicalism, Thomas collaborated with two Christian congregations in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. One had a predominantly Afro-Caribbean membership; the other was predominantly Afro-American. Thomas explored the relationships, values, and practices through which each community understood themselves as authentically Christian.

“The community that I did research with practiced a type of evangelicalism that was brought to the United States by Afro-Caribbean missionaries who believed that African Americans needed exposure to Bible-believing Christianity—a very complicated concept,” she says. “There were moments of ethnic tension, particularly around the idea that African American Christianity was somehow less Biblically grounded than the Christianity that the Afro-Caribbeans were trying to translate.”

Thomas says that one of the ways that ethnic tension was navigated was through a language of spiritual kinship that enabled people not only to understand each other as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” but also to create a community that assisted them with living through the realities of discrimination and racism in the wider society.

“These ideas help people to enliven themselves as spiritual mothers, parents, and prayer partners,” she says. “It’s a set of relationships—a technology of belonging and intimacy—that provides a way for people to live ethically with each other and also to mitigate the experience of being racialized as black.”

In general, Thomas studies Afro- diasporic religious movements where European influence isn’t necessarily primary. While she acknowledges “the weight of coloniality” on the people of the south Atlantic, Thomas says that a narrow focus on colonization misses the imprint that people of African descent made on religion in the “New World.”

“When the term Afro-Caribbean religion comes up, people are likely to think of things like Santeria or voodoo,” she explains. “I’m a scholar of Christianity. I think it’s also an important project to look at how black Christians from different ethno-national backgrounds navigate, translate, practice, and understand Christianity. I cannot drop the colonial aspect, because it’s important, but there are other things happening as well.”

Those “other things” include an understanding of evangelicalism in the United States that goes beyond what Thomas calls the “white evangelical norm.”

“There’s this idea of the ‘Trump- vangelical,’” she says. “We can talk about a white evangelical majority, but whites don’t own evangelicalism. There are many strands, substrates, and narratives about evangelical Christianity in the United States today. Those are the stories I want to tell.”

They are also the stories that students want to hear, if Thomas’s first year at HDS is any indication. Although she’d never taught at a divinity school before, Thomas became one of HDS’s best- loved faculty soon after she arrived. Last spring, she received the Outstanding Teacher Award—an honor that caught her off guard.

“I didn’t even know the award existed,” she says. “It made me feel good about the decision to come to HDS. My colleagues said their favorite thing about being here was the students. Now I know why. It was a really beautiful thing.”

Looking ahead, Thomas says that one of the things she finds most gratifying about HDS is the knowledge that her ideas will have a real world impact in the work that the School’s graduates do. It’s a daunting challenge, but also a great opportunity.

“There’s a sense of possibility and seriousness about the work we do here,” she says. It requires us to maintain a certain sense of engagement with the world beyond campus. It’s a challenge, but what we do here in the classroom will have an afterlife. It doesn’t just go on a transcript. It has a future.”

—Paul Massari