Stacey Holman faced a challenge.
She worked for months, with little sleep, and accomplished her goal.
Holman and her crew took 400 years of Black church history and whittled it down to four hours for the PBS series “Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.” The series premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, on New Mexico PBS. The second two hours will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17.
With all the information in front of her, Holman learned a lot.
“I realized that I didn’t know so much,” she says. “We’d gather information, and it would surprise me.”
The four-hour, two-part series from executive producer, host and writer Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, with its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.
The documentary reveals how Black people have worshiped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.
Renowned participants in the series include Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans.
Holman says the great thing about doing a historical film is that there are scholars who know the entire history.
“We had a group of advisers from about 10 different disciplines,” Holman says. “We also had a wealth of archive material to pull from. We had to carefully craft the series so that it flows. I encouraged our editors for each of the hours to look at each other’s work. This helped make all of the information flow.”
For many, the Black church is their house of worship.
For some, it is ground zero for social justice.
For others, it is a place of transcendent cultural gifts exported to the world, from the soulful voices of preachers and congregants, to the sublime sounds of gospel music.
Holman says the documentary explores the changing nature of worship spaces and the men and women who shepherded them from the pulpit, the choir loft and church pews.
The churches are also a world within a world, where Black Americans could be themselves; and the center of the freedom struggle that revolutionized the United States across slavery and abolition, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration, and the civil rights movement.
“Our series is a riveting and systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshiped God in their own images and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses, to camp meetings and storefront structures, to mosques and megachurches,” Gates says. “This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us, and it comes at a time in our country when the very things they struggled and died for – faith and freedom, justice and equality, democracy and grace – all are on the line. No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church.”
Holman says there are many elements to the Black church.
As the documentary is about to premiere, she hopes that it serves as a bright spot after a year of turmoil.
“I want people to feel encouraged and hopeful,” she says. “We are pulling up the rug of some of the issues of the Black church. People continue to believe and hope for a better day and a better justice system. I wanted to educate people with the documentary, because there is so much information.”