Going to Church: An Inside Look at the Black Church

Two-part series reveals the broad history and culture of the Black church and explores African-American faith communities on the frontlines of hope and change.

For many, the Black church is a world within a world. For some, it’s a house of worship, for others an engine for social justice and a place of transcendent cultural gifts exported to the world through the sublime sounds of Gospel music.

For Black Americans, it’s a place where they can be their authentic selves; and it is the epicenter 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. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once expressed that going to church in America was “the most segregated hour of the week.” 

The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song is a moving 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 & African American Research. The series traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to 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. 

“Our series is a riveting and systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African-Americans have worshipped God in their own images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses to camp meetings and store-front structures, to mosques and mega-churches,” says Dr. Gates. “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.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. inside the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of McGee Media.

The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped 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 media executive and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey; singer, songwriter, producer, and philanthropist John Legend; singer and actress Jennifer HudsonPresiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church; gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar, and BeBe Winans; civil rights leaders Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Dr. William Barber II; scholar Cornel West; and many more. Through their interviews, viewers will be transported by the songs that speak to one’s soul, by preaching styles that have moved congregations and a nation, and by beliefs and actions that drew African-Americans from the violent margins of society to the front lines of change.

The Black church has taken people from the valley to “the mountaintop” and, as some of the most influential Black voices today reflect on the meaning of the church in their lives and to the country, the series will contemplate where the “promised land” is for this generation and the next.

The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song premieres February 16 and 17, 2021 at 9 PM ET on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings).