Black Judaism, Pentecostalism In Focus For a closer look at religious diversity in black America, Farai Chideya focuses on two religions with equally devout followers, which garner comparatively less attention in black America. Our conversation about diversity of religion in the black community continues with Sheree Curry and Anthea Butler.
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Black Judaism, Pentecostalism In Focus

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Black Judaism, Pentecostalism In Focus

Black Judaism, Pentecostalism In Focus

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. We just talked to two scholars about the politics of religion in the black community, and now we're going to focus in on a couple of religions and religious practices that have devout followers, but none as many as mainline black Protestantism. How does that affect religious worship and identity? Sheree Curry is a journalist and editor of BlackandJewish.com, and we've also got Anthea Butler, visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to you both.

Ms. SHEREE CURRY (Editor, BlackandJewish.com): Thank you for having me.

Ms. ANTHEA BUTLER (Visiting Scholar, Harvard Divinity School): Thanks, Farai. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So, Sheree, let me start with you. By the name of your Web site, it's clear that you're talking about being black and Jewish. But you weren't born Jewish. What path led you to the religion?

Ms. CURRY: I took a comparative religious class in high school, and all the religions that were compared, I felt a connection with Judaism, and when I got to college the following year, I looked more into it and began a conversion process.

CHIDEYA: What was it that attracted you to Judaism?

Ms. CURRY: What specifically at this point? It was so many years ago. I can't quite recall. But it was within the attention to, you know - I apologize. It's how the kind of religion that the family values in the religion, the focus on God more so than on an intermediary. That also was important to me.

CHIDEYA: Well, Anthea, let me turn to you. You've done a lot of research on Christian faiths, including Pentecostalism. Give me a sense of - and these are two very different religious traditions. One of the differences, obviously, is we're talking about Judaism and Christianity, but also there's a lot of differences between Pentecostalism and some other forms of Christianity. What are those differences?

Ms. BUTLER: Well, part of the difference is - and I think here's the place where perhaps the Jewish and the Pentecostal connect more so than we might like to think - is the idea about disciplinary bodily practices. And I think for Pentecostals, the act of fasting, prayer, shouting, dancing, especially for African-Americans, ties back to traditional slave religion. And these are the kinds of things that are more appealing, let's say, than a quite liturgical experience being held in some other type of churches. And another thing about Pentecostalism, too, I think, is that it gives you a place in which to deal with the super naturalist and say there's real evil in the world; there are evil things that happen. And especially for African-Americans with a legacy of slavery and all, we don't - you know, we may not talk about these things very much. And it's a manner in which you can acknowledge evil, but you can also acknowledge that God can triumph over evil as well.

CHIDEYA: What role did Pentecostalism play in the development of black communities, particularly in the South?

Ms. BUTLER: Well, what's very interesting is that Pentecostalism, I'd like to say, is the glue that holds the pre-migration period and the migration period together. And by that, I mean, you have small rural Pentecostal churches that get started. After this, there's a (unintelligible) revival, some that are existent before 1906. And then what you have during a great migration period is the connection between churches like Church of God in Christ that are based out of Memphis, that have big centers in places like Detroit, and Chicago, Philadelphia and New York and others. And as you have this movement back and forth; these churches continue to meet in Southern places. The Church of God in Christ has met in convocation in Memphis for probably over 100 years. And that - it makes for a very interesting way to carry traditional African-American cultural practices back and forth from the South to the North.

CHIDEYA: Sheree, let me turn back to you. We have had many conversations on our show about faith in the black community and have talked to people who born into Judaism, as well as people who converted. Do you ever feel as if - I'm assuming that you go to a majority non-black synagogue. Is that correct?

Ms. CURRY: Yes, I affiliate with the conservative Jewish movement, and majority is not people of color, right.

CHIDEYA: Do you ever feel isolated within your synagogue?

Ms. CURRY: I do not, actually. And I have moved around a lot in the 20-plus years that I have been Jewish, and so I've belonged to a lot of different synagogues, and I have never felt as if I were on the outside within that community. It doesn't mean that people don't, you know, inquire, you know, when you're born Jewish, how did you become Jewish, and they all want to hear that story. However, otherwise, it's - you know, it's business as usual: You're there to pray, you're there to celebrate a holiday, and I don't feel that there's any difference there.

CHIDEYA: What about the issue of conversion? When you talk about being a part of the conservative Jewish tradition, there are many different branches and groups, but there's reform, conservative, orthodox, and my limited understanding, admittedly, is that some people make a distinction between people who are converts and some people don't, in terms of things like lineage, where Judaism is often viewed to be something that passes from mother to child. How do you perceive people's relationship to you as a convert, aside from race?

Ms. CURRY: Well, in general, I think - well, one thing, I guess, even though I do also know people of color who were born Jewish, you know, whether - because parent was or - what have you. However, it still is a big presumption that I converted. So, I could say that I wear my conversion on my sleeve. You know, there are other people, Caucasians, who convert who probably don't get noticed as much. So, I would say, again, the biggest difference there is that I'm usually asked more often than not about the process, you know, why did you convert? How did you convert? This is your first couple of questions - were to me. I do hear those questions a lot. So, I think that's probably the biggest difference.

Outside of that curiosity, as they - as some people would, even if this was a Caucasian person who had converted, if they knew that, they may also ask the same questions of that person. But in terms of being treated differently within the conservative Jewish movement, because I am a convert, I again do not find that to be the case. I do know there are differences if you were within the...

CHIDEYA: Right.

Ms. CURRY: Different communities in terms of what's allowed and what's not. For example, an orthodox person who is - comes from the line of Kohen, we call them, from the priests - somebody like whose last name might be Cohen for example - that they're not allowed to marry someone who converted to Judaism. So...

CHIDEYA: Well, let me give Anthea one last chance at that. Do you see Pentecostalism and other charismatic traditions growing or decreasing in numbers at this point?

Ms. BUTLER: Well, right now, around the world, if we take everybody, it's over 500 million people. Some - it's growing at an exponential rate in the African-American community, more often than not. If you think about the T. D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, all those kinds of people, plus people like Charles Blake in Los Angeles and others, the African-American Pentecostal Churches are much larger than the traditional churches that you've probably previously talked about, AME or some Baptist churches. Some yes, they're growing at an exponential rate. And I think, for - especially for African-Americans, they find themselves more comfortable in these kind of church environments than they do in what we would call the traditional black church environment.

CHIDEYA: All right. Thank you so much.

Ms. BUTLER: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking to Anthea Butler, visiting research professor at Harvard Divinity School, and Sheree Curry, journalist and editor of BlackandJewish.com.

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