Students are learning about preaching, praising, praying and testifying within the black oral tradition.
January at Calvin means interim, a time for courses with titles like “Mixed Media Artist Bookmaking,” “Big Sky Geology” and “Turkish Transformations.” During the three weeks of January interim, faculty and students travel down some exotic academic pathways on campus, across the nation and around the world. Every year, the News & Stories team covers a handful of Calvin's many interim offerings.
As students settled into their seats in 227 in the Covenant Fine Arts Center on a Friday morning their English professor, Angi Kortenhoven cued up the video: a circa 1974 YouTube clip of Al Green performing “Jesus is Waiting” on the television show Soul Train.
The performance begins with Green reciting The Lord's Prayer before launching into the song and its opening line: "Jesus is waiting, and if you're broken down/ Jesus is waiting, hey yeah, don't let yourself down." For the next six minutes, as Green sings, the Soul Train studio audience responds, encouraging him with their shouts of affirmation and appreciation. The Calvin students also respond, smiling, nodding their heads and even tapping a toe here and there on the classroom’s carpeted floor.
The black church experience
As the final strains faded from the speakers, Kortenhoven moved back to the front of the room, opened the class in prayer and then, smile still on her face, challenged her 20 students.
"All right," she said, "I want to hear from you. What may you have noticed in that video, in Al Green's singing, that reflected on the black church experience?"
Student hands went up, and Kortenhoven called on them in turn.
"Audience participation," said one. "I wasn't expecting that."
"What we were talking about the other day with tonal adjustments—when he was bringing down the band."
Kortenhoven nodded. "Yeah, yeah," she said. "He was doing some orchestration there. The sermon I played the other day had preacher orchestration too. Anything else?"
"Call and response," a student added.
"Yeah," said Kortenhoven, "a ton of call and response. Not a lot of words, but a ton of repetition."
Examples of "fiery phonations"
The class is English W42, an interim offering otherwise known as "Language and the African-American Church." The purpose of the course is to look at discourse practices that are a part of the oral culture of many traditional African American churches. Kortenhoven places particular emphasis on church testifying, preaching, praying and singing, including the specific styles, practices, words and phrases that can be traced back to the slave church from which African-American Christianity emerged.
Kortenhoven moved on from Al Green to an audio recording of a sermon by Dr. Claudette Copeland, an executive pastor of the New Creation Christian Fellowship Church near San Antonio, Texas.
She showed the students a graph of the pitch analysis she had done on the entire sermon. And she played examples of what she called Copeland's "fiery phonation," the places in the sermon where Copeland's voice changes significantly, where her volume grows, where some of the words are almost a growl and where she uses clear examples of what Kortenhoven calls African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
"Even though she is seminary trained, she is still going back to that traditional folk preaching structure," she told her students. "I think it's neat to see it in Al Green's performance and also in modern preachers like Dr. Claudette. It means something; it means spiritual authority."
Interims and passionate professors
Kortenhoven first heard the Copeland Sermon at Calvin in a 2007 seminar, titled "Transforming Voices: Worship and Preaching Among Afro-Christian Women." So moved was she by the sermon that she made it the subject of her dissertation. “As a Christian linguist, I cannot allow myself to forget the people,” she said. “I recognize the racial tensions that are very real in Grand Rapids, and I believe that through faith, we can cross these dividing lines. In offering this class, I hoped to help students learn about the linguistic heritage of the African-American church, but ultimately my goal is to help my students open their hearts a little bit more to cross-cultural understanding."
The students in the interim are enjoying her passion on the subject—and the subject itself.
"I was hoping the class would give me a better understanding of African-American culture ... .," said Anna Claire Lambers, a sophomore from Tampa, Florida, who is studying elementary education and language arts. “Also, I want to better understand the vernacular of my students so that I can better understand my African-American students. I love that we are learning about phonetics and vernacular. I love that we are looking at actual examples of what we are reading."
Fellow sophomore and prospective teacher Nikita Quincy Miner enrolled in the interim, hoping to gain an appreciation for black English and the black church and to get some linguistic practice studying African American Vernacular English. “Our class text book refers to AAVE as spoken soul. And the more I think about it, the more the title fits,” said Miner, who hopes to teach in the Grand Rapids Public Schools when she graduates. “I also enjoy learning about the history of the black church and speech. It started as an unfortunate history, but I think that it is important for me to learn as a black Christian.”
Crossing lines, lowering barriers
Such responses on the part of her students are exactly what Kortenhoven was hoping for when she designed the class.
"Honoring the language of the 'other' is one way in. As they learn about the language, they learn about the culture and history, and the barriers begin to lower. We take one step closer to one another.”