“If your Faith could not grow, what would be its purpose?”
Pastor Michael A. Walrond Jr. 2016
“Say it, Pastor!” The audience erupts. “To live in Faith,” Pastor Mike declares, “…to live in Faith means to know you have the ability to deal with the worst!”
* * *
I met Pastor Mike in the fall of 2016. I had moved from France to New York a year prior and I was completely overwhelmed by the city’s glorious misery. I made it through September on my own, but by October my loneliness began its takeover. Something needed to change.
The following Sunday morning, I found myself walking to church. FCBC was only a couple of blocks north my apartment in Harlem. I wasn’t raised religious, but with a sense of spirituality. “So at this point,” I reckoned, “God, why not.”
I made it to the Church a bit late for the eleven o’clock service. The man sitting near the entrance kindly sent me upstairs. As I climbed the steps, the music rushed through my body. I reached the balcony. The lights were off and the people in trance-like state…“thriving by being,” I thought. I timidly sat on an empty seat at the forefront of the mezzanine. The vocals of the electrifying chorus rattled my bones: For the first time in months, I felt alive. I surrendered to the grace of being together.
I opened my eyes. Pastor Mike occupied the stage in silence. “Faith,” he said as if speaking to my soul, “faith is its process.”
* * *
In college I studied the Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye. To Frye, literature is an artefact: writers live in the illusion that words can give sense to their universe (Tyson 221). An enthusiastic reader and writer, I have always used text as a shelter. To me, literature provides a place of calm and harmony. An illusion? Maybe. But stories fill my days with meaning. Books serve as gentle reminder not to overthink reality. Yet when I moved to the United States, something changed. Trump was elected, and I felt rejected. The barriers between the world and me began to settle—all of a sudden, I found myself unable to find joy, beauty and vitality. I sank into depression and anxiety.
* * *
I was on the edge that Sunday morning. I would very likely have killed myself would not have I heard Pastor Mike declare: “I may have a tumor in my brain, but I have God on my side. When you life in Faith, you’ve already won the battle.” (Walrond Jr. 2016.)
* * *
“That’s right. You need to live in Faith.” I remember thinking on my way back home. “But how do you start?” I wondered. “And what does that even mean?”
For me, to live in Faith first meant surviving. Every day, for weeks, I reminded myself of Nelson Mandela, locked up in jail and reading William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus:”
“I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. […]
Under the bludgeoning of fate,
My head is bloody, but unbowed. […]
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul” (Henley 137).
Little by little, I found Faith by trusting my strength. I opened myself up to an inner space of quiet confidence—that place where I could sense, in my entirety, that I stood unshaken by pain, undefeated by uncertainty.
* * *
But my journey in Faith was only starting: because there is much more to life than simply surviving. In practicing Faith, I also found purpose. This was certainly tricky: I had to pause for a while. Confront myself in the mirror and ask: Why? Why are you here? Can you meet yourself without fear?
* * *
For some time, I carried those questions around. As I healed from pain and anxiety, I was able to gain clarity. I had entered FCBC looking for answers. But truly, I had approached the problem in the wrong order. I had already purpose within myself—I just needed Faith to see it clearly. I grew up believing that social advocacy could transform humanity. And now the universe was sending me a sign: I had encountered Faith in an Black Church—precisely the space where spirituality meets activism. Week after week, I returned to Church. Over time I learned from my Pastor about Martin Luther King. For King, Faith at “its best is a two-way road.” Faith changes men while reshaping their environment: “so that [they] can have a chance [in the world] once […] changed” (King 48).
I found meaning in Church—I needed to take action. I sat down a second time and asked myself: What can I do to make a change? “Write fiction,” I thought, “write fiction, and get
involved in politics. Stories to give people the tools to resist — my own way of being an activist.”
* * *
Six months after joining FCBC, I started a book about the parents of my grandmother. Three weeks later, I joined a political party. At first, as I was flowing but eventually, doubts surfaced: I broke down at times, but I did not despair. Pastor Mike taught: “it is in the midst of wilderness that your Faith grows the most.” So I stayed in politics and kept writing my book.
Living in Faith requires dedication: it’s hard at times to remain driven in the midst of change, violence and uncertainty. This is why I believe that the destination of Faith is also its practice. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit,” famously wrote Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle. (87) Practice and focus. I focus on fullness: the fullness of energy in my community, the number of existing books calling for just mercy. I ignore the void and the hate. Following Pascal’s wager, I have everything to gain and nothing to lose when I seek to empower the people around me. (Parish 540)
This is my purpose—there are millions of others: the secret is to be clear about your assignment. Faith is not about the Bible, it’s about being spiritual. It will make you move in life with grace and clarity while uplifting society.
So trust the Promise. One day, you’ll be there. And in the meantime, enjoy the ride.
“The doors of the Church are opened” always concludes Pastor Mike at the end of the service.
© RCS — Rosalie Calvet-Soubiran
November 4th, 2018.
FCBC, the First Corinthian Baptist Church is located in Central Harlem, 1912 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Services are held every Sunday, at 8:00 am and 11:00 am.
Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy; the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers.2d ed.].. ed., Simon and Schuster, 1949.
Henley, Willamer. “Invictus.” 2013, pp. 135–155.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Advice for Living. (Excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Ebony' Column).” Ebony, vol. 50, no. 3, 1995, p. 48.
Parish, Richard. “Blaise Pascal.” French Studies, vol. 71, no. 4, 2017, pp. 539–550.
Tyson, Lois, and NetLibrary, Inc. Critical Theory Today a User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.
Pastor Michael A. Walrond Jr., “Sunday Service” First Corinthian Baptist Church, New York, NY. October 16th, 2018.