Cultural Resources




Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mellonee Burnim, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator
Professor and Director, Ethnomusicology Institute, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

I. History

The tradition of homecomings held in African American churches dates back at least to the turn of the twentieth century. The ritual has both southern and rural roots and, according to the research of Yvonne Jones (1980), among blacks in Gorgus, North Carolina, the earliest of homecomings held in the church were familial rather than church-sponsored events. Documentation exists for a 1937 homecoming in Gorgus, North Carolina, held after the morning worship service at Greymore Chapel Church, so named as a tribute to the founding ancestors of the hamlet of 200 people, on the second Sunday of September. While the minister at this event was an invited “guest,” and the format was a business meeting rather than a religious ceremony, the ritual components of the gathering—out-of-town guests, intergenerational participation, designated guest speaker, special music, and dinner on the grounds—also define church-sponsored homecoming celebrations in both contemporary and historical contexts.1

Whereas the Gorgus homecomings celebrated familial kinship within a specific locale, the tradition of African American church homecoming expands the ritual to include those who identify with a community of Christian believers. Ethnographic accounts of homecoming services across the South from North Carolina to Mississippi,* and from Texas to Alabama, uniformly define the homecoming as ecumenical, intergenerational, and communal. That is to say, participation from ministers and members of local churches, whether Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist or Methodist (the denominations to which the majority of Southern African American rural Christians belonged), was both welcomed and encouraged. Not every church had its own homecoming, but most definitely everyone, saved or sinner, could participate in the homecoming service of their choice.

Homecomings were family oriented—everyone belonged, or had their place, including babies, children, and the elderly, men and women. The celebration was a time and place for reaffirmation, reinforcement and renewal; it was a time of belonging. The communal spirit was evident in the ways members of the community fellowshipped with each other, greeting the familiar and unfamiliar with jubilance and warmth, as often with hugs as with handshakes. Food was always a centerpiece of these rural occasions. Served between the usual 11:00 a.m. morning worship and the special afternoon homecoming service, food was always plentiful, for all self-respecting Christian cooks brought enough to share. At homecoming, no one went away hungry.

During the homecoming worship service, the singing was always lively and robust; congregants sang from their hearts, for the shared repertoire of the congregational singing knew no denominational boundaries, and the song leaders could come from either the host church or its local neighbors. The songs from the soloists, who sometimes sang a cappella and other times relied on accompaniment by the musician of the host church  (who could be expected to render satisfactory piano without prior rehearsal and sometimes without ever having heard the song before). Guest choirs were equally important; theirs was a highly anticipated and highly celebrated dimension of the service, for “good singing” could generate shouting, just as preaching could, and shouting was a marker of a service which satisfied.

As typical of Sunday morning worship, the homecoming service never ended without acknowledgements, and every visiting pastor was allowed to “have a word” if he so chose, as was also the case for any other visitor present, including those from local churches. The final comments always came from the guest preacher, followed by the benediction given by the host pastor. Although the services typically lasted around two hours, clock time did not determine the length of the event. At homecoming, everybody was important, and it was important to celebrate the spirit of togetherness, of reunion, however long it took.

Contemporary accounts of homecoming celebrations indicate how the concept has evolved over time to include urban churches and an expanded denominational palette, as well as the fact that the homecoming event may, in some instances, be considered synonymous with the church anniversary or be called Family and Friends Day to account for the changes in family structure in the African American community. Internet accounts document “homecoming season” in Salisbury, North Carolina, celebrated among United Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in September 2009. Lebanon Methodist Church in North Carolina announced its annual homecoming services with a historical reference to its first services, held in a “brush harbor…on a tract of land bought for one dollar in 1847.2

While homecoming is not a church calendar event that is unique to African Americans, it is nonetheless a ritual that holds historical significance as vehicle for transmitting values which reflect a sense of both cultural and religious identity within African American communities of faith.3

II. Personal Testimony

During the fall of every year when I was growing up in Teague, Texas (which boasted a single red light for its population of 2,728) during the 1950s and 60s and attended church in the adjoining black rural community of Furney Richardson, church homecomings were a routine and welcome component of the fall church calendar. For Asia Primitive Baptist Church, the date was always the same—the fourth Sunday in November. For Titus Chapel United Methodist Church, where my family held its membership, the celebrated date was always the fourth Sunday in October. For the young people like me homecoming was a time of excitement and anticipation, for we reveled in the festive element of the delectable dinner on the grounds and the many visitors who came to worship from far and near.

Without a doubt, homecoming was special. After the usual and customary 11:00 a.m. morning worship ended around 1:00 p.m., the women of the church gathered in the small detached “commissary” to lay out the prized homemade specialties for which they were known. Mama Bert and Mama Lou’s tea cakes reigned supreme in the community, whereas Ms. Mae Collins and Ms. Mattie Pearl Brewer of Titus Chapel were known for their scrumptious layered and pound cakes. There was no running water in the building used only for this purpose, nor was there electricity or gas to generate heat needed to prepare or warm foods. Everything was served as is, but that proved to be no obstacle to the prevailing spirit of camaraderie and joy that flowed.

The main course was always prepared by Mr. Will Collins, a highly respected Pullman car porter by trade, who arrived in the wee hours of the morning, well in advance of the start of Sunday school at 9:30 a.m., to dig his pit in the ground and prepare the fall-off-the-bones barbeque chicken for which he was famous. The sauce was his; store bought was simply not an option. And the cooking, in the huge, square black pans with matching lids, was slow and precise—timed to synchronize perfectly with the end of the morning worship service. The sweet aroma of the savory delight enticed those both far and near.  The homecoming feast was worth the wait.

The actual homecoming service always began in mid-afternoon, around 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. By that time, all of the visitors had arrived—guests from neighboring churches, former members of the church who had moved away, and the invited guest preacher and his choir and congregation. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, women styling with hats and heels, and men strutting in their suits and ties. The ecumenical spirit was always at work among the Baptists and Methodists, for each church, regardless of denomination, supported the others’ homecoming service with their presence.

The ritual was tried and true. The service began with devotion, led by church elders—Bro. Will Collins, the Pullman car porter who doubled as the barbeque chef, Bro. Johnnie Pelton, or Ms. Delia Mae Hollie, who seated themselves behind the offering table in front of the altar. Each of them knew all of the verses of the standard lined hymn repertoire—the “old one hundreds”—by memory. “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” “A Charge to Keep I Have,” and “Amazing Grace,” and they led the congregation with confidence and assurance as they outlined two lines of their favorite melodies and texts at a time, followed by the intricately interwoven cacophony of unaccompanied voices in the congregation who repeated the text. There was no handclapping, for the melodic lines were long and drawn out, without any regular rhythmic pattern, and the faces of the singers were uniformly stoic and solemn. No one smiled, but there was no sadness in the room. Worship was simply serious business.

After what seemed an interminable period to my young, unenlightened ears, the devotion period ended with the song leaders going down on their knees, sometimes to offer their own extemporaneous prayer, as the congregation continued to sing or hum softly, other times, to call on someone from the congregation, known for their fluid yet spontaneous poetic gift with words.

No instruments were heard until the congregational song which signaled the beginning of the worship proper was begun. “What a Fellowship,” “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” and “Blessed Quietness” were favorites in this hallowed slot, as jubilant voices rang out to the accompaniment of acoustic piano. Visitors were always formally welcomed, for their presence made a difference in so many ways. On this special day of homecoming, the sanctuary, which on other Sundays was typically only sparsely filled, was at capacity, and a spirit of anticipation filled the air. Guest soloists or the guest choir prefaced the sermon, serving to intensify the excitement that filled the room. Someone was sure to shout, for whether or not the guests were musically excellent, their mere presence prompted a spirit of heightened engagement. It was simply good to be a part of the fellowship.

Ministers who were invited to deliver the homecoming sermon were ideally someone with a previous connection to the church—a former member or pastor, often noted for their oratorical skills. The success of the guest minister went a long way in signaling the success of the event. The congregation was hungry to hear something new and different—something out of the ordinary—something which would provide spiritual nourishment for the coming weeks and months. And the congregation was prepared to play its part in bringing that goal to fruition.

The guest minister could count on the “amens,” “uh huhs” and “that’s all rights” to be frequent and hearty during his delivery. “Good preaching” was always at a premium, but congregations understood that the support they provided during their call and response exchanges with the minister could make all the difference in the quality of the sermon delivery. Both sisters and brothers of the church were known for “bearing up” the preacher, some providing him with continuous underlying humming, while others constantly punctuated his delivery with words or phrases of encouragement. In these small rural churches, there was no air conditioning, only hand activated funeral parlor cardboard fans to help circulate the heat. The preacher often worked up a sweat; sometimes leading to the removal of his suit jacket, for his ultimate goal was NOT to disappoint his congregants. More often than not, his mission was accomplished. While the sermon was clearly the centerpiece of the homecoming service which celebrated the extended ecumenical community of believers, members of Titus Chapel United Methodist and its neighboring churches also recall homecomings as functioning as a major fundraising event.

I never recall the concept of tithing being taught or practiced in my community of faith.  Instead, members were assessed monthly dues, which were collected by class leaders should a church member fail to attend the once monthly church service. At Titus Chapel, the dues were $2.00 a month. With congregations which averaged 10 to 15 families, or 25 to 40 members, the need to supplement the financial coffers is understandable. At homecoming, church members were expected to boost their giving with a special assessment; in addition, class leaders solicited donations from members of the community. During the service, the name of everyone who gave, as well as the amount of their gift, was announced publicly. Those individuals who excelled in their fund raising efforts were demonstratively acknowledged, but the greatest recognition was given to the total amount raised, which could reach several thousand dollars.

The celebration of homecoming in this rural Southern setting was an annual event of note. Through this ritual, churches were both revived spiritually and sustained financially, as they celebrated their identity as members of a Christian community, unfettered by denominational boundaries.

Although the membership of these small congregations has dwindled as the Furney Richardson community has suffered losses from urban migration, aging and death, homecoming celebrations have continued, although on a much smaller scale, into the twenty-first century. The memory of homecoming in my hometown is one that I treasure, for it represents the indomitable spirit of a people who survived and thrived by celebrating themselves and the God they served in a way that was both engaging and meaningful.4

III. Prayer

The prayer of Reverend Wyatt T. Walker, former Senior Minister of Canaan Baptist Church in New York and Chief of Staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1960-1964), references heaven as the Christian’s ultimate, final home—a place of joy, rest, and peace, that is promised to believers in Christ.

Lord, We Didn’t Come Here to Stay (1984)
Now Lord, we know that we didn’t come here to stay always. We know this earth is not our home. We’re just pilgrims making our way through this waste howling wilderness. One day soon and very soon you’re going to send your angel to fetch us one by one. You promised us that if we’d be faithful, you’d have a crown waiting for us. I want my crown. I want to be in that number that John saw, coming from the north, south, east, and west—that number that no man can number. We don’t mind dying Lord; if this earthly tabernacle shall dissolve, Paul said we got another building not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. I want to be in that number! I want to go to that land where Job said the wicked shall cease from troubling and the weary shall be at rest…. Oh, I want to be in that number. I want to hear your welcome voice say, “Well done.” Grant unto us a resting place in your kingdom and we’ll give you honor, praise and glory throughout ceaseless ages. Amen. Amen.5

IV. Traditional Songs

While homecoming services celebrated the return of members to the church fold, the symbolism of home in African American spiritual repertoire virtually always references heaven as the desired ultimate home.

Tryin’ To Get Home
Lord I’m bearin’ heavy burdens, tryin’ to get home.
Lord I’m bearin’ heavy burdens, tryin’ to get home.
Lord I’m bearin’ heavy burdens; Lord I’m bearing heavy burdens.
Lord I’m bearin’ heavy burdens tryin’ to get home.

Lord I’m climbin’ high mountains, tryin’ to get home.
Lord I’m climbin’ high mountains, tryin’ to get home.
Lord I’m climbin’ high mountains, Lord I’m climbin’ high mountains.
Lord I’m climbin’ high mountains, tryin’ to get home.6

As in the spiritual above, home is referenced as a most desired place—a heavenly rather than an earthly site. The text references the chariot as suitable transport to the ultimate Christian home, admonishing that prayer is the key to overcoming fear and doubt that may be prompted by Satan regarding the translation from earth to heaven.

Going Home in the Chariot
Going home in the chariot in the morning,
Going home in the chariot in the morning,
Going home in the chariot in the morning,
Going home in the chariot in the morning.

Solo:    O never you mind what Satan say,

Chorus:                                                            going home in the chariot in the morning.
Solo:    He never did teach one sinner to pray,

Chorus:                                                            going home in the chariot in the morning.7


Modern Songs
Although not of  African American origin, the verses of “What a Fellowship” are written in the call response structure ubiquitous to the spiritual and gospel music traditions which have historically defined African American worship. The thematic reference in the text  to the joy and satisfaction of Christian fellowship makes this gospel hymn an ideal choice as a congregational song used to open an ecumenical service such as homecoming. Rural Texas congregations could sing at least two verses of this engaging song from memory.  Although it was not included in the Methodist Hymnal, Methodists in my home town sang the song as frequently as did Baptists.

What a Fellowship
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
leaning on the everlasting arms.
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,
leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.8

The following selection is included in the official hymnal of the CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), a reflection of the centrality of its message to African American Christian populations.

We Are One in the Spirit (And They’ll  Know We Are Christians By Our Love)
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are on in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
And together, we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.



1. Jones, Yvonne T. “Kinship Affiliation through Time: Black Homecomings and Family Reunions in a North Carolina County.” Ethnohistory27 (1): 1980, 49-66.
2. “Church Homecoming Season in Full Swing.” Salisbury Post. 12 September 2009. Online location: accessed 25 May 2010.
3. *Many thanks to historian Dr. Valerie Grim, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University for her accounts of Homecoming in rural Mississippi where she grew up. Interview date January 4, 2010.
4. This account of Homecoming traditions in Teague, Texas was informed by an informal interview with two octogenarian couples—Mr. and Mrs. Johnnie Pelton—both Primitive Baptists and their daughter Rose and Mr. and Mrs. A. S. Burnim, both United Methodists, and their daughter Wanda on December 26, 2009, in Teague, Texas. Both couples held leadership roles in their respective churches for many years.
5. Walker, Wyatt T. “Lord, We Didn’t Come Here to Stay.” Prayer. 1984.
6.  Work, John, Ed. American Negro Songs and Spirituals. New York, NY: Bonanza, 1940. p. 55.
7. Work, John, Ed. American Negro Songs and Spirituals. New York, NY: Bonanza, 1940. p. 139.
8. Hoffman, Elisha. “What a Fellowship.” The New National Baptist Hymnal. Nashville, TN:  National Baptist Publishing Board, 1977. #211.
9. Scholtes, Peter. “We Are One in the Spirit (And They’ll  Know We Are Christians By Our Love).”




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