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Interview with Ricky Woods

Woods, Ricky
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
Religion; African American church; Rural life-South; Ministry; Women and religion; Prayer; Civil Rights Movement; Church bombings-South; Gender roles
A native of Mebane, North Carolina, the Reverend Ricky Woods discusses the influential religious experiences of his childhood in a rural southern community comprised mostly of his relatives. Woods discusses the characteristics of the black church generally, including the notions of community and liberation and the centrality of prayer. Likewise, he discusses the similarities and differences within the styles of worship among churches. Woods interprets Bible passages and hymns that he argues speak poignantly to the African American experience. He also discusses leadership roles in the church and larger community in light of gender relations.
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
Collection Description: 
Vickie Crawford interviewed African-American religious leaders for the Amazing Grace exhibit for the Levine Museum of the New South.
VC (Vickie Crawford): Ricky Woods. Today's date is Tuesday, August the 6th. The interviewer is Vickie Crawford, and we're going to start the interview. Thanks for having me and allowing me to come and interview you. Why don't we just start out by you telling me where you're from and to talk about religion in your life when you were young and growing up. Let's just start there.
RW (Ricky Woods): Well, I'm from a little small place in North Carolina called Mebane, North Carolina. Most people call who are outside of Mebane call it "Mee-bean," but it is Mebane. It is in Alamance County, which has a very rich history. I grew up in a church called the Miles Chapel Missionary Baptist Church which was a rural church in the hub and center of an African American community. The large number of those persons were primarily farmers, and it was a church that consisted primarily of relatives. I had the unique experience of growing up in a community where within a twenty-five mile radius almost everyone was a relative. And so my church experiences started there at Miles Chapel in that rural church in those days that met one Sunday out of the month. And after we would have service on Sunday, we would all go over to my great grandmother's-my grandmother, my mother and all of their relatives-and have dinner together at Grandma Miles'. So, that's how--. That was my introduction to the church. And my parents were--, grandparents and great grandparents carried leadership roles in the church from my great grandmother being mother of the church to a grandfather being a trustee to my mother being a secretary. So constantly around the church and constantly around clergy all of my life.
VC: What influenced your decision to become a minister?
RW: Well I think that there were a number of factors that went in, went into that. I like to call it a process actually. I think the process began by growing up in a rural church where there were family members that were very active in the church, which meant that I spent a lot of time in the church. I think that process continued to grow from my exposure to ministers. I did not have a relationship with clergy persons where I only saw them in the pulpit, but they were constantly in and out of our homes. My grandmother fixing dinner for them or them coming by during revival seasons and those kinds of things. And, and oftentimes they spent some time chatting with me, talking with me. Things very much beyond the handshake and the pat on the head. And I think that that further developed the process, and I think it was that kind of exposure, seeing what clergy did, seeing how they were there for persons in helping them all played a significant role in leading to that. It was not until at the age of nineteen that I finally made such a decision to enter into ministry as a full time occupation.
VC: OK. What is distinctive about the black church experience? What sets it apart? What are some of the distinguishing features of the worship, of the, you know, prayers? Could you talk a bit about that?
RW: I think the primary distinction of the black church is what I like to call the liberation motif. African Americans have uniquely understood that worship is not confined to an activity or an experience once or twice a week. Worship is not that which comes upon us, but worship is that which flows from us. And as it flows from us, it causes us to engage in what I call struggle with the institutions which are contrary to the principles of Him who we worship. And so often times the black church has been on the cutting edge of liberation, not only as related to issues of social justice, but also as related to issues of fairness even in the black community, in terms of how we've even come full circle of questioning of how we should be responding to women in ministry and women in leadership roles in the church. And we've applied the liberation motif in those areas and been able to overcome a number of biases that others have not been able to overcome. What the black church has been able to do is to clearly show a model that says that individual salvation is not enough, but that there must be freedom for the community. Because if the community does not survive, the individual will not survive.
VC: What are some of the things that have remained the same in the black church over a period of time and what are some things that are different? And where is this situated now? Could you talk a bit about that? Some of the continuities in the black church experience with the black church after Reconstruction and some of the things that have changed.
RW: Well, one of the constants in the black church is this fervency for prayer. At the bedrock of the black church experience has been prayer. Dr. Harold Carter in his doctorial dissertation, "Prayer Traditions of African Americans in the Black Church," did a splendid job of identifying how prayer had been the bedrock of the black church and although--. How prayer is used and even its understanding has gone through changes as we have moved from age to age. It is still a significant part. In any black church, you can be assured almost regardless of where that church may be found, of a deacon that will pray either during the mid-week service or during the Sunday morning and persons identifying certain individuals in the community as prayer warriors. There are folk within the black church that when they become ill or sick they call persons to pray for them and particularly the pastor gets such requests: "Reverend, will you come and pray for me?" So one of the constants in the black church is this understanding of this power that prayer has and that has been a connecting link. I think what has changed in the black church significantly is different degrees of expression of worship. There is no one singular worship style that identifies the black church now. And I think at one point in time that there, at best, may have been only one or two differences in styles. Where, if you were in a rural area, you could be assured basically of a certain style of worship that would, would involve high energy, a great emphasis on song and sermon. That, that if you went into an inter-city church you would have still seen high energy maybe not as fervent in the music but still high energy as it relates to sermon and other avenues. I think what has happened now is that you see the black church having moved to different types of styles of worship that have embraced everything from team teaching in the pulpit where husband and wife teams, leading worship and even working together in the delivery of the message. That is something that is extremely new for the black church experience. I think the other thing in which, has changed is that the black church no longer appears to be, as our forefathers were, as interested in issues relating to civil rights in their communities. There are still certain churches that maintain that rich tradition and heritage. But by and large, we don't see the fervor for voter rights participation and registrations and those kinds of things that we had in the 60s and 50s and even early 70s. Those things have a large degree dissipated to some extent in many black church settings.
VC: Why, why is that? Is that good thing? Because the Civil Rights Movement grew out of the black church. I mean it was Reverend King. It was Dexter Avenue--.
RW: Well, you have a generation of African Americans who have been educated primarily in white institutions. Many of them have had an opportunity to work for those companies in which their foreparents did not have opportunities and privileges to work for. And I think what can occur is it can lure you into a false sense of security, to thinking that those battles no longer need to be fought and that we don't need to be paranoid. That no one is always out to get us, and that mind set or that thinking in many instances has made its way. Also you have a large number of African American clergy now that have been trained by white institutions, at seminaries, which do not push the liberation motif. Those persons are embracing more of what I call conservative fundamentalism, which is more concerned with individual salvation rather than community wholeness. And so you have clergy that are not as active historically as we've been in issues relating to the community.
VC: Well how do you see the recent wave of church bombings across the South? I mean, what--? You know, the black church is the epicenter of black life and culture--.
RW: Um-hum.
VC: And what is your take on that, in terms of the significant--? What's going on with that?
RW: Well the black church has been the symbol of not only religion for the black community but also a symbol of power. It has been the one thing in which we've owned. By and large we no longer own our schools. The black press is on very hard times, and there are very few of those left. The primary institutions that came out of Reconstruction were black schools, black press, the black church, and the black family. Well the black family has been in disarray for a number of generations. The press has almost been lost. A number of our schools have closed, and those that have not closed, many are, are at the mercies of institutions, other institutions, that may or may not decide to continue to fund them. And so the only thing that has been left has been the black church. It is the last thing in which the black community has that it can hold and embrace and say that this is ours, that we are able as a people to make decisions about what goes on in this particular place and to what extent. And so attacks on the black church is an attack on the black community; it is very hard. It is also an attempt to cause black persons historically who have been able to find the power of forgiveness and reconciliation to say that the church no longer has the ability to do that. To cause them to give in to the cries of others within the black community that are more militant in their stand and more vocal about a community that is separated and divided rather than one that has brought together.
VC: OK. Let me go back to talking about, about rituals in the church and this kind of thing. One of the favorite hymns in the black church is "Amazing Grace."
RW: Um-hum.
VC: Which of course is the subtitle for this exhibit. What--. Can you talk about that hymn? What does it mean to you when you hear it and --?
RW: Oh, gracious. A flood of memories. I, my early hearings of "Amazing Grace" when I was a boy, I thought to myself, why do they sing this dry song. A song that you knew you were going to hear almost every Sunday in which we had worship. It sort of drug along, and I just couldn't understand what all the fanfare was about it. The years have taught me wisdom, to the point now to where I count it even as one of my favorite hymns, if not my favorite. Grace and the hymn itself brings us to an understanding of what the Divine has done for us that we cannot do ourselves. And as one looks upon their individual life or their pilgrimage as a people that has been defined by hardship and handicap that God has done a marvelous thing to bring us as far as we have come against the odds in which we've come. And clearly none of us can look at where we've come as a people and say that we've gotten there on our own, that there was another force working ahead of us. Oftentimes maybe not working as swiftly and as quickly as we'd like but yet still working. And that is summed up in "Amazing Grace:" "Through many toils and snares I've already come." "Twas grace that brought me thus far and grace will lead me on." And that, that really defines our pilgrimage in ways in which no other song can.
VC: Do you have a favorite sermon? Or is there a sermon that people in the congregation have come back and told you that that this, this was really it. This one spoke to me in ways that others just have not.
RW: Personally, I do not have a favorite sermon myself. I've received a number of comments on any number of sermons. Interestingly that you asked that question. Quite possibly Sunday's sermon may have been it. For in that particular sermon, the sermon title was "On Faith and Courage," and it was examination of an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, and how he was instrumental in deliverance of the prophet Jeremiah. In that particular sermon the driving point of the thesis was to show that Africans, and in particular people of color, have not just come into either Judaism or Christianity but we have a long history of faith and courage that has transcended both color and biology. For not only was this an African person who had the audacity to address the king in language in which no one else had. He was a eunuch and one would think that a person having undergone that would not have whatever, quote, unquote, male masculinity or whatever that was needed to stand up for what his convictions were. But he was able to do that and that is what we've been called to do as a people, to be concerned about what we hear and be concerned enough to develop convictions about it and then be committed to those convictions.
VC: OK. Why does the story of Exodus hold special meaning for black people?
RW: The Exodus journey more than anything else has special meaning for black people because it provides a story of how God appears to be on the side of the oppressed. That is so different from the images that we provide in our Western culture. For if one were to pay close attention to what goes on in our media in this country, one would think that the eternal sings the "Star Spangled Banner" and waves the American flag and gives consent to every action that we take as a super power. But the biblical witness and record, it appears to reflect that the eternal is more concerned about what happens to the oppressed, to the poor, to the widows and the orphans. And he lends his strength and power to those who have no strength of their own. And in the Exodus story, we hear of a people who were sojournings in a land which was not their own and forced into, to be forced labor, to experience great dehumanization to the point of even having their male children thrown into the Nile while they were yet alive, causing their women to become pleasure objects for, for the Egyptians whenever they so desired. And so there are great parallels with the sojourney of the people of Israel and our own experience of one who has sided with us when our backs were against the wall. And it's caused us to come up out of slavery and led us to a land of at least a degree of opportunity, with a degree of possibilities that we heretofore had not had opportunity to or experienced.
VC: Could you identify some scripture, one or two scriptures, that are significant to the African American religious experience? Scripture that's quoted quite often. I know that in my work on African American women activists, Fannie Lou Hamer, for example, would often quoted and talked from Luke and Isaiah, the Book of Isaiah. Is there scripture that you could identify that this, that really stands out?
RW: Well, going along with Fannie Lou Hamer, I would quickly run to Luke's gospel in the fourth chapter where Jesus stands and says that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He hath anointed me to preach the good news, to set the captives free, to bring deliverance to those who were blinded at heart." So I think that that particular passage has specific meaning with us again, it provides an understanding of the eternal siding with the oppressed. Another passage that quickly comes to mind is, is a Galatian passage where it talks about in Galatians 5 standing fast in the freedom in which we have received. And that once that you've been set free don't go back to the ways in which that caused you to be in bondage. I think that that is another significant passage. Dr. Cain Hope Felder of Howard University has spoken on that passage a number of occasions and has invited us to continue to stand fast in our freedom and not retreat.
VC: Women have typically been the backbone, they say, of the black church. Why has that been so? Why have women--? What accounts for the large participation of women in the church? And could you talk about the role of mothers of the church? What that means, too?
RW: Well I think that one of the reasons that women, in particular in the black church, have played such a large role is that what the culture did particularly in the black community is began to draw dividing lines that separated the male clergy from his other male counterparts in the community. What I mean by that is, although there had always been respect for the male clergy, by other African American males it was never looked upon as the real work. That, that real work involved engaging in physical labor. Real work did not involve philosophical discussions and mental gymnastics. And so there was a relationship that developed that said yes we need clergy, yes we're thankful for them, but we don't have the time and energy as African American men to give to the church, because we must work to provide for our families. And so it became the African American woman's role to not only rear her children but be responsible for the religious education of her children. And most of that took place within the context of missionary circles that either met at someone's house or met at the church. And it further expanded their activities as related to the church, and so women became more and more involved, I think, basically because of this misunderstanding that African American males had about what real work was and not seeing those who were involved in issues of religion as actually really working. So women have played a significant role, and then what also happened over a period of time, there were not any real attempts by clergy to try to correct that. There was not really an attempt to embrace, embrace their male counterparts. And so too often, when something needed to be done, they looked for the women to further lift them and embrace them and ask them to do it, and then they would do it and so that just continued to add to a cycle where African American males began to relinquish even more responsibility and activity in the church over to their female counterparts. And everyone seemed to be happy with that relationship up to a point in time. I think that clearly the model that we have in Jesus as a man who was surrounded himself by other men and the men who followed him were not ashamed that they followed a man. And that African American clergy must begin to look anew at this model, and although it is true that Jesus had women with him and they were constantly seen in his traveling band, also a part of their traveling band were the disciples who were men. And so we need to look for models that will bring back a correct and healthy understanding of both male and female participation in the life of an African American church.
VC: That, that's an interesting critique of that. I haven't heard that before. [Laughter] Some people have said that women just are more religious, more spiritual than men --.
RW: No.
VC: And to account for that.
RW: No.
VC: That over participation.
RW: I think to, to make that particular argument is to give away to Eastern philosophical thought of this idea that somehow that men are brute beasts. It almost goes back to the analogy that I heard when I was a little boy that, little boys were made out of snakes, snails and puppy dog tails, and little girls were made out of sugar, spice and everything nice. When in reality the same ruwa in Hebrew, the same breath of God, the same essence of the eternal that gives our lives meaning and significance beats both in male and female. And what we need is a means by which we can have a heightened awareness that there are more things about us that are similar rather than different.
VC: What are some of the roles that women have had in the church? What is the role of the mother, when we talk about "mothers of the church?"
RW: Mothers of the church were looked upon as spiritual advisors. They played a very, very significant role as spiritual advisors from counseling with young persons who may have been struggling with a decision in terms in whether or not of joining the church. They talked to, particularly, to young women about their responsibilities as it related to marriage, when they were preparing to get married. And shared with them about all the kinds of things in which they can anticipate and expect out of that relationship, both from the standpoint of a women and also from the standpoint of what they could expect from a man. They also served as prayer warriors in the church, the persons that people went to when they wanted to talk to someone that they were certain could get a prayer through, as a term that was oftentimes used in the black church. And so to some extent, they were looked upon in the black church to a degree the way the African priest was looked upon in some ways in the tribal religion and in the traditional tribal religions of Africa, of being almost spiritual gurus. There was a sense of understanding in the black church that these persons had a closer walk with God than we mere mortals.
VC: And this was not in competition with the ministry?
RW: No.
VC: So that when people, you know--. Some folks have said- I think that we've moved beyond that now-that women had no power in church, in African American churches, and I think recent scholarship is saying that there was, kind of, a daily power--.
RW: Oh yes.
VC: Power, that you were--.
RW: Yes. Historically nothing in the African American church generally took place without the consent of the church mothers. Now as a general rule, and this is a generalization, the church mothers had a respect for authority to where if an authoritative figure, in this particular case clergy, were to say to them this is what I'd like to do with this. This is how I see God leading. Then chances in most cases were that the church mothers would support that. On the other hand if there were persons who objected to it and many times it would not be the clergy person that would have to deal with that objection, the church mothers would handle that objection. And using the political strength that they had amassed within that particular congregation ultimately be able to get through where others may have been fighting vehemently against. And that was not an uncommon occurrence.
VC: And how did these women go about acquiring this political strength that you talk about, because as I look at this in the Civil Rights Movement, a person like a Fannie Lou Hamer
RW: Hum.
VC: or Miss Devine, these older women, they were able to--. They were the first in their communities to sell the community on the idea of the movement.
RW: Um-hum.
VC: Particularly in--,[RECORDING INTERRPUTED and then RESUMED]acquired this power, political power within churches.
RW: I think it came from a spiritual aura that [Pause] that there is no real separation of any of the conduits of power. That when one has spiritual power, connection with God, then that brings along with it power in other areas of life where God may have witness. And because these persons were seen as spiritual giants in the, their community, that translated into influence in other areas. That influence was further heightened by the successes that persons saw in the initiatives that these persons carried forward. So each time that they would take a stand for a particular position and that position would win or that position would go forward, that would further spread almost legendary in the community to this person's standing and status, to where eventually you got to a point to where those persons became E. F. Huttons almost, that when they spoke everyone listened. But that started and the basis of that came from the spiritual aura and from a sense of understanding that this person had such a close walk with God that they could communicate to us what was on the heart of God.
VC: OK. Well I guess we'll bring this to a close. I could ask you many, many more questions [laughter], but I thank you for your time. OK.