By the Rev. Lakeya Stewart
The African American or “Black Church” often uses metaphors and expressions to illicit the emotional responses of believers. Many times, these phrases have little or no meaning outside of the black church. Some of the phrases seem a little strange when we actually take the time to dissect and examine the literal meanings of the words.
An observation of the “Black Church” made by Zora Neale Hurston in her work “The Sanctified Church” is this:
“In the shout, the believer transcends the constrictions and limitations that society imposes and is caught up in the spirit. In this state the believer is both completely subject to a force outside of himself or herself, and, at the same time, completely free from custom and convention. Moreover, the believer is often left physically exhausted, but almost always spiritually empowered…”—(James H. Evans, Jr. “We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology”, page 125).”
As a child, I remember seeing mothers in the church “get happy.” I recall from my early years in the Baptist church that some would become stiff as a board, would tense up, and would then be carried out of the sanctuary. Others like my grandma would just cry. Fast forward to my adult years mainly in the Pentecostal church… when I saw people “get happy,” that would be characterized by the “holy dance,” shaking, laughing hysterically, crying, speaking in an unknown tongue and sometimes rolling on the floor (hence the name “holy roller”).
W.E. B. Du Bois when he visited the South wrote about his experience in black churches. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya record Du Bois as noting:
“Some worshippers ‘got the spirit’ and were propelled into the paroxysm of shouting. While others ‘fell out’ and rolled on the floor in a shaking, trance-like state, possessed by the Holy Ghost…”—(“The Black Church in the African American Experience” Lincoln and Mamiya, page 5).”
Another way that I have heard both Baptists and Pentecostals describe these experiences, like “getting happy” and those mentioned above is the phrase “Catching the holy ghost.”
What does it mean to “catch the holy ghost?” Like catching a baseball, does it require that we wear a helmet, body pads, and a glove? (of course, I am making a joke)
I mean really, have you ever seen anyone catch a ghost? If so, would that make someone a ghost catcher? I wonder if there are qualifications for these ghost catchers? Lastly, who or what is a ghost catcher?
Before you begin to think that I am crazy, let me explain what I mean.
Although I was born and raised in the Baptist Church, I spent many years and still identify with much of the Pentecostal faith. Since I have embraced the Pentecostal faith and even the Baptist tradition, I have heard people interject things like “Girl, you caught the holy ghost today!”
During my transition from the Baptist to Pentecostal traditions, I often felt this “Catching of the holy ghost” was a mystical experience that was indeed difficult for me to understand.
As I have prayed, consulted others, and studied scripture for myself, I understand that “catching the holy ghost” really meant being overtaken by the spirit of God.
The Holy Spirit has many functions. Scripture depicts the Spirit as the comforter sent by God. It is also the force that convicts believers when they are wrong and leads us into all truths. The spirit also fell on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2 and those that were present and that were on one accord began to speak with other tongues and people were filled with the Holy Ghost.
The result or product of the Spirit of God should be a lifestyle exhibiting Christian character and characteristics. Another way of expressing this is the infamous “fruit of the spirit” found in Galatians that believers are to model and exhibit. Galatians 5:22-26 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.”
I write this article not to put down any church, denomination, or religious organization. I write to inform others about one of the phrases and ideas that are often expressed in the African American Church that could benefit from closer examination. Many of us know people or personally have “caught the holy ghost.” There is nothing wrong with this.
Many people will say that discussions like this or even this article are too intellectual. They will say that people are being “too deep.” The challenge becomes when we as believers have not so much as learned or even considered the meaning of the things that we say and do. Knowledge is power. This does not mitigate or lessen the move or power of the Spirit, but rather provides an understanding of what is actually happening and what is meant when things are said and done.
Our task as believers is to study or at least become familiar with some of the phrases that we use on a weekly basis. We should be able to explain to others who are unfamiliar with the terms just what we mean when we say things. On this week, I challenge you to think about the meaning of, and how others perceive, some of the religious lingo that we often hear and use. God bless.
For questions or further correspondence concerning future topics or speaking engagements, please email at RevStewartSpeaks@outlook.com.
The Rev. Dr. Lakeya Stewart, M.Div., D.Min., ABD attended Berea College and the Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and earned a double major B.A. degree in Sociology and in African & African American Studies as well as the Master of Divinity Degree. Rev. Stewart is currently writing a dissertation on Toxic Leadership and Spiritual Abuse through Regent University.