Marilyn Nelson

(1946 / Cleveland / United States)

Churchgoing - Poem by Marilyn Nelson

The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows;
only their children feel the holy ghost
that makes them jerk and bobble and almost
destroys the pious atmosphere for those
whose reverence bows their backs as if in work.
The congregation sits, or stands to sing,
or chants the dusty creeds automaton.
Their voices drone like engines, on and on,
and they remain untouched by everything;
confession, praise, or likewise, giving thanks.
The organ that they saved years to afford
repeats the Sunday rhythms song by song,
slow lips recite the credo, smother yawns,
and ask forgiveness for being so bored.

I, too, am wavering on the edge of sleep,
and ask myself again why I have come
to probe the ruins of this dying cult.
I come bearing the cancer of my doubt
as superstitious suffering women come
to touch the magic hem of a saint's robe.

Yet this has served two centuries of men
as more than superstitious cant; they died
believing simply. Women, satisfied
that this was truth, were racked and burned with them
for empty words we moderns merely chant.

We sing a spiritual as the last song,
and we are moved by a peculiar grace
that settles a new aura on the place.
This simple melody, though sung all wrong,
captures exactly what I think is faith.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
That slaves should suffer in his agony!
That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy
nevertheless was by these slaves ignored
as they pitied the poor body of Christ!
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble,
that they believe most, who so much have lost.
To be a Christian one must bear a cross.
I think belief is given to the simple
as recompense for what they do not know.

I sit alone, tormented in my heart
by fighting angels, one group black, one white.
The victory is uncertain, but tonight
I'll lie awake again, and try to start
finding the black way back to what we've lost.


Comments about Churchgoing by Marilyn Nelson

  • (4/26/2016 2:49:00 PM)


    Simply put. Clear. Truth-telling. Fresh. Memorable. (Report) Reply

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  • (7/13/2007 8:51:00 PM)


    This poem hit a place in my heart that no other poem about church has done before. I love the images that come such as playing children and members yawning. Ms. Nelson creatively transforms the piece and connects it with days of enslavement, where the church was much more than a place to pray to Blacks. The questioning of having to believe a religion (Christianity) forced upon us as a race, yet still maintaining the belief in one God through it all in the poem is simply beautiful. I connect this poem with myself because many times these thoughts have rushed through my head while in church and I have experienced this atmosphere. The use of Petrarchan rhyme scheme 'a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-e-c-d-e' repeats Nelson's genius in her splendid figurative language and how adept she is in educating AND captivating the reader. (Report) Reply

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Read poems about / on: women, song, thanks, magic, lost, faith, believe, sometimes, work, children, truth, sleep, alone, woman, angel, child



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 20, 2003



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