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Kwanzaa Celebrations Become Part of Worship Services in Many African American Churches

December 27, 1997|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In her mind's eye, Magie Laini Raine can see it all clearly.

It's Sunday. As the church congregation stands, the three to five chosen elders, dressed in African finery, will stride into the sanctuary to the accompaniment of African drums.

Near the pulpit, the Kwanzaa table will be set. The Rev. Daniel Morgan, pastor of Guidance Church of Religious Science, will pour out libations as a tribute to the ancestors. Later, seven youths will come forward to review the seven principles of Kwanzaa--Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

"This is a sharing of culture with the people of the church because we all need to know more," said Raine, who organized the church's Sunday morning Kwanzaa observance.

The Kwanzaa celebration at Guidance, a predominantly African American congregation on South Crenshaw Boulevard, will be one of thousands taking place around the globe during the seven-day cultural holiday that began Friday and ends Thursday.

And as the number of people who celebrate Kwanzaa swells past an estimated 25 million, more of those celebrations are taking place within the African American church and not just in after-hours ceremonies in church basements.

Guidance is among the growing number of African American churches incorporating Kwanzaa celebrations into Sunday morning worship services.

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The move is seen by some as part of an increasing Afrocentrism within the African American church and a movement away from centuries of European-flavored Christianity.

"We're acknowledging who we are by this means," said Morgan, who feels that celebrating Kwanzaa is in large part about "self-acceptance."

"I lived through a day when African American people were kind of apologizing for who they are."

That attitude, said Morgan, who founded the 1,200-member congregation more than 30 years ago, is "being pushed farther and farther back."

Guidance has celebrated Kwanzaa in the past, but Morgan said this is the first move to merge the observance with Sunday services.

He and Raine, a longtime church member, hope that by incorporating the observance into the services they will reach some church members who have never celebrated the holiday.

Kwanzaa, a celebration of family, community and culture that began in Los Angeles in 1966, is designed to focus on the heritage and achievements of people of African descent.

During each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, participants gather, light one of the candles on the kinara (candleholder) and review one of the seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, that form the basis of the holiday.

Unlike modern Christmas celebrations, there is little emphasis on presents: Gifts are small--books or heritage symbols--and are usually given to children to reinforce the principles of Kwanzaa.

And though many of those principles are similar to teachings in the Bible, Morgan and other ministers acknowledged that some within their congregations may be troubled by incorporating a nonreligious observance into the worship service, especially coming so close to one of Christianity's holiest days.

"We don't celebrate Kwanzaa," said a spokeswoman at one African American church in Los Angeles. "We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ."

The beauty of Kwanzaa, said Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, is that you can do both.

"Christians, Muslims, Bahais . . . black people of all faiths practice Kwanzaa," said Karenga, chairman of the department of black studies at Cal State Long Beach. "It reaffirms our rootedness in our own culture. It brings us together on common ground."

Embracing African culture is at the heart of the growing Afrocentric movement within the black church, according to a number of black ministers.

It is a movement seen not only during Kwanzaa and Black History Month in February, but also in African-inspired dress on Sunday morning, African drums in the music ministry and the incorporation of other African symbols and principles in the worship experience.

"In the '60s, black churches went Eurocentric in their music, they chose the anthem over gospel [music] and began to question the call-and-response" style of preaching, said the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. "Those churches came close to emptying their pews.

"Now, there's a rediscovery of the black experience of worship that's attracting not only blacks but nonblacks as well."

Murray said he sees a natural kinship between Kwanzaa, the cultural holiday, and the black church because of the central relationship of the black church to the African American community.

"You cannot separate religion from culture in black society," he said. "The secular and the sacred coexist here in the black community."

The Rev. Richard Byrd, senior pastor at Christ Unity Center / Unity Center of African Spirituality on South Western Avenue, said he would like to see black churches do even more to incorporate principles found in African culture.

Byrd said the increased presence of kente cloth on choir robes and other hints of Africa are fledgling steps toward bringing more aspects of Africa into weekly worship.

"There are more churches that are touching up on the edges [of Afrocentrism], so I have to give thanks for that movement," he said.

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