Don’t Play This At Church

Over the years of my life and growing up as a military kid I have learned to pay attention with intention to try to understand people. At an early age, I lived among the Italians and then the Germans overseas which taught me the “power of notice.” This attention and intention have resulted in relationships and deep conversations about race, culture, and where we are as Christians in America. 

More recently, I have come to know the family of Lawrence Jamel, a young Black man in his 20s. Lawrence writes and performs Christian Rap. One of his song titles got my attention, so I looked up the lyrics to make sure I was understanding what he was saying, then we had a discussion or two about the song and his experiences as a young Black man surrounded daily by white-ruled spaces and specifically in predominantly white churches.

“Don’t Play This at Church”

Went to school to be a preacher how I graduate a heathen?

Say This grace is my relief and that’s an ease to my demeanor

(I need that)

I could never try to hide

I make it plain as it can be

Cuz I’m imperfect as a man

But still I’m perfectly at peace

All my life it’s been this roof

And now I finally see the truth

And I’m knowing that you gone do what you gone do


Don’t play this at church (Yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh)

Don’t play this at church (Yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh)

Don’t play this at church (Yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh)

Don’t play this at church

Cuz that wouldn’t work  (work, work, work, work, work)

Cuz that wouldn’t work

                (Don’t play this at) Don’t play this at

                (Don’t play this at) Don’t play this at Church

(Yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh)

Ay Don’t Play this at Church yeah

Lyrics by Lawrence Jamal 2020

Lawrence was raised in a predominantly Black Christian church, then his family moved to another community and another congregation.  His experience reflects a common experience among Black people I have sat down with over the last few decades.  In casual conversations, opportunities to speak, and even in discussing personal experiences of life, Black folks are often required to check their specifically Black experiences at the door at work, and even in churches that aspire to be “multicultural.”

Black hairstyles, worship styles, collectivistic call and response style of participation in the sermon, and Black pastoral delivery of sermons often elicit discomfort in predominantly white congregations. Over the years as a white person being privy to overhearing conversations, I have even heard “sin” or personal failure of Black folks often referred to or implicitly assumed as “part of Black culture” by white folks. 

Fundamental attribution errors of internal characteristics are assigned to any perceived weakness or failing of people of color because of the implicit biases held by white people, even (and maybe especially) in churches. Meanwhile, when white children dye their hair purple or get pregnant out of wedlock, we do not assign the cause to our families or our (white) culture.  We assign the reason to personal choice and personal failing and poor circumstances surrounding them. 

More uncomfortable to us than sin, are matters of culture that white folks (often covertly) demand be hidden, and in essence say, “don’t play this at church.”  At the heart of this is the mindset which said out loud would be articulated as follows,

“We accept you as a person who needs us to help you and who can help us meet our diversity (image) goals, but don’t make us uncomfortable. . . Don’t expect to be deeply cared about by us, because we do not want to hear about, see, or learn about your life, your culture, or your experiences that differ from ours. We have our story (about you) and we are sticking to it.

We don’t want you to challenge us at all, just be grateful that we let you come here. We will celebrate diversity (especially the fact that we welcome you) but we do not want to bear your burdens with you in lament, in protest, or in cultural change.  Keep that stuff at home, or with ‘your people’ because this part of you should not be ‘played at church,’ We expect you to “assimilate” into our white culture and become as white (or invisible) as possible unless we need a photo of you for our website.”

Doc Courage! 2022

Research demonstrates that predominantly white organizations, including churches, often pander to the comforts, styles, and cultural preferences of white folks.  In so doing we cause disconnection and even death by a thousand tiny cuts that hurt even when white folk can’t see the bleeding. All too often, we see this preference demonstrated in one single deadly act, as we did in the summer of 2020 with the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, but more often the assaults against people of color and Black people are more covert (thus more deniable).

Black pastors are often required to mute their cultural speaking style (both from the pulpit and in their conversations in the church foyer) and the “type” of Black Christian music that will be allowed by the music ministry is often censored by white leaders. Comments from white leaders and congregants using “ghetto” and lynching references when addressing Black folks are commonly reported. These incidents are not only offensive but usually traumatizing and perceived as threats.

The sentiments expressed in “Don’t Play This at Church” are not simply anecdotal, this experience is common among African Americans negotiating life in predominantly white spaces, and sadly, especially in predominantly white churches, there is little if any safety.  This is not the Fruit of the Spirit, but “strange fruit” which is sadly similar to the “fruit” of “Black bodies swinging from Southern trees” described in Billie Holiday’s protest song written in 1937.

More than a century later, the white community is still engaged in the regular lynching of Black folks. It may be reputations ruined or even lives we are ending, but we (as a cultural group) haven’t changed much because we haven’t repented much. . . .

. . . But don’t say this at church.

By Doc Courage

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