An African-American Family in the Church of God in Christ
Joseph Clayton was only 47 years old when he was killed in a car crash on his way to work. As an advertising sales
representative for a large metropolitan daily newspaper, Mr. Clayton had a diverse group of friends and associates.
However, for Joe and his wife Mabel, their affiliation with the Providence Park Church of God in Christ was their
most enduring community connection.
The Church of God in Christ is a large Pentecostal or holiness denomination numbering well over 5 million members in more than 60 countries. Joseph was a deacon and a leader at Providence Park, the church in which he and his wife had both grown up. Joseph taught a Bible study class for teen boys and volunteered in the church's ministry at the nearby state prison.
When word of the accident came, Bishop Robert Jakes, the Clayton's pastor, met Mabel and the children at the hospital. He and other members of the congregation waited with Mabel until word came from the operating room that Joseph had died.
Though Joseph died early on Monday, his funeral service was scheduled for the following Saturday afternoon, a common delay for Joe's family and community. Within hours, Joseph's parents, siblings, and cousins began arriving from around the region and across the country and the Clayton's home became a beehive of activity. Sister Margaret Dunn, a volunteer in the congregation's women's auxiliary stayed at their home to receive visitors and answer the phone so family members could attend to funeral arrangements and other details. While the family went to the mortuary Monday afternoon, a group of ladies from their church arrived at the house and cleaned it thoroughly.
The wake for Joseph was scheduled from 6pm to 9pm on Friday evening, with a private time for family and very close friends beginning at 5pm. Bishop Jakes was present with the family for the private family time, led them in a prayer at Joe's casket, and stayed with the family throughout the evening. Colleagues from Joseph's work, fellow congregants, neighbors, fellow-teachers and administrators from the school where Mabel taught, and friends all gathered with family members to pay their respects to Joseph and to provide support for the family. Most of the friends and colleagues shared their words of comfort with Mabel and the young adult children who stood by the casket most of the evening. After speaking to family members, most of the friends sat and talked quietly for a few minutes with others they knew.
Joseph's Homegoing Celebration was Saturday. Family and close friends gathered at the mortuary about noon and then drove in procession to the church where, by 12:30, a large crowd was already gathering. Standing at the back door of the church at exactly 1pm, Bishop Jakes began quoting the words with which he began every funeral, "Lord, You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations." As he continued quoting Psalm 90 from memory, he deliberately made his way down the aisle, followed by Joseph's casket, the pallbearers, and the large extended family.
The 80-minute service was punctuated by spirited hymns of the faith including a stirring rendition by Sister Dorothy Jones singing I'll Fly Away. Several friends and associates offered brief testimonies of the ways "Brother Joe" had integrated his faith into his everyday life, and then Bishop Jakes preached the funeral sermon in which he characterized Joseph Clayton as a man of strong character, generosity, and conviction, taking as his Bible text, Psalm 112:1--"Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in His commandments."
After the choir sang the old hymn, In the Sweet, By and By, and Bishop Jakes offered the final prayer, the funeral directors came to the front of the church, opened the casket, and ushered family and friends past for what the memorial program referred to as "the final view." Family members returned to the limousines, friends returned to their cars, and the funeral procession made its way to Mt. Calm Cemetery where five generations of Claytons were buried. A brief reading of scripture and prayer concluded the service.
Meanwhile, the women's auxiliary of the church had prepared a luncheon for family members and others whom they invited in the social hall of the church. Throughout the afternoon and well into the evening, Joe's family and friends shared food and stories as they sought to make sense of his death and the grief they experienced.
Of course, as with other ethnic groups and faith communities, there is no "typical family" or "typical funeral." Nevertheless, some of the elements of Joseph's funeral-the wake, the assistance of church congregants, and the funeral service-do occur with great regularity among African American Protestants. Additionally, you may want to consult the following resources for additional information about customs.
- Church of God in Christ
- Butler, A. D. (2007). Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Collins, W.L. & Doolittle, A. (2006). Personal Reflections of Funeral Rituals and Spirituality in a Kentucky African American Family. Death Studies, 30, 957-969.
- Smith, J.K.A. (2008). Thinking in Tongues. First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, 182, 27-31.
- Smith, S. E. (2010). To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.