The African American Passover Celebration will be aired on the Word Network, Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 8PM EST
Passover is a religious celebration, which is central to both Christians and Jews. For Jewish people the Passover event is a reminder of when God brought the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage, the crossing of the Red Sea and finally entry into the Promised Land. Christianity, which developed as an outgrowth of the Jewish faith, celebrates Passover from the perspective that the Passover meal Jesus and his disciples shared was literally the “Last Supper” the night before he was crucified. The Christian sacrament of Communion is a direct outgrowth of the “Last Supper” Passover meal.
The African American Passover Celebration is unique in that it incorporates Jewish, Christian, and African American traditions in acknowledging and rejoicing in the passage from slavery to freedom. The African American Passover Celebration can be used in a variety of settings. While I originally wrote the African American Passover Celebration to help my congregation put the slavery to freedom experience in a modern context, the African American Passover Celebration is adaptable for use in the home, at school or other intimate settings.
I wrote the African American Passover Celebration over twenty years ago with the help of Rabbi Arni Sleutelberg, of Congregation Shir Tikvah which is located in Troy, Michigan. I am grateful to Rabbi Sleutelberg for his early encouragement and advice. I would also like to thank Rabbi Jonathan Berkun, who just a few years ago served on the staff at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. He too offered great advice and counsel regarding how traditional Jewish Passover worship is observed. My initial intent was to create a Passover worship experience that was close to an authentic Jewish Passover Seder meal and worship service. The more I read and learned from my two friends, the more I realized the similarities and differences between the Jewish exodus and the African America experience.
Why did I write the African American Passover Celebration? It may be because as a child the Passover or Maundy Thursday meal at my church was mysterious and never seemed to have enough food. It was mysterious because it was conducted in the dark with only the light of candles. It was also largely observed in silence. At the end of the service I was always still hungry. We ate lamb, rice, olives and nuts. It was supposed to be similar to a typical Jewish Seder. The one message I did understand was that it concluded with the Holy Communion. After talking with the two rabbis and actually attending their Passover, I realized that what we were doing only took advantage of a fraction of what Passover is all about: we were missing the celebration of victory from slavery to freedom!
The more I learned about traditional Jewish Passover celebrations, the more I realized we have a lot in common and that there were a lot of opportunities to create a Passover celebration that is unique to the African American experience.
For example, a typical Jewish Seder or Passover Meal incorporates foods that symbolize the departure of Moses and the Hebrews from Egypt. Each piece of food has a symbolic value: bitter herbs which symbolize the bitterness of slavery; charoset, a sweet paste of fruits and nuts to symbolize mortar for bricks in Egypt; vegetables in salt water – salt water to symbolize the tears of slavery; roasted lamb symbolizes the sacrificial lamb (although I have had chicken at some Jewish Seder meals); and a roasted egg which was part of Jewish festival sacrifice. At the outset of the Passover Meal the foods are arranged in an attractive, symbolic fashion. The words of the worship service are in large measure wrapped around the various foods that make up the service.
So, just as the Jewish Passover Meal is symbolic, the African American Passover Celebration also is filled with symbolism. Each food item in the African American Passover Celebration symbolizes a part of the struggle to be free in America. For example, the African American Passover Celebration incorporates foods like chicken, mixed greens, watermelon and sweet potatoes – all of which are foods that have been identified as part of African American culture. Instead of unleavened bread, the African American Passover Celebration calls for cornbread. Similar to a Jewish Passover, there are four symbolic cups for participants to drink, but the context is uniquely African American. Unlike the Jewish Passover, these “cups” are not filled with wine, but water, a source of sustenance for African Americans over the years.
Although I wrote the African American Passover Celebration for use at the church I pastor, it can easily be adapted for use at home. If used in a home setting, you might want to consider the following. First, decorate your table with each of the symbolic foods. Second, take note as to who the youngest persons are at the table. This will be important because part of the African American Passover Celebration calls for children, or the youngest person present to ask certain questions such as, “Why on this night of all nights do we eat chicken?”, “Why on this night of all nights do we eat cornbread?” . Third, you will want to have candles and lifters ready. Identify those who are to speak prior to the start of the African American Passover Celebration. Although the entire African American Passover Celebration takes only about an hour including eating the meal, I have always been concerned that we keep the pace by pre-identifying those who are to speak and to encourage them to sit relatively close to where the microphones are stationed. The grape juice or wine for communion and cornbread should be set aside and in place prior to the start of the African American Passover Celebration.
When we use the African American Passover Celebration at my church we often incorporate drummers who play African drums to welcome worshipers to the event. I have also used a slide show depicting both African and African American images projected on screens at the same time persons are entering the dining area to locate their seats. In the church setting the number of speakers is expandable. Typically, I invite all of the persons who have joined the church over the last two years to serve as readers. Additionally, the children who are confirmed into church membership are also asked to serve as readers. Often, the number of readers when we do this at church is well over one hundred persons, but the African American Passover Celebration could be observed with only a handful of persons in equally powerful fashion.
The African American Passover Celebration is moving and powerful at the same time. Thank you for considering incorporating the African American Passover Celebration into your Lenten worship. I hope and trust you will find many creative uses for this African American Passover Celebration.
I want to thank my wife Denise for her counsel, support, proofreading and encouragement. I would also like to thank my sons, Nathan and Noah, for their suggestions and encouragement to publish. I am appreciative of Charlene Gill for her suggestions to this document. Atty. Darwyn Fair and his wife, Volante have been great in their support and encouragement. I thank Darwyn for his advice and counsel. My gratitude is extended to Portia Powell of Chase Bank for her professional assistance. The artwork for the African American Passover Celebration was created by a young artist who is a member of my church, Shawnda Warren. I appreciate her ability to help the document “come to life.” Diane Reeder, of Written Images, also gave me early counsel for which I am deeply grateful. My father, Nicholas Hood, Sr., and my brother, Stephen F. Hood have been instrumental in assisting me with the technical issues associated with producing the African American Passover Celebration. I want to thank the Rev. Dr. Georgia Hill, my associate minister, Leslie Love, Doris Ray, the Board of Christian Education of the Plymouth United Church of Christ, and the church membership for helping me to fine tune the “flow” of the readings over the past twenty years as we have performed the African American Passover Celebration at church. In particular, I would like to thank my brother Stephen for creating the web design for the African American Passover Celebration so that it might be shared with a diverse audience. Finally, I thank the ministers and churches who will use the African American Passover Celebration as preparation for Good Friday and Easter. To God be the glory!
Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood, III
Watch the African American Passover Celebration Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 8 PM EST on the Word Network