Although the hospice movement is popular among those who identify themselves as white, African Americans, writes Amy Frykholm in the August 5th issue of The Christian Century Magazine, often resist hospice care. The general lack of equality in access to medical care and an embedded distrust of the medical establishment are primary reasons. Yet, for many blacks there are religious reasons as well. Prayers for and belief in healing, for example, play a significant role in African American churches. Because hospice care is based on the assumption that death is immanent, some in the African American faith community view hospice care as an expression of faithlessness – a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal.
Still another reason why the hospice movement has been slow to catch on in African American communities and in black churches in particular, writes Frykholm, is the cultural belief that death is a communal rather than an individualistic process.
Because hospice programs are staffed by a team of strangers, including chaplains, who are specifically trained to serve patients with a variety of needs, the kind of professionalized care the team provides can be alienating to patients and families used to the prayers and support of pastors, relatives and friends they know and love. When death is experienced as a communal event, as it is in the African American community, hospice programs, as well meaning as they are, are not viewed as especially helpful.
All of the above is a prelude to a passage I found especially meaningful in Frykholm’s article, The Black Church and Hospice Care, Dying in Community. Among those interviewed for the article was The Reverend Otis Moss, Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who spoke not so much about the process of dying as of the communal experience of death. Deeply rooted in the African American church, he said, is the notion that funerals are “homecoming celebrations”. Here’s the quote:
We celebrate the life and the gathering of the community, lifting
up the life and legacy of an individual. They are now home with
others who have gone before them. You have tears, shouts, laughter,
fellowship, food, more food. It eases the grief when someone has
prepared the greatest sweet potato pie anyone has ever tasted as they
tell the story of how Grandma used to grow tomatoes. The food, the
stories, the sharing of people’s favorite songs—that helps people
remember that this is not the end of the story. This is just the beginning
of the story. It changes how you experience death because it is not final
for you. In the African tradition, your ancestors speak to you and are with
you all of the time. The people who go before you make a way for those
who are living and for those who are not yet born.