Hilton Head Island | Before the Bridge | Religion
By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Praise House By Sonja Griffin Evans
So many religious traditions have been woven into American culture. In today’s Black community as in the island’s religious culture, the church has always been the foundation of one’s life. On Hilton Head, the church was the governing cornerstone of the island. It’s foundation in the community and its vital importance to the strength of its pulse continues today. Over a century ago, the island’s Gullah churches grew into being a central part of life for spiritual, personal direction and information. Early on it also represented a safe haven for slaves.
Early on, the pastors did not live on the island, therefore, services were held every couple of months. When it was time for service, a bell would be rung as a call to worship. Worship was all day. People wore there “Sunday best” and took food with them to eat throughout the day. When the pastors weren’t available, worship services were held in various praise houses or homes around the island on a weekly basis. Eventually, as more churches were established, services were shared between the pastors and the location of the service would be rotated between them, a practice that continues today.
Joining the church, at one time, was an ancestral African tradition. Called seeking, it’s a practice based in the thought that God communicated through dreams. The individual, would tie a rope with knots around their head to indicate to other’s that they were in prayer. The individual, would then spend days and in some cases, months into the woods waiting until “you got through”, with their spiritual dream, which was a rite of passage. If the individual was a child, who was playing around and didn’t take the process seriously, they were “turned back”. Once the dream was identified, their designated spiritual mother or father would interpret the dream and eventually, the church leaders would challenge their beliefs. The practice of seeking eventually stopped in the early 1970s.
After seeking, baptism by river would ensure that one’s sins are taken away. Utilizing moving water is a tradition that continues today at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, where they continue to perform baptisms along the shores of Skull Creek.
The power and influence of the church is significant to the Gullah, because it was pivotal in how it structured its message. The church was the guide for how life should be lived in every aspect, from rearing a child to civic involvement and politics. The Gullah church was much more than a place for Sunday worship, it was also instrumental for discipline within the community. If an individual was found to have “done wrong” or sinned, they would be “put on the back seat” and expected to sit on the back row of the church until it was determined that they repented.
On such example of the role that the church plays, is in the origin of New Year’s Eve church services. The practice, called “Freedom Night” or named the Watch Night Service, began in 1862, when anxious slaves were waiting on confirmation of their freedom based on the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, the service continues in the church with prayers of gratitude for another year and blessings over what’s to come.
Along with the service, the first meal consumed in a new year has a special significance. Each item in the meal, when combined, would have a specific purpose. The meal, is made from pork, hoppin’ john, collard greens and cornbread. The pork was known as a symbol of prosperity because of its ability to feed a family through the winter. The hoppin’ john, which is said to bring good luck, is made from rice and black-eyed peas, which symbolized the bringing of coins to your life. The collard greens represent money or “many bucks” to come to you in the new year and cornbread, which was the bringing forth of gold and great treasure.
The New Year’s meal, like so many elements of the rich Gullah culture and way of life, have become southern and, in some cases, American traditions. A lot has been taken or adapted from them; from the food we eat, to the words we use, to religious practices that we enjoy and so much more. More importantly, they respected, protected and have shared their island home with us. The beauty that surrounds us, demonstrates that Hilton Head has always been an island paradise; it just began before the bridge.
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