It would be difficult for Millcreek resident Alyssha Dairsow to imagine life without her experience in the Black church.
From a young age, Dairsow’s life revolved around singing in the youth choir, being an usher and serving in the kitchen, among other activities. Not only did the church anchor her spiritually and teach her about God, but it became a second family and welcome haven where she has always felt safe and secure. If there was something Dairsow didn’t feel comfortable discussing with her parents, she knew she had a wise and trustworthy youth leader at church.
“I was a church baby. I grew up in the church,” said the 31-year-old woman from New Jersey. “When I moved out here to Utah, that was one of the first things that was important for me to find — a church home — because when people say ‘it’s woven in the fabric of America,’ it’s like woven in the fabric of my DNA. It was very important to me.”
Given her experience, Dairsow is one of many in Utah who are interested in watching a new documentary series scheduled to premiere Feb. 16, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” in timing with Black History month.
The four-hour, two-part series, sponsored by PBS and WETA, and hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University historian, examines the history and culture of the Black church, explores African American faith communities and features interviews with many famous figures, scholars and well-known faith leaders.
In anticipation of the series’ release, Dairsow, along with others, discussed their experiences with the Black church and how it has been central in their lives. All four said they are intrigued and looking forward to viewing the documentary with family and friends.
Dairsow loves gospel music. She grew up in the era of Kirk Franklin, a Grammy-winning gospel performer known for his high-tempo gospel music and collaboration with R&B and rap artists. She was also drawn to the Georgia and Mississippi Mass choirs.
“I love rap, I love hip-hop, I love R&B, but my go-to music is gospel,” she said. “I need someone hollering in the mic. ... It has played a part in my development. ... It takes you into a space of worship.”
Dairsow was thrilled when she learned about the Salt Lake City Mass Choir and eventually joined. Following the choir was a game-changer for her Black church experience in Utah.
“Every time they sang somewhere I was in that place if my scheduled allowed it,” she said.
The Salt Lake City Mass Choir is led by Tim Drisdom, who some may remember from his basketball-playing days for the University of Utah (2002-06). When he isn’t with the Salt Lake City Mass Choir, Drisdom works as the dean of student life, the worship leader for chapels, the athletic director and head basketball coach at Intermountain Christian School in Salt Lake City.
Drisdom grew up in inner-city Los Angeles with churches on virtually every street corner. His was a “Pentecostal upbringing,” with charismatic preaching, high emotion and a lot of “really good singing.”
“Church was a staple,” he said. “Everybody went to church. No matter what you did Monday through Saturday, you figured out how to get to church on Sunday.”
For Drisdom, gospel music is a universal language. There is nothing better than spiritual, Christ-centered music, he said.
“It speaks in a way that sometimes the spoken word can’t,” Drisdom said. “I’m really blessed that I get to use that as an expression of worship during church.”
Tyana Williams, a 28-year-old woman who works as a nurse in the Salt Lake area, said watching the documentary’s trailer brought back a lot of good memories of growing up in a place where she felt loved and accepted as part of a community family. Many of the older women who mentored her through high school and college years were members of her church.
“For me it was a place of connection, not only spiritually but emotionally,” Williams said.
While she and her friends, some of whom didn’t attend church, experienced many of the same struggles during their teenage years, the church made a positive difference for Williams.
“Having that higher power to go to when things aren’t going right in the world really helped to ground me and see things in a different perspective,” Williams said.
Before he became the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, the Rev. Oscar T. Moses grew up and served as a police officer in Chicago. One unfortunate way the Black church has changed in his lifetime is a growing disrespect by some for the holy and sacred things of God.
Although raised in a high-crime area, the pastor said gangs and criminals didn’t used to engage in activities — dealing drugs, drinking, shooting dice and more — in front of the church. Before he left Chicago however, Pastor Moses recalls sitting in his study one day when he smelled marijuana through the open upstairs window. Down in front of the church, he saw a couple was getting high. They refused to leave.
“I believe it is because there has been no real transferal of our faith from one generation to the next,” the pastor said.
Pastor Moses sees “The Black Church” documentary series as an educational opportunity. He prays it will open a dialogue of reconciliation and bring harmony to the universal Black church.
“I think it gives an opportunity for the world to see or hear the experiences of the Black church, if nothing more than to compare and see if we have a similar experience. And if not, why not?” Pastor Moses said. “This is a great opportunity for people to learn more about the culture. ... It opens up a good history lesson for the world to see, and to possibly even better understand the Black church. I pray it will open up some conversations.”
Part One of “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” airs on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 9 p.m. EST on PBS. Part Two premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 17, also at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.