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Black Liturgies: ‘I didn’t want to be a mindless zombie’

02 February 2024

Cole Arthur Riley’s project offers new approaches to prayer. She talks to Chine McDonald

Cole Arthur Riley

Cole Arthur Riley

DESPITE her relative youth, Cole Arthur Riley is an old soul, whose way with words has soothed a generation of people through the turbulence of recent years.

In summer 2020, amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, where she lives, Riley — a writer in her early thirties — started the “Black Liturgies” project.

Through it, she began to express truths and wisdom about black dignity, justice, rage, resistance, lament, and rest, in the form of liturgies shared on digital and social media. This led to a following of more than 300,000 on Instagram and the release of her New York Times bestseller, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, liberation and the stories that make us in 2022.

We first met online when I hosted the book’s UK launch for Church House Publishing (Podcast, 1 April 2022). I was captivated by This Here Flesh, after receiving a proof copy with a request for an endorsement some months before. It had landed on my doorstep when the world felt as if it was finally post-Covid, and I was pregnant again, and suffering from debilitating sickness.

Riley, who suffers from a chronic condition, wrote beautifully in that book of what it is to be embodied, and in a body that causes you physical pain — one that seems to be against you. The title had been inspired by a quotation from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”: “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.”

Last summer, more than a year after our digital meeting, Riley and I sat on the grass at the Greenbelt Festival, eating from one of the stands, and I was struck by the undeniably embodied acts of eating — there is something particularly carnal about eating rotisserie chicken — and sitting and talking face to face rather than on screens across an ocean. Here, at Greenbelt, she had gained a new following as she spoke on stage about what she had learned from her family about black spirituality, the body, and God, and about resistance, justice, and love.

Now, Riley and I are back on screens, an ocean apart, speaking about the UK release of her new book, Black Liturgies: Prayers, poems, and meditations for staying human. For her, this new book is a thank-you to the community of followers that have gathered around the “Black Liturgies” project over the past four years.

“With this book, I really wanted to honour what the project is,” she says. “The only reason I was able to write This Here Flesh in the way that I did was because I had started the Black Liturgies Project on social media. I’ve felt really grateful that the audience welcomed that book, even though it was very different to what they may have been expecting. I felt even when writing This Here Flesh the responsibility to eventually be able to deliver this book to the community that has honestly opened up so many doors for me.”


THE book Black Liturgies, however, is not just Riley’s digestible — and yet profound — liturgies merely put into print. The book gives her room to expand her thoughts and stories. The end product is a stunning collection of letters, liturgies, and original poetry.

There is something particularly exposing when a writer showcases their poetry. While Riley has shared her poetry occasionally online, I ask how she feels about including poetry rather than prose, or the narrative non-fiction and story that she has been known for. Was she nervous? “It feels very different, and I was particularly nervous about it,” she says. “But when I narrated the audio book, I felt a little more confident in it.

“Before that, I was just riddled with anxiety. Including the poetry presents a unique kind of vulnerability. Poetry is not an attempt at clarity in the way that non-fiction writing tries to be clear and get a point across: it’s much more about images and fragments. When I was reading it out loud, I was feeling more comfortable in that lack of clarity, more comfortable in the images and realising that poetry definitely brings a different kind of energy, a different kind of openness to the text.”

Like the fluidity of poetry, the spiritual tradition out of which the book is written is fluid, too. Some of the prayers end with “Amen”, while some close with “May it be so” or “Ase” — a word of affirmation in the Yoruba language of Nigeria, which can be translated as Amen, but also speaks of good luck, fortune, and power.

“When it felt right, and when it felt like it was speaking to that aspect of my spiritual life, I did include Christian scripture, but I’ve tried my best to be honest that I’ve been formed in a Christian tradition,” Riley says, “while also acknowledging that I don’t think that my spiritual life can be totally defined by this.”

Perhaps poetry is to non-fiction prose as spirituality is to religious tradition. “I think of my spiritual life as being comprised of many things, and the Christian tradition is one of them. I think myth and storytelling is another,” she tells me. “So, I’ve tried to be expansive in that way, knowing that the people who follow Black Liturgies on social media are coming from a pretty vast array of different spiritual backgrounds and practices.”

I wonder what it is that draws these younger, digital audiences to the liturgical form. What is it that drew Riley herself to this ancient practice? “Initially, as a writer, I think I was attracted to the beauty of the liturgy. I remember walking into an Anglican church service and being enamoured by the beauty in the Book of Common Prayer, the poetry in it. But what I didn’t expect was how much I needed the rest in liturgy.”

She writes in the book about being 23 and walking into an Episcopal church “with an overwhelming desire to die”. As she heard the congregation, who were mainly elderly, begin to say words in unison, she initially resisted the recitation of words “like some mindless zombie” — “I had my own thoughts, my own idealised individualism to protect,” she confesses in the introduction to Black Liturgies. But then she exhaled.

“It can be difficult to find the words to pray when one wants to die,” she writes. “The independence of personal prayer required more imagination than I could access at the time. It is exhausting enough trying to keep oneself alive; to be expected to articulate love and hope and beauty — and more dangerously, lament — was like trying to float with weights hanging from my neck. Liturgy, I found, was a kind of rest. For the first time, my presence in a spiritual space didn’t depend on my own articulation or imagination. I could rise and sit and kneel and speak or not speak in this sacred theatre that others had written the script for. I could let others hold a sacred imagination for me.”

istockA family gathers for a traditional Kwanzaa celebration in the United States

It is this sense of rest which, Riley feels, drew black communities to her liturgies at a time of threat and trauma. While she recognised the wonder in the Book of Common Prayer, she knew that some would find it difficult: “For all its beauty, the Book of Common Prayer has, for me personally, just been insufficient in terms of speaking to black grief, black memory, black joy, in a meaningful — in a trustworthy — way.

“Of course, there are liturgies written by white men that I can find some solace and companionship in, but there are seasons where it’s just difficult to connect with a text. I know what was happening to my ancestors when Thomas Cranmer wrote the BCP, for example. Black Liturgies is one of many reclamation projects that centre the black voice, the black interior world.”


BLACK LITURGIES does not need to be read cover to cover, but each chapter takes a different theme that might appeal to the reader at different moments, touching on the broad spectrum of human experience. It is, in essence, a book of liturgical prayers nestled in between quotations from black thinkers, writers, and activists who have come before — those whom Riley describes as ancestors (James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Malcolm X). But there are questions for contemplation, too, and reflections on themes.

In part one, the chapters are split “by story”: selfhood, doubt, lament, power, love, dignity, and more. Part two is split “by time”: dawn, Pentecost, epiphany, Good Friday, Silent Saturday. It also includes a section, “Kwanzaa”, referring to the secular African American festival that takes place in between Christmas and New Year, and in which cultural heritage and traditions are celebrated.

The dedication at the start of the book simply reads: “For us.” I’m struck by to whom the “us” refers. Is it the ancestors of whom she writes in the book, the family into which she was born and which she writes so beautifully about in both books? Does “us” refer to the family that she has created? While I am sure that it is deliberately open to interpretation, my instinct is that the “us” refers to the community of black people worldwide for whom she originally set out on the journey of Black Liturgies.

I’m struck by the number of my own white friends — particularly women — who have been drawn to Cole Arthur Riley’s work and writing, those who quote Black Liturgies or reshare her posts on Instagram. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement caused many white people to feel guilt, grief, and rage at the realities of racial injustice. But Riley has been clear that the intended audience of the Black Liturgies Project is black people themselves.

The sense of a collective voice resonates throughout the book, and Riley is committed to de-centring her own voice. This is required in a book that attempts to transcend the whole of human experience, including mortality, wisdom, and loss. There are some experiences that she has gone through herself, and some that she has not.

“As a writer, I find it somewhat restful not to centre myself so much in the writing of a thing,” she says. “The clearest translation of the word ‘liturgy’ is kind of a work of the people. I feel a responsibility not just to my own interior life, but to some kind of imagined and real black interior world that transcends me. I’m drawn out of myself in a way that I think is really beautiful, and is a good practice as a writer to not be so confined to my own mind, my own lived experience.

“In sections like the mortality section, where I felt like my own interior world was lacking, or maybe a bit more quiet, I tried my best to connect with other people and enter theirs as best one can. I’m quite young, I’m 33 years old, and I feel like that section kind of demanded that I really try to enter that space in an honest way.

“I have a few older friends in my life, and have been able to hear their fears of ageing, their sense of being made obsolete. I realised in the process that I have many thoughts about mortality, especially as someone who lives with chronic illness, but I might not attune to them in the same way.”

Riley’s work is at once a voice of her generation and one that echoes from the past. I ask her what she thinks about millennials growing up in the Church and deconstructing Christianity in recent years.

“I personally didn’t deconstruct: I just fled altogether. I went to the artists in my life, the poets; I went to fiction. There was a period of time of real sincere isolation for me from Christianity of any kind. I missed the train on deconstruction, but honour people that are on a deconstructive journey, if that feels right for them. For me, it was more about reconstruction.

“I began to remember so much of what my spirituality was as a child — remembering the spirituality of my father and my grandma, and back further still. I don’t necessarily feel like I had to reconstruct something new once I departed from more conservative Christian spaces. I felt more like I was on a journey of travelling back and trying to recall something. It felt more like remembering.”

Black Liturgies: Prayers, poems, and meditations for staying human by Cole Arthur Riley is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.09); 978-1-39981-499-7.


For the journey back to yourself

Steady God, We are shape-shifters, drifting in and out of our counterfeit selves depending on whom we are in proximity to. There are days when who we are feels so imprecise, so transient, that we wonder if anything of us is real at all. Turn us toward the parts of us that are true and reveal the parts that are more mask than flesh. Keep us from demonising our false selves, but let us turn to them in curiosity and compassion; knowing every mask is born of a wound. Travel with us into memories of all that has formed us, those secret places in ourselves where we have hesitated to go. And on the journey, may we listen for the sound of our own name. May we speak it with the conviction of one who knows it by heart. Amen.


For when you can’t hear God or maybe never have

God who whispers, if at all,

If you are speaking, why not to me? I have waited. I have listened in silence, in noise, with head bowed and eyes wide open — all while wondering if you are with me. Heal the lie that you are far from any one of us. Help us to find you outside our narrow expectations for how the divine presents itself. Let us be tender with the parts of us that lack clarity and assurance. But help us to become honest that too often we are desperate for your voice because we are terrified of our own. May divine silence require us to meet ourselves — our loves, our desires, our fears — in new ways. Remind us that we have agency, that many paths can be holy at once. And for those of us who feel that our lives lack purpose in the absence of a singular, ordained path, reveal our meaning to us daily. In the faces of those we love, in the way we are loved in return. Amen.


For the disabled and chronically ill

God of every ache,

Help us to befriend our bodies. We confess that it is easy to turn against them as the source of our struggle. Awaken a compassion, a tenderness, toward the parts of us that are changing or hurting, remembering that our bodies are doing everything they can to protect us. That our bodies are fighting, are trying their best to hold back the pain and exhaustion. And with every ailing and unseen thing, guide us toward those capable of listening and perceiving when we are not okay, that we wouldn’t feel pressure to pretend or apologise or explain but could exist in the truth of what we need. Remind us that we are not a burden but a beacon to those who are so poorly attuned to their own bodies and needs that they have forgotten what self-compassion looks like. Hold us in love as we resist the demands of this world. May it be so.

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