A Review of
Soul Care in African American Practice
Reviewed by Ope Bukola
In 2019, after a few years of fast-paced work, I paused for a long sabbatical. I’d hoped to use the period to do less, and listen to God more. Bolstered by some readings on contemplative prayer, I signed up for a three day prayer retreat in California. On the flight, questions set in: would I be able to sit quietly for that long, would the barebones accommodation be comfortable and, most of all, would anyone who looked like me be there? Though I was drawn to contemplative practice, the little I knew of it made me doubt it was “for me” as a 30-something Protestant black woman. I know my share of prayer warriors, so praying intentionally resonates strongly as part of black Christian practice. But contemplation? Not so much.
I’ve since learned of the African roots of Christian contemplative practices, from church fathers like Augustine and Tertullian, to 20th century giants like Howard Thurman. So when I first heard of Dr. Barbara Peacock’s book, Soul Care in African American Practice, I was immediately drawn to the term “soul care.” In the book, Peacock highlights the spiritual practices that have sustained generations of African American Christians and urges black Christians to prioritize intentional soul care.
When Peacock writes of “soul care,” she means prayer and spiritual direction for the purpose of spiritual formation. She purposely uses the language of the “soul” to reframe spiritual direction for African American Christians. Her claim is that, though the terminology spiritual direction is not traditionally used, its practices have lived out in the community. She examines the lives of notable black Chrisitans and draws a direct connection between their spiritual practices and their faithful endurance. The stories are meant to encourage, to remind us of the deep spiritual wells from which we can draw, and to urge us to slow down and claim these practices.
It’s impossible to talk about African American Christian tradition without recognizing the ways that anti-black racism shapes the tradition. While Peacock reminds us that Christianity has been in Africa since before the trans-atlantic slave trade, she connects “soul care” for African Americans directly with the horrors of slavery. When enslaved people sang spirituals asking Jesus to walk with them and affirming their coming deliverance, they were drawing on a belief in a deeply personal God who was not absent from their struggle. For Peacock, this personal faith and hope, which echo strongly in African American Christian practice, are the central attributes of spiritual direction. Soul care is about, first and foremost, turning one’s attention toward God such that he becomes the central focus of the journey.
As the book profiles notable African American Christians, the specifics of soul care become more apparent. First, it is rooted in spending time in the word: we read about the spiritual journey of young Frederick Douglass, being discipled and memorizing and repeating bible passages, not unlike the practice of Lectio Divina. Second, it is a means by which we develop conscious detachment. We read about how Dr. Renita Weems, author of Listening for God, learns to wisely detach while recognizing that “detachment generates a need for an attachment. In our situation, the intent is to attach more strongly to God.” The most critical practice, which undergirds all of spiritual direction and soul care, is prayer. The rich prayer lives of leaders like Mrs. Corretta Scott King and Dr. Howard Thurman are brought into focus. All of these practices—bible reading, detachment, meditation, prayer—are part of the “spiritual direction lineage” that African American spiritual directors like Dr. Jessica Ingram, author of A Journey in the Experience of Prayer, seek to share with the entire faith community so that they can build healthier souls that serve others.
An underlying current throughout the book is that individual soul care is necessary to sustain Godly service and action against injustice. This is especially relevant for us in the midst of the ongoing pandemic and struggle for racial equity. As Christians join in the work of repairing our health and communities, we must prioritize nourishing our souls. Yes, our time is limited. But there’s no tradeoff between making time for intimacy with God and action against injustice. In fact, Peacock argues that you can’t effectively do the latter without the former. She writes of her own experience with burnout—an experience that is unfortunately all too familiar, especially for black women who still carry the burden of being perceived “strong” and inexhaustible. As Peacock describes it, soul care gives us the courage for “contemplative action” which is “action that emerges from our real encounters with God. It is doing what God calls us to do when he calls us to do it—no matter how afraid we are or how ill-equipped we feel.”
I wish Peacock offered more concrete steps, especially for beginning laypeople, on the practice of soul care. Its many examples from great leaders are encouraging, but also a bit intimidating. I would have loved for her to expand on this further with a chapter giving more guidance on practicing soul care and discerning between the need for spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, etc. She does some of this with beautiful questions and images for reflection that accompany each chapter.
It’s becoming something of a cliche nowadays to remind people to make time for self care. Self care is admirable, and I absolutely encourage African American Christians to take deliberate care of our physical and emotional health. But if we are to gain rest for our souls, the crucial practices of soul care—intentional prayer, mediation, formation—must sit atop our list.