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Beyond the Suffering

Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction
by Dr. Robert W. Kellemen and Karole A. Edward
Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2007
256 pages
Reviewed by Beverly Williams-Hawkins 

On a cold night, lost in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, USA, I experienced the depth, power, and lasting impact of African American soul care. Nestled against a tree, trusting sister moon to watch my back, I did the only thing I knew to counter my raging fears—I sang the Negro Spirituals and I moaned. In doing so I drew from the wellspring of spiritual care rooted in the African American tradition.

Dr. Robert W. Kelleman and Karole A. Edwards offer a thoughtful and respectful exploration of the long and rich tradition of African American spiritual care. Beginning with the overview of a model from Kelleman’s previous work Spiritual Friends, Kelleman and Edwards systematically organize what African American Christians have done to provide Christian spiritual care. Their framework combines two themes and four tasks: soul care, providing comfort for suffering through sustaining and healing and spiritual direction, offering confrontation for sinning through reconciling, and guiding (29). A chart is provided that expands definitions and explanations of terms and how they are employed in spiritual direction.

Utilizing images of a treasure map and a family album, Kelleman and Edwards guide readers on a hunt for “buried treasure” (13) in narrative that demonstrates “African American sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding” while tracing “our heavenly Father’s affectionately sovereign hands powerfully at work in African American history from enslavement to emancipation” (17). The depictions are not for the faint of heart. Beyond the Suffering confronts the horrors of slavery and its aftermath, while standing in awe that the human spirit can rise from victim to victor.

Beyond the Suffering presents a theology of suffering that is historical, devotional, and practical. The reader is invited to listen and walk alongside the experience of African Americans, while simultaneously reflecting on the journey from enslavement to emancipation within each human soul. Each chapter presents the significant stages of African American spiritual soul care history from a historical perspective. Personal narratives highlight forms of African American spiritual soul care, and range from the moans of slaves “the first vocalization of a new spiritual vocabulary” to “Praising the Lord: Praying, Singing and Shouting to “Arousing to Exhortation: Biblical Challenge to Personal Growth.” Chapters end with questions to help the reader to reflect and integrate the material.

The only downside was the overuse of treasure map metaphor. Still, I find the book academically sound and refreshingly readable, replete with treasures we all can put to good use in the ministry of spiritual soul care and spiritual direction.

Beverly Williams-Hawkins, MDiv is a graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary and The Center for Spiritual Growth and the Contemplative Life in San Antonio, Texas, USA. She lives in Austin where she is a spiritual director and psychiatric nurse.

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