In every way possible, Black Liturgies by Cole Arthur Riley is a beautiful book, every bit as alive and life-giving as her first book, This Here Flesh. With the vulnerability of a prophet, Riley has knit together reflection, meditation, poetry, and prayer — the work of (and for) her people. (The word liturgy means “work of the people.”)

As a material object, Black Liturgies recalls a text you might see in a pew: hardcover with no jacket, like a hymnal; its allure is somewhere between the gravitas of a Bible and the invitation of a pocket Moleskine. Its dimensions, in fact, approximate my companionably sized Book of Common Prayer. I am sure, however, that many readers will feel, as I do, that Black Liturgies is far more companionable.

Pews and companionship are part of Black Liturgies’ origin story. Riley recalls the day she sat in church, needing spiritual companionship, and discovered liturgy as rest and anchor.

And then she recalls the Sunday after George Floyd's murder — when she logged into an Episcopal service, “knowing what I've always known: that there are days when it is particularly difficult to pray words written by a white man. For all its beauty, this liturgy that had given me words to pray when I had none was suffocating. Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the Book of Common Prayer at a time when my ancestors were being abducted, alienated from one another, and enslaved, would not be an anchor for me that day. He was incapable of speaking to my pain, Black grief, Black hope, in a voice I could trust. I wanted more.”

So Riley wrote Black Liturgies. With scores of ancestors beside her, she offers up “Black grief, Black hope” in her own voice.

Anyone who has remained in touch with their humanity can learn from this volume and find comfort and meaning in it. But Black Liturgies is particularly good news for those whose faith can't be housed and won’t be conscripted into institutions that support “white Christian nationalism, religious homophobia and transphobia, biblical ableism, and ecclesial misogyny.”

As Generations X through Z run away from church but not from faith, Black Liturgies extends the glimmer of spiritual companionship without the trigger of pews. Church refugees will find in Black Liturgies a welcome anchor, a portal into community.

The book is divided into liturgies by theme and then by time and season (there are liturgies for dawn, day, and dusk; for Advent, Lent, Kwanzaa, and Juneteenth, etc.); but it is the liturgies by theme that comprise the heart of the book.

There are twenty-one liturgical themes, including dignity, wonder, body, belonging, lament, rage, secrets, power, justice, joy, and mortality. Each liturgy begins with quotes from Black ancestors and is then arrayed with an opening reflection (presented as a letter), a poem, and prayers of the people. After a pause for breathing meditation, the liturgy concentrates into prayers of confession and forgiveness, and then ends with a formal benediction. Finally, “Contemplation Questions” invite readers to reflect on their own, applying aspects of the theme to their lives and faith. The questions are truly generative: fresh, gentle, challenging, and useful.

The prayers Riley writes are not common in institutional spaces, and yet they are the stuff of everyday life. The needs she identifies are so crucial and so honest that, even when the prayers spoke of sorrow, I delighted in them because they had been spoken — spoken, elevated, and released. She invites us to pray:

For those who left their bodies to survive
For those who don't trust spiritual spaces
For those who have forgotten how to cry
For those who doom-scroll
For when you need to run and hide
For Black people who had to smile through it
For healing from church abuse
For when you grow too familiar with hurting
For when rest feels like a risk
For those who have forgotten how to play
For Black Twitter

Riley, who identifies as queer, possesses a prismatic, non-binary, and fluid imagination. She holds up each theme, turns it around, observes it in shadow and light, and then synthesizes her exploration. She reveres complexity and mystery while writing with clarity. It is her superpower. (Or one of them.)

Consider this example, in closing. Where orthodoxy might serve, “Fear not,” Riley offers this benediction: “May you live each day with sacred intuition to the terrors of this world. But may you never be swallowed by them. May you find peace as you let the divine guide you into inner rest in the face of all that might destroy you. May you tremble, but never alone.”

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