Charles Albert Tindley Institute

 

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Charles Albert Tindley Institute (CATI), named after the “progenitor of African American gospel music,”[1] was established in Philadelphia with the support of the house of worship that he built and that bears his name, Tindley Temple UMC, where Rev. Lillian Smith serves as Pastor.  CATI is engaged in a cultural and educational mission to preserve and promote the life and legacy of Dr. Tindley.

Few individuals better illuminate the struggle for freedom and the fruits of diligent effort than the example provided by the life and legacy of Dr. Charles Albert Tindley.

There is something particularly inspiring by the example of someone who in the wake of tremendous pain and suffering still has the capacity to love and allow the beauty of life to flow through them.  In our time, people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu come to mind, for their leadership and forgiving spirit in the wake of decades of brutal injustice under the South African system of apartheid. 

Well, a few years before the American Civil War, in 1851, a child was born amidst people held in bondage and forced to work their entire lives under cruel and harsh conditions for no pay.  This child, as was customary at the time in the so-called slave states, was not allowed to learn to read and write; yet he did so through his diligent persistence and a little assistance.  By day he would pick up discarded pieces of written paper, hide them under his shirt, then at night when there was no one around, after working all day, he would lay on his stomach for hours and with the embers of burned pine cones providing light and their charred remnants serving as his writing implement, he would practice making the letters and words that he copied from the newspapers.  This went on for years, but by the end of his self-structured night school, he could not only read and write what he saw in the newspaper, he learned to read and understand the Bible.

There’s much more to that story, but the beauty that emerged from his difficult situation is reflected in scores of hymns that he composed, songs that served as the basis for the musical genre we now call gospel music, and many of his songs are still known, sung and loved by people from all corners of the world.

Given his experiences and personal difficulties, it’s hard to comprehend exactly what enabled him to retain and channel such love and beauty through his music. It’s curious how he went on to learn not only English, but Greek and Hebrew as well.  What inspired him to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate by opening a soup kitchen that still operates in his church today?  It makes one wonder how after serving for years as the janitor of the church that now bears his name, he returned to not only serve as its pastor, but to specify the architectural design and build the wonderful edifice that seats 3,200 people and houses one of America’s largest pipe organs, the magnificent 6,000-pipe Moller.  Things like these are hard to understand, but I guess as he wrote in the hymn he titled, “We Are Tossed and Driven,” a song whose words you may recognize, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.”

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[1] Beams of Heaven: Hymns of Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933); Kimbrough, S. T. Jr, ed., 2006  UMC.

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