I wish churches were more like barbershops.

As a child I kept a love/hate relationship with my barbershop. On the one hand, like any mischievous little boy worth the scars on his knees, I despised the idea of getting a haircut: all a haircut did was pull me away from playing baseball and filling my pockets with dirt. Plus it took a really long time – let me emphasize this – a really long time for one person to get a haircut. The phrase, “I got three heads in front of you,” basically means, “Come back tomorrow.” For women in salons, a short delay can easily turn into a sleepover.

On the other hand, I never receive more compliments or feel better about myself than immediately after a haircut. The teenage me felt empowered by a fresh lining, and – I’ve done the math on this – life becomes 35% better after a haircut. Not just your life – ALL life becomes better.

Almost like church, right? (riiiight) Nowadays the barbershop is the hood’s sanctuary.

More than a Haircut

What we all know about barbershops and salons is almost universally true: it’s not about the haircut. Those take forever, are priced arbitrarily, and there’s no figuring out the person who handles your hair. No way.

But we don’t go to Supercuts instead, because efficiency doesn’t matter that much. (And because, Supercuts). Instead we go to, and sometimes endure, barbers shops and salons because of the experience. There is something about the ability to speak freely in a company of our peers that really makes a difference.

Really, it’s the difference between McDonald’s (Supercuts) and Soul Food Sundays at your grandmother’s house. I’ve been searching for years the right words to capture this experience – the barbershop – as have many books, dissertations, and movies, with varying success. What we know for sure is that it’s more than a haircut.

For sure, it’s the open conversation. The barbershop is where you can truly speak your mind. Whether in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and their argument over the greatest boxer of all time – Sugar Ray Robinson or Cassius Clay (“his momma called him Clay, I call him Clay”); or in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where the shop declares, “Ain’t no law for no colored man except the one sends him to the chair”; barbershops have a way of invoking truth telling and raw emotion that is rarely seen outside of the barbershop. A writer I love says it best:

There is no place like a Negro Barbershop for hearing what Negroes really think. There is more unselfconscious affirmation to be found here on a Saturday than you can find in a Negro College in a month or so it seems to me.
-Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (1953)

We need more barbershops, and national media gets this. There are certain conversations we follow on CNN and ESPN—conversations like whether Lebron is greater than MJ—if they seem familiar it’s because these are barbershop debates. Even the panel-style format that pervades talk television today—The Talk, The Chew, and Bill Maher—these are nothing more than barbershop conversations with higher production value. Extreme opinions in the same room? A charismatic ringleader? The View has existed for years in beauty salons; in the early 20th Century they were called “hush harbors.” Safe space. Vibrant, neighborhood space.

Our barbers and stylists are conversation hosts, and they create a space where we can simply BE. We don’t all have to agree, and we usually don’t, but the opportunity to speak and be heard is what I value more than anything else. Protected space.

In a generation before us, the shop was even a political space, where injustices were aired and stories were shared. It’s hard for us to understand this, but for our parents the barbershop was a place to be human in a world that treated them far less: a humanizing space.

And stories are shared; plenty of stories are made up too, but there too was a purpose in this. Mythical space.

And it is still today a place to form our values and affirm ourselves in the way that most sociologists agree is best: with others. We form ourselves in community. We judge ourselves in the presence of others who are like us. The barbershop is, for better or worse, a cauldron of Black identity. Survival space.

And you thought you were getting a haircut…

Better Churches, or More Barbershops?

There’s a narrative of decline in the Black church (all churches really), that churches are dying and aren’t relevant, and being a believer in public is like wearing a scarlet letter. If you’re asking these questions, pay attention to all of this the next time you are waiting in a barbershop or salon—the way you must go this often, and how your appointment has become a ritual of necessity. Everything I’ve said about your local ’shop we should also say about church.

The way one physical space is many different things at the same time for many different people.
The way conversation is open and debate is valued.
The way life outside this space matters, and we’ll help you make sense of it here.
The way people feel like they have to come, because they can’t get this experience anywhere else.
The way my barber even takes Mondays as his day off…Sabbath (preachers should taken note).

I like this. These thoughts excite me. How about…

The way the barbershop/salon is decidedly not a consumer product. It is a respite from the market, where local artisans (OK, bootleggers) but also chefs and designers and artists can find a community of support. Shouldn’t churches be known like this?

I think there’s a lot for us to learn from our barbers, and also, a few lessons we’ve already borrowed that we need to unlearn. Like how some church services take forever to finish. Or how women and kids aren’t always welcome, and vice versa for beauty salons. Or, and perhaps most critically, how we lose our boldness once we leave that space: our words are muted and we begin to play along in the systems of the wider world. Why do we change once we leave? The question is valid of barbershops and churches.

During my last haircut, we somehow had a conversation about religion and boxing and violence and relationships and politics all at the same time. And those who listened soon got involved. I laughed, and one time I cringed, but I thought about it all later. I spent a little money—for support—and I was in community, and the entire experience was a gift. Most of all, I knew I was coming back. On the way home I thought…

“I wish churches were more like barbershops.”

Maybe we’re not so far off. I hope not—for our sake, and for the sake of the many people who have never known God’s love and couldn’t care less about church, but never miss a haircut.

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