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A journey of faith

PBS documentary explores the power of religious faith throughout African-Americans' history

In many churches and neighborhoods, segregation is still a way of life. It's not that people of different races don't want to get together, necessarily, but many people tend to gravitate to familiar faces, say historians.

"Today people are looking for answers," says director W. Noland Walker about continuing racial isolation. A man of faith himself, he acknowledges vast changes in this country and anticipates a more compassionate future society - though he points out that Jim Crow laws were struck down only 40 years ago and it will take patience and especially faith to heal the old wounds.

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This Far By Faith (PBS, June 24-26, check local listings) has been a long time coming; a documentary that finally gives due credit to the sustaining power of religious faith in the story of slavery.

The six-part series eloquently demonstrates what sustained, motivated, and finally helped free African-American people. If you don't have the time for all six parts, try to catch at least the first hour.

Part I, "There Is a River," turns the darkest part of the story - the dawn of slavery in the Americas - into a story of the evolution of African-American religious thought.

"They came to these shores with religious traditions they had practiced for thousands of years - what a multiplicity, what a diversity Africans brought to this country," says historian Rachel Harding of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

As slaves were forced to abandon their heritage and accept Christianity, they developed a new way of expressing themselves in their churches, she says.

Church was the one place slaves could unite in community.

Working from sunup to sun-down, they went to the "praise house" after work, finding release in evangelical religious ecstasy. And they found affirmation of their humanity in stories from the Bible.

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As is pointed out throughout the series, music plays a special role in African-American spirituality. From the call-and-response songs of Africa to songs of the praise house ("cabin songs") to the invention of gospel in the early 20th century, fervent religious music lifted their spirits, soothed sorrow, and helped congregants feel close to God.

"Their Christianity was of a particular kind," says Dr. Harding. "There was a strong emphasis on emancipation - they identified with the Israelites. But ultimately they saw God as just and kind ... they felt connected to something larger, deeper, and stronger."

Out of this understanding, says Harding, they had a vision: "They had the right to a better life."

The series takes viewers from slave days through the Civil War and the civil rights movement to the present reconnection with Africa, focusing on many heroes in the struggle for freedom.

Interviews with 13 top-notch historians, reenactments, rarely seen archival footage, and historical landmarks help make the complex ideas and complicated lives visible.

The last film is more cinéma-vérité style as it follows 60 people on a Buddhist-organized interfaith pilgrimage that retraces the Middle Passage.

The participants walk from Massachusetts to Florida, then make their way to the Caribbean and finally to the Door of No Return in Africa. At the end of the trip, only a part of the group remains, and among them are few whites. Still, filmmakers say the experience of making the series has left them feeling optimistic.

"The last film speaks to people in a religious context about finding common ground as opposed to always finding differences," says Dante J. James, executive producer of the series.

"Faith is an essential element of the healing process [among the races]. Another element is peace, and another is patience and understanding. But to me, faith is the basis of all of that."