Wherever her amazing career takes her, Jennifer Hudson never forgets where she came from.
- Posted on Oct 17, 2013
Earlier this year I was in a church to film a movie, a historic church in Harlem with magnificent stained-glass windows and rows and rows of pews, with choir stalls and stacks of Bibles. Even though my own church was halfway across the country, I felt right at home.
Church was at the center of my life growing up. My family went to a Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago, and I think we spent more time there than at our house.
Monday nights we had Bible study, Tuesday nights were rehearsals for the adult choir, Wednesday nights the youth choir rehearsed (I sang in both choirs), Saturdays my mother folded and stapled bulletins, Sundays we were at both morning and evening services.
We were always there. And more important, our church family was always there with us, helping us stay close to God in good times and bad.
The movie was Black Nativity, based on the Langston Hughes play. I had the part of a single mother about to be evicted from her Baltimore home.
She’s beaten down by worries, especially about her teenage son. She’s had a falling out with her parents and hasn’t been back to New York City, where her dad’s a preacher, in years.
Still, she sends her son up there to live with them, to be in a safe place away from her problems. That’s why we were here filming.
I know what it’s like to pray for my child. My son, David, Jr., named for his father, has been incredibly blessed in his four years, but I think any mother, no matter how old her kids are, understands what it’s like to have hopes and dreams and prayers for them.
So many of the prayers I said as a girl were sung—and they still are. Our family was full of musicians. My uncle John was one of the lead musicians at church and directed the choir. My cousin Quentin could sit down at the piano and play any song ever written.
We’d sing one of my grandmother’s favorite hymns, like “How Great Thou Art,” or a gospel tune like “Be Grateful.” The words filled my spirit as much as the music did.
“Be grateful,” that gospel song goes, “because there’s someone else who’d love to be in your shoes. Be grateful, oh yeah, my God said he’d never, never forsake you.” Be grateful in everything, at all times, like it says in the Bible. Like I heard in church.
We marked up our Bibles, underlining key verses. We’d take them out and study them when the preacher preached. You’d find one of my mother’s carefully folded programs stuck between the leaves or an inscription inside for an anniversary, a birthday or a graduation.
That was a Hudson family tradition. If you were celebrating a big milestone or heading off somewhere, you were given a Bible.
My grandmother gave my uncle a Bible before he left to serve in Vietnam. When I went away to college my mother gave me my own Bible. It’s small, black, and the cover is worn to pieces, but you know the saying, the Bible that’s falling apart belongs to someone who isn’t.
I had it with me when I was on American Idol and I’d pull it out of my purse whenever I needed inspiration or guidance. Sometimes the other contestants would tease me about it. “Jennifer, you wouldn’t cross the street without your Bible,” they’d say. They were right.
These days there are Bible apps that make it easy to look up a verse. I use them to read something to David, Jr., or we play a Bible game on his iPad. But I still carry that little Bible my mother gave me everywhere. It’s a reminder of how my faith has carried me. Always.
That was how all of us felt in my family—my mother; my older brother, Jason; my older sister, Julia; and me. We had love, we had each other and we had God at the center of our lives.
Even after I grew up and my career took me far from Chicago, I’d still go back there. When I had my big audition for the movie Dreamgirls, a huge opportunity, you know where I went to pray? The steps of the church where I’d been going since I was born, the church where I found my voice.
Or when I won the Academy Award for my role in Dreamgirls, or had my first solo album released or got engaged to David, who did I want to thank? God, first and foremost. Then the people he put in my life to support and inspire me–my family and my church most of all.
They’d given me all I needed to make my way. I try to remember them and honor them in everything I do.
Especially my grandmother, who believed the best way to show her gratitude to God for her beautiful singing voice was to use it to serve him. My mother, who was utterly devoted to our family. My brother, who had such a generous spirit. He loved to barbecue, feeding the whole neighborhood.
And my nephew, Julia’s son Julian King, who was all about education. He was so smart and did his homework without being told. He changed his own bedtime from 9:00 to 8:00 so he wouldn’t be late for school. He had people call him “Dr. King” because he dreamed of being a doctor.
Julia and I started the Julian D. King Gift Foundation to provide children positive experiences in his honor. Every August 14, Julian’s birthday, we hold a “Hatch Day,” a name he came up with (we don’t know how). He loved parties and would send out Hatch Day invites to family and friends.
We celebrate his birthday by donating school supplies to thousands of kids in need. I think Julian would have been totally into getting kids as excited about school as he was. We hold an annual Christmas toy drive in his name too.
Now when Christmas comes I want to do all the things I did growing up, get the fireplace going, get our family together for a fish fry, gather around the piano and sing. And, of course, go to church for the Christmas play, with all the children carrying candles down the aisle and everyone singing carols.
There’s something special about Christmas, about celebrating the birth of Christ, a kind of beauty that brings people together, that heals the wounds only he can heal.
I got that exact same feeling there in that historic church in Harlem while we were filming. “Fix me, Jesus,” sings the character I play. It’s an outpouring of emotion, the kind of crying out to God we make when we’re brokenhearted, when our spirits are as low as they can go.
She goes back to New York for the first time in years, reuniting with her parents and her son. What a celebration follows, the choir leaping to their feet, clapping and singing. At last she’s back in the place that nourished her, that sustains her still. Church–the place I’ve always called home.
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