Tuesday, March 21, 2006

This is my story; this is my song.

When I was 12, my father went to prison and broke my heart. It has healed, but while my chest was cracked open, the harmonies and energies of gospel music fell in and were sealed up into my heart as it mended.

You see, my father spent his time in a minimum security prison that was mostly populated by men who had committed first-offense drug crimes with minimum sentencing mandates. We usually went to visit on Sundays and so attended the Protestant church service with him, which mostly centered around 9 or 10 African American men singing while an older black man played the upright piano. Slow, densely harmonic, traditional gospel. Then, over the summer while Dad was gone, I went on my first church mission trip to Mississippi and spent a week at Canton Bible Baptist Church, welcomed and surrounded by its members and their worship.

I have been chasing the black church ever since.

I have attended gospel choir weekend workshops and done research projects on Mahalia Jackson. I attended day-long Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations on campus and wrote a paper that was published on the influence of the traditional black preacher on James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones. I can sing at least the first verse of the black national anthem, just like Bill Clinton. My calling to work with urban kids is directly related to my utter sense of contentment being surrounded by black speaking patterns and vibrancy.

But I have never felt comfortable enough to just walk right into a black church and worship with them. I'm not sure why, but it seems to be one of the last lingering self-conscious bits of my personality. I'm willing to make a fool of myself in every other arena for the sake of curiosity and spiritual enlightenment, but I am unwilling to be the only white person in a church full of black Christian strangers. It's ridiculous, but I've learned that life is rarely rational.

So, when one of my co-workers invited me to her CME church for her Women's Day service, I immediately responded that I would go, even if it was at 8:00 in the morning. Even if I would have to abandon my uniform of jeans, hiking boots and a fleece vest. Because, I'll tell you, those black ladies get dressed.

I arrived at the church at 79th and Wabash exactly at 8:00. I stood in the narthex, where I told Vanessa I would meet her and waited a minute or two. Several people smiled at me but no one really spoke to me. I really was the only white person there. Then, my phone rang and it was Vanessa. She had to drop her husband off at the airport, so she'd be a little late. She usually sits about 4 or 5 rows back on the right side. I could go sit down and she'd be along soon. "Four or five rows from the front?" I asked. "Yes."

So, now I'm the only white person in the church and I have to walk all the way down the aisle and ask an old woman in a great hat to let me in because the only pew that qualified as 4th or 5th and had enough space for the party of 3 or 4 that I knew we'd be eventually only had space in the middle. Then I just had to sit by myself in the middle of a pew, being white, and wait for either Vanessa or Princess, who Vanessa had said would be joining me. Interestingly, as I sat there, although people smiled but didn't say anything to me, both sets of kids that filed into the pews around me said hello.

But I was comfortable. I had been invited and I had already seen things that delighted me. Five women sat in a pew in front of me wearing different white outfits that looked faintly like nurses uniforms and all had matching white hats. I know that women in uniforms in black churches often have more than a ceremonial role, so I was caught up in wondering what they would be needed for. Lots of women were wearing great wigs. All of the women who would be running the service were wearing white outfits. In fact, as the choir filed in, they also wore white, with yellow wrist corsages to celebrate the day. By this time, Princess had arrived in full African regalia (she's from Zambia) and the choir started singing.

It was marvelous. I cried. A lot. Experience has taught me it does not seem to matter what type of gospel it is, it all makes me cry. There is such a catharsis possible because there is so much power sent out from the women singing. Unless they are modulating volume or intensity for a specific dramatic impact, no one has to hold back. Each of those women gets to be exactly herself and with full force. Women who are more physically expressive than others are not discouraged, they are simply placed at the ends of the rows, so as not to knock anyone over. And, because gospel has become part of my heart, I have no defenses against its power. So, I cry. The 7 or 8 year old girl in the pew in front of me who kept looking back to stare at both Princess and I throughout the service, Ashante, brushed her face at one point at me in obvious sign language and when I leaned forward to hear what she had to say, she told me, "Your cheeks is getting red." At points in the music when the entire choir would all of a sudden start clapping more sharply and raising their hands higher in unfathomable choreography or when they would change keys, I would catch my breathe and my joy would get ratcheted up just a little higher.

At my own church later that morning, I thought a lot about the differences. I realized that although I can achieve a state of worship and feel a real ability to actually talk with God in my normal service, I do not always leave joyful. Often, God and I have heated discussions and the time is more akin to meditation. I'm often exhausted when I get home. Black church makes me joyful. I left full of energy.

After the opening song, a woman stood at the pulpit and said for the first time, "Good Morning, Carter Temple." Every woman who stood at the pulpit after that repeated the greeting and, every time, the congregation would give the woman an enthusiatic, "Good morning," in response. When I would participate in worship in the suburban Presbyterian church that I grew up in, the pastor would advise us not to greet the congregation unless we were the first participant to speak that morning. He told us that we would only get a lackluster reponse and that would affect the flow of the service. And, as I watched over the years, he was absolutely right: after the first good morning, Presbyterians feel like any additional greeting is a bit of an imposition. Not this morning, though. After the woman with a vaguely Asian face greeted us, she launched into the announcements in a strange monotone that I have come to associate with the black churches that broadcast on the radio. But people were listening because occasionally they would shout in encouragement or call out to Jesus for prayer for the sick.

When it came time for the Affirmation of Faith, this church took a turn from my Presbyterian peers again. We will recite that we believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his own son, our lord, glimpsing down at our bulletins to help us with the words to something we have recited thousands of times. Carter Temple, however, proclaims that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, nearly shouting in their fervor that on the third day, he ascended into heaven. It was cool.

When my extended family gets together, we often have devotionals and sing in the evenings. We have Murphy hymnals that some of my cousins made 15 years ago with construction paper and glitter glue covers. These hymnals are full of the best hymns from all of our traditions. From "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," my Lutheran grandmother's favorite hymn to "Victory in Jesus," a standard in my aunt's charismatic Nazarene church. When we sing, my mother doesn't need the hymnals. She knows all the words from growing up Methodist. So, some years when we have forgotten the hymnals, or if we are singing several songs in an evening and so hesitate to sing the third and fourth verses of some hymns, she tends to just roll right over any hesitation and simply belt out the next verse. Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Saviour am happy and blest. So, I could sing along when we sang "Blessed Assurance" and think of my mother at the same time.

Then, it was time for the Poetry Ministry, a choral response and the Praise Dance Ministry. I am delighted by the African American cultural trend of poetry recitation. I've seen Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks and 12 year old girls reciting the poetry of Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks. All stand dignified and with a dramatic impulse that puts the dry chanting of old white guys mumbling their poetry so that "the focus is on words I've crafted" to shame. The woman who wrote the poem and read it got standing shouts and applause when she finished reading it.

The congregation files to the front to turn in their offering. I realized that the elder men of the church must sit in that front pew so all the people walking by greet them. They all wished me God's blessing as I filed up. Vanessa pointed to one older woman in a pink suit who danced all the way up to the front, danced with the pastor, then continued dancing up the center aisle. She is 80 years old and leads the country line dancing group for health.

The musicians in a gospel service play chords underneath most of the service, changing keys, picking up or slowing down the tempo and generally underscoring the emotion of the particular element of the service that is taking place. Because of this underscoring, the choir can follow the rising pitch of the clapping and shouting of the congregations and sing a few more repetitions of the chorus of the song they had finished before the preacher started.

They had a guest pastor to speak that morning in celebration of Women's Day. She was a tiny little woman who shouted and rocked and swayed in the best gospel tradition. She spoke on the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus, "Lord, help me. My daughter is sick." When Jesus asked her why he should deny the chosen people his service in order to help someone of her race, comparing her to a dog in the process, she gives him the only back talk he gets in the entire Bible, telling him that even dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the table. The preacher took that story and made it a metaphor for the plight of the African American woman, who is at her wits end. She didn't do this by explaining how this story was a metaphor for the African American woman, who is at her wits end. She did it by acting it out, repeating, "Lord, help me! My daughter is sick! Lord, help me! My son is in prison! Lord, help me! My husband can't be found! Lord, help me! I'm sick and tired!" And it was big and it was moving and those women in that congregation called back to her, shouting agreement and exclamations and praising God for her message and their pain and the kinship that they shared. As I listened to both the pastor and the women around me, I could pick out individual voices and was drawn to a woman in the front row. Her diaphramatic strength astounded me. One of favorite quotes from my collection is from a book called Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan, "'If a woman is stronger than her husband, she comes to despise him. She has the choice of either tyrannizing him or else making herself less in order not to make him less. If the husband is strong enough, though. . .' she poked him again, even harder, 'she can be as strong as she is, as strong as she can grow to be.'" I think this is true of all relationships and if the church is the bride of Christ, then people should be able to be as strong as they are in worship, like the woman who projected so well and without a hint of reserve. Another woman in the front row stood up stick straight and called, "Come on! [pause] Come on! [pause] Come on! [pause] Come on! [pause] Come on!" like she was cheering a baseball player who was digging in to make it to homebase before the ball did, her head snapping forward with each repetition. At one point, the preacher quieted the intensity and talked about her use of emotion saying that some would say, "It doesn't take all that," which was a phrase that the women knew and so I inferred that it was the standard phrase to criticize the style of worship. She handled the rhetoric of bringing up the opposing argument in order to refute it perfectly, pointing ou that those who criticize that particular aspect of their worship didn't know what these women felt like or they would realize that it does take all that. The disciples thought the Canaanite woman was overreacting as well. I like this preacher because in addition to the emotion and the shouting and the call and response, her sermon was well-written and linear, with good, solid logic. I could access it. Perfect experience.

I enjoyed watching the little girls in front of me as they experimented with their own participation in the service, occasionally shouting something and then dissolving into giggles. I also loved to see the little girl standing with her mother in the choir, a full member alongside the adults. As children, their hearts are wide open and this worship will always feel like home to them. And they will always feel welcome in this home.

I'm jealous.

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