I wonder whether you have attended a church or synagogue service with a worship style considerably different from your own? It might be memorable to sit and listen to the Torah read. Or, it could tweak your sensitivity to hear people speaking in tongues. Maybe you would be amazed to see people regularly kneel to pray. And, who knows, maybe the Spirit of God might speak to you when you seek God in a different environment from your usual.
It was 1970, my first year out of a Vanderbilt Divinity School and I was anxious to continue learning anything related to spirituality. At that point, although ordained, I had not been called to serve a church full-time. My college degree had been in Biology. During college I considered a Ph. D and possibly teaching at the college level. So, I had taken enough education courses to secure a teaching certificate. My wife and I thought it would be a learning experience to teach during the first year of the integration of the Robertson County, Tennessee’s public schools. I hope we also saw it as an opportunity to offer positive voices in a delicate year for education. One of my colleagues was a 6 ft., 5 in. balding man that everyone called Coach Anderson. He spoke with a deep rasping voice and everyone listened. You never saw the coach without his whistle. Discipline problems were non-existent in his presence. We struck up an immediate friendship. We had the same frame, the same passions, but lived in different colored skin. He was my first black colleague and I began to receive some unexpected invitations into predominantly black experiences. This opened another door to an inclusive worldview, an opportunity for which I will always be thankful. He introduced me to chitlins in a little soul food diner in a deserted house trailer that most white folk didn’t know existed. Again, you must realize that blacks and whites were not free to do many things together.
Coach was the first person to invite me to attend a black church. In reviewing those years I grimace and admit it didn’t enter my mind to invite him to attend our church. And, worse, I am not certain he could have attended.
It was a humbling experience to receive his invitation. I had no idea what to expect. A mixture of feelings engulfed me on the way to the church. I was perspiring not only because of the heat of an August day, but also because I was afraid of how we would be received in a black church. No doubt many of the Coach’s friends had been forbidden entrance into white churches. It was incredible we were going to have the privilege to sit side-by-side with Christians of another race as we worshipped the same God.
I had no preparation for the day. Although what you are about to read includes humor, emotion, spirituality, and divine power, I was so overwhelmed by the differences from my experiences in white churches that I was more of an observer than a participant. Please understand that this was not a trite experience, but rather a tiny step in terms of understanding the larger world of spiritual practice. And, incredibly, it laid a few bricks in the foundation needed for my future service as a missionary in Colombia, South America. Worship at St. Peter’s AME Church was like putting spiritual jalapeno salsa on the bland white chips of my Midwestern church experience. The most novel thing that ever happened at the Shinar Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Iowa was the playing of some waxed rib bones taken from a dead cow skeleton to keep time to the music. Somehow, old Mr. Hale tucked two of the bones in each hand and when he shook his hands, the bones produced a clacking noise that was intriguing to some and annoying to others. Other Sundays, he would whistle perfectly on key as the organ played and/or the people sang. The old gent was about as thin in appearance as his musical bones and I used to expect his skeleton to fall in a heap as he exited the church. Other than Manford’s novelties, worship was quiet except for the vibrato of the preacher and standardized hymns of the day. If an “amen” was ever spoken except at the end of a prayer, it was because the preacher badgered the people to get such a response. Never in the history of the Shinar church had a black man enter to worship. I was more familiar with a Sac and Fox Indian spirituality than the content of black worship. I didn’t know that years later I would travel in Ghana, Liberia, and Tanzania and become very familiar with a variety of African worship styles. Nor could I envision that forty years later a black minister would be the pastor of my home church in Iowa.
Most churches in the South, black and white, had an annual tradition called “homecoming.” The title gave the impression that the saints were getting together for the rapture, a direct deployment of the faithful to heaven. Actually, the day coaxed inactive members to return for a special day of “preachin” and “eatin.” Churches would invite the best pulpit pounder available to preach the sermon. This was a community or county event and area ministers attended as a sign of ecumenical support.
We arrived at church. People greeted us as quickly as we exited the car–the only two grains of salt in a parking lot full of pepper. More than a hundred people filled the church. As we entered the church I would love to have a record of my blood pressure. This was an event for everyone’s best clothes. All women wore hats of one persuasion or another, sort of like derby day in Louisville, KY. The men all wore suits and ties. I noticed immediately that black worship had a lot of formality build into the ritual. All ushers had labeled badges and they took their job quite seriously. Everyone or every couple was personally escorted to a pew. I also noticed a number of women dressed entirely in white. That put me to wondering, what are these people supposed to do? The hour would not pass without knowing their role. As I sized up the situation, my mind was whirling with questions.
There were kerosene lamps on the walls between each window about four feet off the floor. Maybe they were functional, but they could have been rudiments of the past that remained because “that is the way it has always been”—a practice often employed by churches around the world.
I had planned to take a seat near the back of the church and hold on for the ride. My first serious surprise was the segregation of ministers from the rest of the people. All ministers sat on the stage in a semi-circle immediately behind the preacher to give him enthusiastic support–we were sort of spiritual cheerleaders. This meant we faced the congregation. I suspect I looked serious misplaced, one spot on a lot of dominos.
The music was incredible. I had never seen a dancing choir. I mean these men and women swayed like flags in the breeze, real smooth and peaceful like, as they sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” I didn’t know the body could bend in so many places at the same time. These people were passionate and talented. I didn’t know so many people with good voices ever got together to praise God.
The host minister introduced the speaker of the day. Bishop Thomas carefully took time to recognize all the dignitaries in the crowd with a special emphasis on other ministers. Then, he softly introduced his subject, “WE HAVE A STRANGE GOD,” and he had my attention. Somehow that preacher scared me when those words came vibrating off his tongue. He spoke real deep and especially slow when he repeated those words. “W E H A V E A S T RA N G E G O D. He hit his deepest bass with the word STRANGE. He bellowed his points, “God can be everywhere at the same time; now what do you think about that?” “We have a strange God, he sent His son to die for you! Now what do you think about that?” Being his cheerleaders meant that we should shout agreement with the preacher’s proclamation and wave our arms above our heads in spiritual fervor. Suddenly, fellow preachers began an uninhibited chorus of “Preach it brother. “ “Yeah, that be right.” “Keep goin Preacher.” “Praise God.” “Don’t rest now.” “Hallelujah.” I wanted to yell something too, but nothing would come out….it just wasn’t me. I was willing to do what my peers expected, but the most I could muster was a nod now and again, probably at the wrong times.
The sermon was like watching someone blowing air into a balloon until it could not withstand the pressure and something had to give. People were willing to fully express their emotions. About twenty minutes into the sermon, the minister had come to a boil creating a bigger and bigger balloon and the congregation was beginning to get noisy. People were shouting along with the preacher, “Yeah, we got a strange God.” “God asks you to do some strange things!” The cooking pots couldn’t contain the boiling soup and it seemed obvious that some lids might pop. The first person to leave her seat and make her way down the aisle to the altar was a wee bit of a women, couldn’t have weighed 90 pounds. The preacher could have almost reached out and touched the woman’s head, but acted as if she were not there. This lady arrived very happy and oblivious to anything but the movement of the spirit compelling her to dance. And, I was getting more and more uncomfortable and uncertain about what might happen. This little silver-haired woman was one of the few without a hat. Maybe she had lost it during one of her other altar experiences. She began some moves back and forth across the front of the church. She hobbled around like a little excited hen trying to corral her chicks. She tucked her hands under her armpits and began to flap her arms as if they were wings. She wobbled around until she was plumb exhausted and slumped into the front pew.
Next, I noticed a larger lady in the second pew from the front begin to move her head around like she was trying to work out a catch in her neck. Her eyes flitted and seemed unable to focus. Suddenly she shot over the pew, so quickly, she only dusted it. She was definitely possessed by something or someone. I interpreted this as the Holy Spirit, but since I had not seen such movement in a church, I found myself unable to assimilate what was really happening. She somehow landed on her feet and then stumbled and fell into the altar knocking herself completely out. For me this was a serious commotion problem, definitely poor judgment on her part, but few others seemed to notice. I felt like I should tend to her, but none of my fellow ministers made any move. I soon understood the role of the “women in white” that stood in the back of the church. The preacher never lost a word despite this major head-on collision between mortal and furniture right below him. Very quickly one of the nurses came forward to assess the situation. Two fellows in suit and tie followed the nurse to the front. They easily picked the women up by the shoulders and feet and took her out ever so quietly and quickly.
A few more people reached a state of ecstasy and eventually passed out from lack of ventilation, exhaustion, and heat prostration. Nurses would again assess the situation and periodically a couple of hefty men would come in and carry the “faintee” away to who knows where. All I knew was they never came back.
The heat in the sanctuary rose with each passing minute. I noticed more and more people begin to call for and receive “funeral fans.” These were thick pieces of 6 x 8 poster board stapled to a wide and long popsicle stick. They would move a lot of air with a twist of the wrist. The fans were apparently donated by funeral homes since they advertised the services offered by area undertakers. I found my fan depressing since it reminded me of my mortality.
Time was no issue. It appeared that a good sermon was a long one. I don’t know how long the sermon lasted, but it was long enough to work up a good appetite, a really good appetite.
Following the service, the ministers went to the highest places of honor around a large family dining table in the fellowship hall. The sacred shifted to the social. “Now, yall remember the preachers get the best pieces of the fried chicken.” “These here mashed tators are just right for these hngry preachers.” “We gonna get some really warm biscuits for you, you be fir some sorghum or we got some really good apple butter over here?” Again, the hospitality was incredible and for the first time since arriving at the church, I forgot I was white and the minority. Everybody eats just about the same way. I laughed and ate for the next hour, delighted with greens, fried okra, corn bread, creamed corn, gravy, poke salad, and Miss Jenny’s peach cobbler. My mother was a good cook, but she hadn’t been exposed to the secrets of the black kitchen. Honestly, the preaching had been a tad long for my liking, but that meal was just too short.
Coach Anderson did me good that day. I left praying for a chance to come back. As we got in the car and waved goodbye to Coach, I noticed he wasn’t wearing his whistle.