“When the Praises go up, the Blessings come down,” and so began the Pastor’s sermon today.
I came to this Harlem African American church today because I am in a course at the Union Theological Seminary in Art and Worship. Our assignment was to pick any type of ‘performance’, here defined in the abstract, and attend three sessions and report to the class. Some people chose ‘architecture’ as their performance study, others visual arts or dance. Art is performed even when static. I chose to follow African American Gospel Music, believing that there is something there that is so compelling not only to its congregants, but to myself, and I wanted to bring that to my practice of prayer leadership and sacred music.
I took a long walk through Harlem, it was 10:30 am, and shops were still closed. The only people on the streets seemed to be heading to one church or another, including me. I arrived before the service was to start, and my anticipation of being seen as an outsider or gawker, were immediately allayed by the women who were greeting each other by the door. I entered their sanctuary as comfortably as I would any Jewish synagogue, and picked a pew to sit in.
I watched people arrive, there were women ushers in white nurses garb, white stockings, shoes and gloves. It was Women’s Month, and there was a great deal of pride amongst the ushers. There was a mix of people dressed up and dressed down, many women with fine hats and men in suits. I noticed another white woman walk up the aisle to the choir loft, she was young and wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. It was a cold day, and perhaps she was keeping warm before singing.
The sanctuary started to buzz, and the pastors came to the altar and knelt, and then sat. They were dressed very casually, and it was strange how the woman pastor’s white clerical collar showed through the neck of her hooded sweatshirt. Why the collar in such a casual church where everyone wore street wear?
The music started off very slowly, the brush-stick of the drum set accompanied a few slow piano hymns. The pace picked up as the pastors began to take turns speaking. Some announcements of upcoming events, then, the music picked up in tempo again. The theme for the day came from John Chapter 27: Jesus foreshadows his death, much like Martin Luther King also did, as many leaders who buck the trends and are agents of change inevitably do. And he said, the hour is come upon me, and rather than avoid it, I am going head on into it. Facing destiny, finding the truth in taking the plunge, rather than running away. I am hoping to sing the Jennifer Warnes/Leonard Cohen song, “The Song of Bernadette” whose lyrics tell us, sometimes we fall, sometimes we fly/ we mostly fall—we mostly run. The parable says, don’t run; stay around and mend the damage that we’ve done.
A woman soloist opened up her voice, and my body sensed where it came from, those round gourds that reside in the back of the pharynx that I am learning to find. Well, she knew hers, and could easily and confidently and frankly cut loose with her vocal praises of Gd, and that ease and comfort and frankness translated to the whole congregation. We all stood and swayed and brought hands together to her music, sang with her and then applauded, not just for her, but for Gd. We were asked again to applaud, to applaud Gd. Who else could give us such a gift? And how could we not praise Gd for the many gifts we have, as we do when we are in a house of prayer singing together? The pastor asked us to greet everyone around us with, “Good Morning”. Later, it would be with handshakes, and then hugs. The physicality of the singing was manifested in the physicality of our recognizing each other.
By this time, I had the epiphany that the casual garb was not the norm here: the hooded sweatshirts were being worn in solidarity with Treyvon Martin. As I understood this internally, the room began to change. The senior pastor now came to the lectern and addressed the room. He welcomed everyone to “Hoody Sunday”, two weeks before Easter, the fifth Sunday of Lent. His words were like the crescendo of the service, beginning with the story of Trayvon, a young black man who was walking home with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, whose only crime was walking and wearing a hooded sweatshirt—and being black.
The hooded sweatshirt was created in the early 20th century for outside workers, for comfort them from cold outdoor working conditions. Today, the hoodies comforted thousands of people who wore them in solidarity with Trayvon. The message from the pastor was not to merely talk about the solution to this problem, and surprisingly, not to point the finger at others. Instead, in a powerful and unexpected leading note of ideas, he showed the congregation how to take action in their own backyard. In that very neighborhood only a few nights before, a young black man was also shot, by another black youth. Racism is not the only problem, inattention to our youth is. And not just in that neighborhood, but all over the nation. Talking about it doesn’t solve the problem, we are a nation crippled in “Paralysis by Analysis” he declared, Amen!
And in the pith and power of his speech came solutions, actions: “Readers are Leaders” get rid of the wii’s and ‘grand theft auto’ games. The rhymes became poetry became metaphors became psalms became more music. The organ underscored his words, the Amen’s underscored the determination of the hooded crowd. Another dynamite soprano unleashed our voices through hers, and the collection plates circulated.
But money wasn’t all this pastor collected. He had the children in the room come up and kneel at the altar. Then he called up all the men in the room to stand behind them in solidarity. Then he called up the families to stand up behind them in solidarity. Then he did something that I cannot applaud more for: he named three of the men to be in charge and form a group to mentor the youth of the congregation, and that they were to collect names and set a time to meet and not leave the church that day, until they reported that information to him. Action, and a plan; not words, not analysis, not a study. Action. Mentorship, stewardship, care for youth, who all need care, no matter what church they go to. It is a difficult world.
That pastor took a risk: who wants to be singled out in church and charged with a responsibility like that? Isn’t that up to the parents? He made them take responsibilities; don’t they pay him to do that? And wasn’t it about someone else doing the wrongs to them, so why blame ourselves? So many questions, analysis leads to paralysis.
What did music do for me today? It showed me how to comfort, to lead, to pray, to take action, to empower. It opened my vision to the power of adding music to words and ideas and greetings and actions. I saw how music changes attitudes and how important the role of the musician is in creating religious community.