Eleven years ago I visited Charleston, South Carolina for the first time and from that trip, I decided I wanted to attend a Southern Black Baptist church Sunday service. Whenever I had been in the south since then the opportunity to attend did not present itself due to scheduling conflicts. That was the case until this past Sunday when I attended one in Austin, Texas. Culture doesn’t even begin to describe what I experienced.
First though I need to give my readers some background information on me. I exemplify WASP even though I am Catholic instead of Protestant. When one looks at me there is no mistaking that my long ago ancestors came from Northern Europe except for the very dark hair and slight yellow tint to my skin which I inherited from my Greek Grandfather even though I am as pale as they come. I don’t like loud music and am extremely proper when it comes to traditions. I have absolutely no rhythm and speak proper English for the most part. I am in many ways the stereotypical white American except that I am curious about most things except for those that are dangerous or just way out there. I am never going to eat bugs, or any other extremely strange food for example. But academically, I am a learner and am especially interested in anything that has to do with American history and culture which is what I experienced going to the church in Austin.
Upon arriving at the church, I will admit I was very nervous as I knew that I was probably going to be either the only white person there or one of a few. My prediction was right and I was one of four white people along with what I could discern where two Latinos who were present. My first pleasant surprise was the warmth that I was treated to. Lately, the media treats the relationship between the races as one of constant strain and suspicion. This could not have been less true of my experience. The first gentlemen I encountered was wonderful as was the next person, a lady, who escorted me up to the sanctuary while at the same time letting me know how to get to the balcony if I wanted to sit up there. Upon entering the sanctuary, there is a step-down and the usher, an older gentleman, gently gave me his arm so that I would not trip on the step. That alone is rare in any situation but not rare in the South. I went to sit at some chairs to the side not knowing anyone or wanting to take seats away from regular parishioners but this did not last long as a young gentleman beckoned me to sit next to him. I was grateful for this invitation as it enabled me to feel like I was part of the congregation and not just a visitor.
As the service started I was blown away by the deep enthusiasm but very loud volume of their choir. It was unlike any other church I had been too. They did several songs as is normal in a Baptist church to start the service but it was extremely foreign in the presentation. That is, it was culturally different from what I was used to. The whole church was vibrating and the choir along with the congregation was deeply involved in each song. I had seen black choirs in the movies before but to experience it along with the entire congregation was certainly a significant moment in my life. The music and the enthusiasm which is present penetrates every part of your soul in a rhythmic and intense way. It was a different feeling from the music at a catholic mass which gently eases into the soul and is designed for the mass. At the black Baptist church, it felt like it was designed for the people to energize them for the sermon and specifically to make a joyful noise as dictated in the bible. The main singer was dancing on stage as well as jumping up and down at moments and the choir itself was physically involved in the singing through hand-clapping and swaying. I will admit my mouth was on the floor at various moment and I was constantly catching myself and closing my mouth so that I did not look like a fool.
After the choir finished singing, there were a few speakers and then the pastor of the church stood to beckon the congregation to come forward to the altar to pray. This, of course, was extremely unusual for me because the only time in Catholic mass we go to the altar is to present the gifts or receive communion. I was flabbergasted that he invited the whole church up and, even more, surprised that almost ¾ of the church went to the front. The prayer given was inspiring and made one look inward and outward to others in one’s circle of family and friends but others should the individual choose to look outside their circle. Then the pastor did something extremely foreign to me, he instructed the congregation to hug the person next to them. Well, I was at the end of the aisle, the gentleman who had been seated next to me was up at the altar and the woman further down had hugged her friends. I felt a little awkward standing there looking rather pathetic but it wasn’t a big deal to me because we do not haphazardly hug each other doing mass. Next thing I know the young woman further down came over to me and gave me a big hug. Now I was stunned not only because she did that but also because I reciprocated so easily – I am definitely not a hugging person. I don’t hug people if I can help it, other than my own children, and certainly don’t reciprocate with a regular hug but usually a side hug if I must return a hug. I am not sure what came over me, whether it was the initial act by the young woman or the overall warmth of the church. Either way, it was an unusual but good thing.
There was more singing and then a student preacher came forward and did a reasonably well job preaching the various passages. The most unusual part and the one that sticks in my memory the most is when he was talking about home and how we get home to the Lord. He noted we were already in a heaven on earth and when we passed it would be to a better world but we needed to appreciate what we had here on earth because in many respects it was heaven for is. He noted that our lives in eternity are spent for a short time here on earth and we needed to understand the benefits of it as well as understand that we won’t be here on earth for every but we have an eternity still to live. He then ended this sermon with an analogy using the story of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. He repeated the song that Dorothy sings as she goes down the yellow brick road which the munchkins tell her to follow. She sings of meeting the Great Oz and along the way meets others who are searching for a heart, knowledge and courage. He notes that they encounter many obstacles along the way such as the Wicked Witch of the West, Flying Monkeys and sleeping flowers. They arrived in Oz to find that the great wizard of Oz is nothing but a fraud who promises false hope. Glinda then tells Dorothy she had the power the whole time to go home while wearing the ruby slippers. All she had to do was click her heels three times. The student pastor then noted we as individuals have the power to reach the Lord and go home to him while at the same time making our lives better. He then much to my surprise changed the words to the song Dorothy song about being off to see the wizard to “We’re off to see the Savior the wonderful Savior….” I was incredibly stunned to see this because it certainly is not something a priest would do in his homily nor had I ever seen anything like that in any other church that I had gone to even the Baptist church I went to as a child. But it was refreshing, uplifting and inspiring as well unique in drawing children into the message because most every child has heard of the Wizard of Oz or, at least, parts of it such as the Wicked Witch.
In addition, the main preacher returned to the stage and informed the crowd that the collection would be taken but let any visitors know they were not obligated to give as they were visitors, it was the obligation of those members or regular attendees to finance the church. This is something I had never experienced in any church no matter the denomination. It was refreshing and I only wish that I had had some extra money that day to give.
When I told my experienced to a colleague she asked if I could some up in a few words what I felt as I left the church. I think I shocked her a bit with my answer. As I left the church I thought back to a paper I had written in a Colonial America class on whether or not the Puritans in New England and the Cavaliers in Jamestown could be labelled under the generic term of British. My conclusion in that paper was that both the Puritans and the Cavaliers were British with many of the same customs but the execution of those customs were slightly different. Those differences did not stop them from being British because of their overall shared heritage. I left the church knowing that the conclusion I came to for the Puritans and the Cavaliers was right and applicable to what I experienced on Sunday at the black Baptist Church.
We as Americans share a unique and wonderful heritage and many customs but within different regions of our country, we execute those customs differently which adds to the unique character of the United States. We are a melting pot, a blending of the best aspects of the different cultures which immigrants have brought to this country and I am extremely proud to be an American.