“Honey, what is with all these other religions? Buddhist lamas, Baptist services….Are you shopping around for a new religion? We are Jewish!” My grandmother is worried. Although my studies of Buddhism last semester unsettled her, the church service put her over the edge. I reassured her as best as I could that I was, and always would be, a Jew. My studies of other religions have deepened my own faith, but she does not understand. If she had come with me to the Prince of Peace Missionary Baptist Church, maybe she would not be so concerned. She would have seen what I saw – a vibrant community unified by music, faith, and love.
My friend Terri took me with her to her church in north St. Louis on Sunday. She is a senior here at Wash U; and African American. “It may seem a bit loud, but don’t be scared.” Loud? Scared? When I think of a religious service, my synagogue’s Yom Kippur service (a high holiday where Jews atone for their sins,) comes to mind. It is a long three hours, where I am stuck in uncomfortable clothing, listening to endless lines of Hebrew (which no one understands) and watching the seconds slowly tick by on my watch. To make a noise during a service could warrant a penalty of death in my synagogue. Loud?
As we walked up to the church, little girls and boys wearing white gloves and glossy-black shoes handed us programs. Their jaws dropped when they looked up at me, but they quickly smiled, and their muffled giggles followed me as I walked through the doors.
Standing in the lobby, I thought a rock concert was going on inside. I turned to Terri. “Is there a concert before the service?” I got a chuckle and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Nope, this is the service.” We went in, and my attention went immediately towards the choir. Forty people, a moving, clapping, swaying mass of blue-and-gold robes, belted out, “Oh, What He’s Done For Me!” One of the ministers strutted across the stage, microphone in hand, singing the lead. My eyes searched for the band and found them off to the left in front of the stage. The drummer bounced on his stool, his arms flying, wearing sunglasses over his eyes and a wide grin across his face, ivory teeth stark white against dark skin. The keyboardist played intensely, hunching down low over the keys and then throwing his head back, swinging it side to side. Now this is the way to pray!
The entire congregation was in motion. Three hundred people moved and prayed together as one; parents, sisters, children, grandfathers…an entire community. So alive! People danced with tambourines in the aisles. A woman in a red blazer jumped up and down, her face in intense concentration, eyes screwed shut, dread-locks flying. “Hallelujah! Say it, sister! Alright Alright Alright!” A wizened grandmother in a floral-print dress, a baseball hat and a fanny pack clapped about half a beat behind the rest of us, swaying to her own rhythm. Arms raised and head ducked down, she exclaimed, “Amen, PRAISE Jesus!” Any child would enjoy coming to this church; here kids can dance, sing, talk, laugh, and even run around during the service. My thoughts strayed to the homework I hid in my prayer book during services at my temple. Work was the last thing people were thinking about here.
Raucous songs were interspersed with periods of ardent prayer and thanks sent up to heaven. The pulsing church suddenly went quiet as people looked inward and had their own private conversations with the Lord. Then the pastor asked all the visitors to please rise, and myself and four African Americans stood up. I suddenly felt incredibly white – the only Caucasian in the entire building. I felt the color rise to my cheeks and my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest. The pastor declared, “Let’s welcome our new brothers and sisters!”
The band immediately began to play and hundreds of heads turned to me and smiled. Suddenly I found myself wrapped up in the generous arms of the large man next to me! “Welcome my sister, welcome.” People came down the aisles to give me hugs and shake my hand. “Thank you so much for coming!” “Bless you, bless you.” I had been worried about being accepted here, and then I received fifty hugs that day. The service resumed and I looked up to the ceiling to try and clear the tears that had sprung to my eyes.
“And now let us pray.” I found my hands clasped by Terri on my left and my new friend, the big man on my right, our heads bent in prayer. I gave thanks, to whomever, for everything, and basked in the overwhelming faith and beauty of these people.
The pastor’s sermon was a unique experience. He read a one-minute passage from the bible and then raved about it for the next forty-five minutes. “Money can buy you a girlfriend for a night…but not a wife for a lifetime. Money can buy you a house…but not a home. WE NEED JESUS!” Every phrase he uttered was answered by people in the pews. They nodded in agreement, “mmmhmm. Say it for me, Amen Jesus!” The pastor yelled and screamed himself to the point of exhaustion, and in the process had revved up the entire congregation. His words were echoed in their shouts of approval, in turn spurring him on even more. I smiled at the thought of what my grandmother would do if she heard our Rabbi say, “Though I drink, the lord still loves me. I smoke dope, and the lord still loves me. Ohhhh, I’m a sinner!”
While the church and my synagogue are two drastically different entities, similarities can be found that transcend the lines of division. Older women in the church seemed to shop at the same big-and-colorful-but-hideously-ugly-hat shop that the women at my temple do. And at a certain age, I think all elderly men innately know to wear their pants up by their nipples. I had also thought that nothing could possibly dampen the spirit in that church…until they read the weekly announcements. Announcements are boring everywhere, apparently.
At the end of a sadly swift two hours, the choir broke out into the hymn, “He’s All Over Me,” and we all swayed as we sang. A soulful saxophone complemented the woman soloing on stage, the two voices dancing between the verses of the chorus. Blessed sunshine streamed in through the stained-glass windows, enveloping us in blue, orange, red, and gold. I looked up to find tears in the eyes of my big, jolly friend next to me, and I gave his hand a squeeze. On my other side, Terri put her arm over my shoulders. Kindness and love are universal.
I shall carry this day in my heart forever.