By CLIFFORD WORTHY
Author of The Black Knight
At this difficult time when all of us miss our churches, I want to share this description I wrote about a memorable gathering at church—in the hope that it will resonate with so many readers who are longing to return to worship, especially at Easter.
At the invitation of my cousin, I attended a choir concert at her church. It is a small black church that can be found in many urban and rural areas in the United States. As I passed through the front entrance, I was anticipating a cultural revival that filled me with tip-toe anticipation.
Entering the sanctuary, I was met by a white-gloved usher. I immediately took note of the overhanging balcony occupied by mostly young people. All of the “nurses” were middle age to elderly women who wore starched, spotlessly clean white uniforms. The assigned nurse’s seats were rarely occupied; they just seemed to appear whenever anyone got “happy.”
Cardboard fans featuring the somber likeness of the local funeral director were tucked behind the hymnals in containers mounted on the rear of the pews. The center of the three aisles led directly to an elevated pulpit which was flanked on each side by bishops’ chairs. The choir pews were directly behind the pulpit. On the back wall above the last row of the choir-stand was a large mural of Jesus Christ with the words “I’m Too Close To Heaven To turn Around.” The front row facing the pulpit was reserved for the deacons and trustees.
Attendance slowly increased in preparation for a spirit filled evening of worship through music.
Suddenly, there was a sound of rhythmic organ music that has no author nor claim of ownership. It was music that arose from the soil of the soul—music that has been tempered and tried by the inner turmoil that issues from the black experience. It repeated itself over and over as if emphasizing some cyclic demands of its earthly origin. The sounds were sensuously spiritual punctuated by unpredictable but perfectly blended black-rooted visceral intonations.
My cousin led the choir procession which swayed synchronously to the left and right while advancing teasingly slow down the center aisle. The music and the truncated swagger steps of each brother and sister were perfect fits. Applause broke out immediately—applause that responded both to the choir and the jubilee mood created by the music.
Halfway down the aisle, the choir broke into song: “How I got over—”
The choir director, who had slipped in without notice and moved to the podium, now urged them on with syncopated thrusts coordinated with his mark time stepping in cadence with the music. His exhortative movements radiated an exegetical treatment of the composition equal to that of the most seasoned maestro conducting a world-class symphony orchestra.
As they moved to their appointed position on the choir stand, some maintained a demeanor of nonchalance while others could or would not suppress their audience inspired exuberance. I marveled once again at the totality of communication between choir and audience. One was completely immersed into the other.
The world outside the church was suddenly irrelevant. I experienced a “heart to heart and breast to breast” sense of community. Like water, beauty and truth seek their own level. Here was beauty, here was truth. My spirit soared as I reaffirmed the fact that beauty and truth are not the exclusive domain of privilege or scholarship. Here was irrefutable evidence that beauty and truth can rise up from the least of life when empowered by the grace of God.
With the exception of the organ, piano, and percussion, there was none of the accoutrements of the concert hall. There were no choir books or music manuscripts of any kind—not even a conductor’s baton. The pastor was first the organist, then the pianist, with others filling in as they were moved to do so. Nothing was lost in the transitioning. The choir director blended and entreated the ensemble with great flair and precision. It was immediately apparent that the repertoire of songs had been selected in part to provide a showcase for his brand of creative interpretation.
As the last choir member reached his designated position following the procession, the director frenetically signaled the first of a series of repetitive choruses that would precede a stirring finish to the first selection. The audience responded with unbridled elation.
The mistress of ceremonies now moved to the podium where she began to idiomatically review the program in a manner that assured no loss of the passion generated by the highly charged procession. She was in fact an articulate school teacher but identified with the congregation and made the elocutionary adjustments to accommodate her less fluent audience. She understood the power of carefully selected colloquialisms and black-rooted anecdotes to preserve the mood of the moment.
“How I got over” was followed by “Move mountain.” The soloist started slowly with just a hint of the intensity to follow. The last words of each stanza were personalized by a melodic, wordless excursion individually expressed but faithful to the hymn’s composition. At just the right moment the choir reinforced the soloist by weaving their voices into the melody thereby amplifying the overall impact. The climax came when the director, obviously visualizing a mystical mountain, repeatedly implored the choir:
“Mountain—get out of the way!”
Here and there a sister would rise to her feet, tilt her head slightly downward, raise her right arm with fingers extended and slowly wave approval by moving her upper arm using her elbow as a fulcrum with palm facing the choir. Others raised their arms in praise. Both of the movements were uniquely black signals that said: I identify!
This was kinship that cannot be programmed nor intentionally replicated. This was a kind of hand-me-down discipline that passes from soul to soul.
Finally, after several supercharged selections, the choir leaped into: “Ninety-nine-and-a-half won’t do.”
As the lyrics unfolded and the tempo increased, there was a divinely inspired unity of spirit that permeated the entire congregation. There was an ambience that voicelessly proclaimed: Only 100 percent will do!
Spurred by the seemingly supernatural entreaties of the director, there was a general release from any form of oppression, whatever the source, that could not be contained. Release for some was manifested by spirit filled utterances and uninhibited writhings uncensored by the constraints of a secular and hostile world. Release for others was internalized but no less real. Release was both cathartic and regenerative.
For yours truly, there was no conflict between laughter and tears.