Last Sunday I found myself sitting in the back row of a south Oakland black gospel church. I had been asked to speak at their community education event in relation to some of my volunteer work, but I was a little early and came in 5 minutes before one of their services was finished. The pastor led the couple dozen parishioners in riveting song. When little girls from outside peeked in, he called out, “God bless you child!” Meanwhile the little girls in the pews jumped up and down with the organ music. We were all told to raise our right hand and ask for the healing of the Lord. Trying to blend in, because, you know, being the only white person was pretty darn inconspicuous, I followed along and observed the women close their eyes and pray out loud. “Amen, Lord, Amen!”
The woman I was meeting there was late and apologized citing the traffic. She was coming from Antioch, 45 minutes away. I commented, “This must be a really great church if you come here from all the way out there,” and I helped her put together some things for the night’s event.
A different pastor was in charge, or using Mormon terms, you could say presiding, over the educational event. He introduced the prayer by Mother Gardner. Her prayer started off like most prayers I’ve heard before: an invocation to God, asking for guidance and love and healing. Then the organist joined in and her prayer and the music came together, raising the spirits of the congregation. Many more shouts of “Amen, Lord!” and “Thank you, Lord!” went up into the air. A teenage girl, Naja, gave the scriptures, Jeremiah 17:14, “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise,” and 3 John 1:2, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”
This is where it got exciting. Pastor Wheeler led the group in song- and boy, was it a song! I didn’t know it, but it was easy to follow along as it was pretty repetitive. I envied the organist’s improv abilities and the drummer made it very exciting. I remember looking around thinking, “There hasn’t been a quiet moment all evening and yet look at these people feeling the Spirit! I bet a person can go through life without ever needing to be ‘reverent’ and still feel a close connection with God.” I couldn’t help but smile and pray that my ears would stop ringing before it was my turn to speak.
The woman who organized the night could tell I was a fish out of water so when she stood up as master of ceremonies, she reminded the group that we could use our bodies and voices as much as we felt moved to.
When it was my turn to talk, the pastor and congregation interjected a few “AMENs!” between my sentences. There’s nothing quite so validating as people amen-ing your words. It was exciting to speak to this group and I hope I get another opportunity in the future.
Unfortunately, I had to leave early, so I didn’t get to listen to the rest of the speakers or participate in the Praise Dance on the program. They walked me out to my car and we said our goodbyes. I drove home listening to a great podcast, feeling good about my talk, and rejuvenated for the night.
When I came home, my 3 year old daughter, Margaret, was heading to bed and getting ready for family prayer. It was her turn to pray and she immediately went into tears, “The boy in nursery said to be reverent!” Asking her to pray bought up memories of an incident from that morning when she was asked to pray in nursery: one of the little boys had scolded her for not being “reverent.”
I held her hands and looked her in the eyes.
“Margaret, you don’t need to be reverent to pray.”