Reverence is More Than Just Quietly Sitting

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.”

Pastor Wheeler and Organist

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.”


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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16 Responses

  1. Janell says:

    Several weeks ago I listened to a five year old pray in primary, “Please bless us that we will be quiet. Please bless us that we won’t be loud.” When paired with this post it definitely provides an interesting contrast in what you observed vs what is expected of our children in our own observances.

  2. Meghann Russell says:

    I have been to a lot of churches, many different religions, and have loved when the spirit has come barreling in with the music being done, and the dancing and crying openly; with the words being spoken, because as you know they come from the spirit more often than the person. It is amazing. I am teaching my children that there is a TIME for quiet, and we ALWAYS have the time to shout for joy and praise.

  3. Corktree says:

    What a fantastic experience! I really love the more ebullient forms of worship, especially through music. In fact, I was quite surprised recently when the closing hymn of our SM after the Primary Program was one of the most droning and boring songs I think we have in the hymnal. It seemed so out of place from the cheerful attitudes of the children, and I thought, what a wasted opportunity to not only sing something that they knew (as they were all still on the stand), but to show them that the gospel really could produce a joyful and energetic feeling and that it was allowed and okay to feel that way after a worship service.

  4. TopHat says:

    I found later as I was putting this together, on Pastor Wheeler’s website, part of the mission statement says, “We strive to be… passionate and reverent in our worship.”

    I think we need to expand our definition of “reverent.”

  5. Kirsten says:

    During my time in the Boston Ward (back when there was only one…) we had a brother who came from a vocal tradition of worship before joining the church. During meetings he’d call out “amen” periodically when someone said something that he agreed with or he felt strongly about. The first time I heard him, I was jolted out of my “sacrament meeting zombie stare” and started listening more closely. No one was bothered by it. In fact, it endeared this man to everyone in our congregation. No matter if it was testimony meeting (more amens) or Stake Conference, he was vocal in his worship. I found myself often wishing I could join him, but never did because I don’t think I would have been given the acceptance that he received. It created an intimacy between him and the speaker that no one else in the room shared.

  6. Jenni says:

    A couple of months ago, my 4yo was wanting help to say the dinnertime prayer. He was having a little meltdown over it, and so my husband was trying to cheer him up. He prompted him to say that he was thankful for doggies and jello and carpet (or something like that). Now it has become standard, our family prayers include lots of thanks for “abnormal” things. And the thing is, I think it makes them WAY better. I think one of the most important reasons for prayer is to express gratitude, so why not get into it?! The other day we were thankful for kangaroos! And you know, in real honesty, I think I’m more thankful for kangaroos than I am for “this nice day.” I mean really. 🙂

  7. Emmaline says:

    When I read this:
    “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.”

    it made ME feel the Spirit. 🙂 Love the post.

  8. Diane says:

    And this is why I often listen to Gospel Music. The Mclurkin’s, the Wynin’ Love, Love, Love, listening to black gospel music.

  9. Ziff says:

    Great post, TopHat! I’m sorry your daughter is already getting pressure to sit down and shut up in church, but I guess that’s pretty much inevitable. It’s only (a little) odd that it’s starting so young. So do you (or does anyone else) know how Mormonism came to be like this? I’m guessing we borrowed our version of reverence (= quiet) from some other church or faith tradition. Or is it because of all the stiff upper lips of the early English converts? Anyway, it’s too bad we couldn’t have borrowed from some traditions with a little more enthusiasm.

    I wonder, though, if we were a more enthusiastic tradition, if we might not look with envy at the quieter churches. 🙂

  10. April says:

    Although I love being Mormon in general, I frequently feel jealous of churches with more “fun” meetings. I feel the Spirit more in these exuberant settings than in purposely stuffy ones. (Sigh.)

    In Hawaii, Mormons in the congregation greet the speaker with an “Aloha” and even this wee bit of audience participation seems to really add to the spirit of the meeting. (Although, not as much as a gospel hymn would, complete with clapping to the rhythm, in my opinion.)

    Speaking of clapping, once, when I was primary chorister, I invited a child to perform “Once there was a Snowman” for her peers on the piano. When she was done, I gave the primary permission to clap. Even in an LDS church, I thought this would be okay because we weren’t in the chapel, it wasn’t a religious song (although it is in the primary songbook), and it didn’t feel right to be silent and offer no positive feedback to a child who had been so brave as to perform a piano solo in front of her peers.

    As soon as I sat down, a member of the primary presidency stood and scolded the group for clapping at church. (I defended the kids and said it was my fault, so I hope the children didn’t feel too shamed for the sinful behavior I had encouraged.)

  11. kelly ann says:

    Yes. I agree. I totally want to go to this church with you next time.

  12. Bert says:

    Today in Sunday School I am teaching my class “how does reverence help me receive revelation?” It will be interesting to see what the 17-year-olds think of this type of “reverence.”

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