Updated: May 31, 2021
In the community where I spent my formative years, I'd pass many schools, liquor stores
and bars, but I'd also pass a church on just about every block. On one main thoroughfare, I’d pass a pretty large Catholic church with a stone building crowned with two huge towers . A few blocks away, a Nazarene church with historic grey brick sat behind a wrought iron fence. Then I’d pass at least two store-front churches before I arrived to mine, all within ten, short, city blocks.
Churches abounded in Brooklyn back then. Some were simple, well-maintained unadorned
brick structures with the simplicity of just the name displayed. Quite a few were store-fronts with their names, pastors and founders painted on the glass. Others were ornately built Gothic or neo-Gothic structures with stained-glass windows, high ceilings, and choral naves much like my current place of worship. I started out as a member of a Brethren Church; now I attend a Baptist church where Mother’s Day never goes unnoticed.
The building where I worshiped as a child was just that, a building. Windows, pews, a clock on
the back wall. A verse posted in a picture frame adorned two or three walls. In the front center
was a walnut table that opened into a podium. Every Sunday on that table were two sacred
items: a loaf of bread on a plate and Manischewitz wine in a crystal cask. Both were
covered with a white linen cloth until about noon when the cloth was removed, and breaking
bread (communion) would begin.
I was about sixteen before I felt mature enough to request my seat around the communion table where I would actually break off a piece of bread and pass the plate and then sip from one of those crystal goblets.
I had three things on which to focus during the service, the speaker, the Bible, or the hymn book. Every once in a while, I might have been distracted by someone’s customized hat, but for the most part, I was attentive. The acapella music facilitated my focus on the song’s words. Because we didn’t use microphones, I had to really pay attention to hear what was being said.
For Sunday morning service, we sang from a hymnal that had more in common with a book of
poems. The songs had no accompanying musical notation, but once a few people got the
rhythm going, I joined in, able to follow the melody, respectfully. A male would announce the
page number for a song, another a scripture, another a prayer.
As a final activity, someone would stand to bring it all together with a scripture and a fifteen-minute sermon. Whether Christmas, Easter or Mother’s Day, this was the weekly routine. Unique in its practice, the Brethren Church stands apart from so many others, so making a transition in my mid-thirties was not easy.
For starters, in my next place of worship, a woman dressed in a white dress, shoes and gloves greeted me and seated me. After I adjusted to the large number of people, the neo-Gothic design of the building captured my attention. Over thirty years later, I still gaze at the stained-glass windows depicting biblical symbolism and browned, biblical figures. I would let announcements about meetings and fundraisers interrupt my spiritual flow, but it was put right back on track when the Gospel choir made their song offering. They sang about the same person who had been the source of my skepticism and hope since I was sixteen-years-old.
And when the preacher read the text, he read it from the same book from which I had
memorized so many verses in my youth. I was amazed when I first heard him integrate into his
sermon the words of a famous poet I studied in college. Combined with a text from one of the sixty-six books of which I had some familiarity, he taught and inspired me to walk farther, think deeper, strive higher, not just for personal holiness but to address injustice, need or despair.
I may not have known all the ways of the Baptists, and I’m not sure I still do, but I knew the Way
and that was my main focus, The songs from the hymnal were just like the ones I had sung on Sunday evening at the Brethren church. Some of them were exactly the same. When I first sat in that Baptist pew, I was acquainted with only one member who had made the transition from Brethren to Baptist, so I knew it was possible, and I felt right at home. We spoke the same critical language. I knew I could learn and serve there.
If I weren’t adequately charged before I arrived to church, the organist or praise team offered a warmup to get started and to help me tune out any distractions that might have walked in with me. Then a solemn voice uttered the invocation, reminding me of the power that was bigger than
With the congregational hymn, I could participate in the service. A song such as “Faith of Our
Mothers” always found a warm place within me even if it was a century after Henri.F. Hemy penned the words. Church members might have been singing on different keys, but we stood in agreement on the words that emanated from our mouths and from depths. The faith that we sang about is what had me still attending church decades after I had choices.
When it was our turn to just sit and listen, I did so with anticipation whenever the soloist and choir took their positions. Their harmonies lifted me and reminded me “God is on My Side” or that “You Must Be Faithful.” Their singing surpassed some of Broadway’s best, and our overt and vocal, noisy yeses, testified to its impact and our appreciation. In my Brethren experience, with the exception of song, prayer or sermon, stillness and quiet meditation were valued.
Once I learned to take notes, I did so even in church. With the gift of discernment, the preacher provided the remedy for this heartbeat in the pew that might have been wavering over some matter, moving too slowly, too quickly, or not moving at all.