A Second Visit
Several weeks ago I wrote about visiting Charleston, S.C. While we were there on the first of a couple of short vacations I took the time to go pray on the front steps of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the church where 9 people, including the pastor, were shot and killed by a young gunman.
Then, a few weeks later a terrorist opened fire here in my city of Chattanooga. All of a sudden we had much more in common with Charleston than we wanted. Both cities were rocked by acts of senseless hatred.
So, the next time we went back to Charleston, I had to do more than go to the front steps of Emanuel A.M.E.; I wanted to worship inside. Once I made a phone call to confirm service times and other specifics, that’s what we did. I’d like to share what we experienced.
Before I go any further, I have a couple of things to make clear. First, I am going to be very candid with my thoughts. Please, if anything I say offends or comes across as racist, insensitive, or in bad taste, believe me, that is not my intention. All I want to do is share my honest opinion on several things.
Second, a couple of you have suggested (rather lightheartedly) that I have become “ecumenical” by attending a non-Baptist church. Believe me, if that is what you truly believe, then you need to go back to seminary and do some more research; I am not an ecumenicalist. The problem is that for far too long a lot of fellowship with Family has been missed all because of some of you folk’s interpretation of the “Doctrine of Separation.” You guys need to get out more.
My Observations (in no particular order)
White vs. Black. Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, OK? Yes, there are a lot of differences between the way most white people and most black people conduct their church services. That shouldn’t be a shocker. Therefore, what my daughters and I observed at Emanuel A.M.E. might well be common in other black congregations, too; I don’t know. What I do know is that every black church I have ever attended, including this one, had the following in common: fans in the pews, ushers with white gloves, and a complete disregard for getting out by noon.
Face it, if you want to get to the Sunday lunch buffet before the crowd, your best bet is to attend a liberal white church, not a shouting Baptist one, and definitely not any black church. As a matter of fact, I think they quit serving lunch by the time Emanuel A.M.E. let out (the service went from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.!).
No Praise and Worship Choruses. Don’t get me wrong, I totally enjoy listening to Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Keith and Kristyn Getty, etc. But from the beginning instrumental to the closing hymn, all the songs played or sung were old stuff – some even older than what Independent Baptists sing 😉 Seriously, there was not one praise and worship song during the whole service! Why is this amazing to me?
The reason I was stunned by the fact that there were none of the typical praise and worship hymns or choruses, not even a praise band, was that those people were bringing down the house! They were shouting! For crying out loud, it’s the words, not the music, that should make us want to praise God! And, if your heart is already pre-disposed to worship, it really doesn’t matter if the music is being played on a keyboard or a pipe organ.
The Choir In the Back. It may be nothing new to some of you, but it’s not often the choir, along with all the instruments, are in the back of the church where they can’t be seen. Unlike what television usually portrays, at Emanuel there was no stereotypical robed choir doing choreographed dance moves to shallow, show-worthy tunes. No one got to stare at a soloist, either. All the music came from the balcony in the rear of the church as the congregation faced forward. Imagine that!
Not One Mention of Race. Last year one of my girls attended a local black Baptist church. She and a friend went three separate times, and in each one she was made to feel like an outsider, even though it was a “place for every race.” On three separate occasions race issues were mentioned more than the Gospel. That was not the case at Emanuel A.M.E., at least not that Sunday.
I understand that the historical and cultural context of African-American churches is complicated. Good grief, how many of our white churches would have stayed together during the Civil War had we been forced to meet underground? That being said, the same daughter who left the other black church in tears of regret left this one with tears of joy. She said, “This is what I hoped that other church would have been like – I felt totally welcome!”
Roped In During the Preaching. Believe me, I have been in a lot of churches over my 48 years of life. Few of them came close to Emanuel A.M.E. in the sense of reverence shown to the time of worship, especially toward the reading and preaching of the Word of God. I have been in more than a few “Bible-believing” churches that allowed people to get up and go to the bathroom, grab a snack, even go out for a smoke during the service, even the preaching. Not this church!
Believe it or not, right as the pastor was walking up to the pulpit to preach, ushers were walking down the aisles hanging up velvet theater ropes! If I remember correctly, up and down each of the main aisles there were at least three two-inch thick ropes strung across to prevent people from moving around. In other words, when the preaching started at this church, you sat down and listened! I am going to suggest those in our next business meeting 😉
Invitation First. You know, why do we always wait till the end of a church service to give an altar call? Seriously? Why not start off with one? These people did, and it lasted for about 10-15 minutes!
Oh, and it was no “let’s just gather down here and pray – Bro. Smith, would you start?” type of altar call. No, it was a come-get-your-heart-right-and-pray-for-others kind of altar call. The pastor even said, “When the altar fills up, don’t stop coming; just fill the aisles.” And they did! How many of our white, Baptist, or whatever church services would be transformed if an invitation was given to start?
Powerful Preaching. Some of you – you know who you are – think black preachers are shallow, only preach to music, and are more about theatrics than theology. Well, if you’re referring to what you typically see in the movies or on television, then you’d be correct – that’s Hollywood. The preaching I heard at Emanuel A.M.E. that Sunday was deep and meaty stuff. Oh, it was loud and exciting in that kind of way, but it was much more.
In a sermon entitled “When Tragedy Comes to Your House,” the pastor appealed to doctrine – yes, doctrine – as the source of comfort when all around gives sway. There was none of that “best life now” stuff; it was the Word of God dug out of Job and Hezekiah. The pastor said when tragedy comes, so many ask, “Where is God?” “But for the Christian,” he said, “that’s when you fall back on the doctrines you know to be true! That’s where you get your comfort!” With a voice growing louder and stronger the pastor shouted, “I believe if God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ His Son…”
Real preaching is the kind of stuff that gives us truth to hold on to when tragedy strikes. That’s the kind of preaching this church has evidently been used to, for they turned to Jesus when tragedy came to their home.
Calling for a Commitment. One day I may actually do this. After the end of the main service, the pastor did something I have never seen done before: he asked for 50 people to come forward if they would commit to come to Wednesday night Bible study. At first he asked for 100, but then scaled it back (even he was realistic). Once they came forward, then he had the church pray for them, that they would not only make it to the service, but that they would learn from God’s Word. Amazing, eh?
But stop for a moment and think about it. It was on at a Wednesday night Bible study that the former pastor and eight congregants were murdered. Would you have been one of those 50? Why not?
Communion. We got to take part in their communion service, too. Each pew was led down to the front (those who wanted to go), then asked to kneel and pray. After everyone had knelt and briefly prayed, a wafer was placed in their hands, then a little cup of juice was given. After the elements were consumed, a minister asked all to rise and go in grace.
I was actually expecting wine, but it was Welch’s. Go figure.
I Got to Speak. Believe it or not, I was actually able to speak to the congregation of Emanuel A.M.E. for just a moment. In actuality, several people had already gone up to speak, such as representatives of family reunions that were present, a couple of local dignitaries being honored for their part in helping the church through the days of crisis, and a guest minister. It was only after I tapped the shoulder of a man in front of me and asked, “How could I get an opportunity to speak?”
Immediately the man I tapped on the shoulder tapped another man to his left and said, “Take this man to the pastor; he has something to say.” “Now?” I asked. “Yeah, go on up there! He’ll take ya’.”
That’s how it happened. I went up and stood in front until the pastor gave me the microphone. At that point I shared greetings from Chattanooga and Riverside Baptist Church. I also thanked them for the example they set for the rest of the country. They gave me a bunch of “amen’s” and a warm round of applause. Later, several members came up to me and thanked us for coming and for the words I shared. Haley was amazed and said, “Wow, they must have actually listened to you – they even remembered your name!”
God Meant It for Good. If there was nothing else, the most incredible sensation I got from visiting Emanuel A.M.E. was the feeling of God winning and the Devil losing. Hallelujah!
You see, the enemy of God thought he could break a church and burn a community by having some misguided young punk come in and kill the pastor and some church members. What Satan miscalculated was the sincere faith in Christ the wounded families had. He underestimated the fortitude of a congregation that had endured many more tragedies. He underestimated, once again, the ability of a Sovereign Lord who can take the worst the devil can dish out and turn it into good.
Literally, what we saw in Charleston was undeniable evidence that God can turn what was meant for evil into joyous worship and praise. Emanuel A.M.E. is the proof.