I wade into this column with trepidation. There’s something beautiful I want to share with you, but I’ll have to walk through a field of landmines to get to my point. Along the way, I’ll be discussing things like race . . . religion . . . maybe even a little politics. Enter at your own risk. I am.
As a white woman who hails from what you might call “privilege” – though I’ve been squandering it ever since – I don’t often write about race. As an adult convert to Christianity – though I grew up in the church, then left for 20 years, then came back, so maybe I’m a “revert” – I tried to write about religion for a while, but then I wised up. (“Writing about spiritual stuff for a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio,” says poet Mary Karr, rightly.) As for politics: Having looked at life from both sides now, and landed somewhere in the middle, I feel like I’m wobbling down a tightrope – without a net – every time I offer anything resembling a political opinion. People are so touchy about politics around here. (And by “here” I mean “the world.”)
Nevertheless, let’s plunge in, shall we? Because, as I said, I have something beautiful to share.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Much has changed since Dr. King spoke these words – yes, even in Christian America – but in downtown Beaufort, Sunday morning remains pretty starkly black-and-white. Now, I’m not sure that fact is as “appalling” as it sounds anymore. Nobody’s enforcing it; it just . . . is. I have no doubt I’d be perfectly welcome at Grace Chapel AME or Wesley United Methodist, and I know that their members would be warmly greeted at my own church, First Presbyterian, right down the street. But for whatever reasons – worship style, music preferences, family history, friends – we tend to self-segregate. I think it has much more to do with culture and tradition – and, okay, inertia – than prejudice. Though fear may play a small role, too. Fear of the unknown? The uncomfortable?
Well, last Sunday, any fear I might have harbored – subconsciously or otherwise – evaporated into the moist Lowcountry ether as I spent a couple of unforgettable hours at Tabernacle Baptist Church near the corner of Charles and Craven. You know the one – pretty white building, abstract-expressionist stained glass windows, bust of Robert Smalls out front?
The church was celebrating its 153rd Anniversary with a special service called “By Our Love,” billed as a service of “unity, brotherhood and love,” featuring “messages of love” from several downtown ministers, including my own.
You probably picked up on that word “love.” According to the bulletin, it was the theme of the afternoon, and every message, every musical offering, every scripture reading and every prayer enforced that theme.
It’s a funny thing about love. We all know it’s the finest thing around (James Taylor told us so) and that it’s truly all we need (the Beatles told us so), and before it was a pop music cliche, it was actually a biblical commandment. Most of us know that, too, but we spend an awful lot of time pretending we don’t know . . . or just ignoring the commandment entirely.
At least that’s how it often feels. If you watch a lot of news and follow social media, you can literally go for days on end – maybe even weeks – laboring under the impression that this country runs on pure hate fumes. Especially when it comes to issues of politics, religion and race. You’ve got Republicans hating on Democrats (and vice versa), BlackLivesMatter folks hating on BlueLivesMatter folks (and vice versa), atheists hating on religious types (and vice versa). Heck, you’ve even got Christians hating on other Christians, as people slap terms like “progressive” or “conservative” in front of that word and churches tear themselves apart from within.
Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong a word to describe what’s going on. The United States is a free country and a diverse country and a very dynamic country . . . and thank God for that, right? But dang, all this arguing and debating and protesting and heels-dug-in disagreeing can feel an awful lot like hate sometimes.
And so it was that I entered Tabernacle Baptist – much like this column – with a wee bit of caution outweighed by an enormous need to love and be loved.
And that’s exactly what happened. The people of the church could not have been more gracious. Their hospitality overwhelmed me. And, oh, the music! We had gospel choirs from Tabernacle and Grace making a giant, joyful noise. Melanie Williams from the Baptist Church of Beaufort sang an ethereal solo, and my own First Pres choir represented with a trio singing the spiritual “Over My Head (I Hear Music In the Air),” with guitar and mandolin. The congregation chimed in on every song, often even standing and clapping – except during Melanie’s, which demanded rapt silence.
Four preachers – two African American and two white – preached short sermons, all about love. Rev. Jeannine Smalls from Grace Chapel AME was a force of nature behind the pulpit, as was Rev. Ken Hodges of Tabernacle Baptist. Both are masters of the emotional, inspirational preaching style of the black church – so musical in its cadence – and I was deeply moved by their words and delivery. Rev. Jeff Pethel from BCB gave a wonderful message centered around his grandmother, and my own minister, Rev. Patrick Perryman, gave one of the best sermons I’ve heard him preach – about foot washing. His message was erudite and his delivery dignified, as usual, but as the congregation responded to his words – calling out “amen!” after almost every thought – he began to work up his own musical cadence, and it was a delightful thing. (Note to self: We could stand to offer up the occasional “amen” at First Pres. Start the trend!)
There was some tough talk and soul searching that afternoon, confession and forgiveness. But most of all, there was love in that room. It was palpable. You could almost see it shimmering in the air.
The two-hour service passed so quickly, I wasn’t ready for it to end. Just before it did, Rev. Hodges invited any choir members in the congregation – from any church – to come to the front of the sanctuary, where we all joined together to sing “We Are One in the Spirit.” Y’all know me – I couldn’t even get the words out. All I could do was stand there like an idiot, holding hands with my choir mates, blubbering like a newborn baby. It was heaven.
So let people sit during the National Anthem if they need to; let them wear silly socks if they must. Let people have their causes and their anti-causes, ‘cause some of them are doing it for love. Let the protesters protest and the naysayers say nay. Let the talking heads spit fire, let the politicians politic, let the social media socialites continue being antisocial . . .
Me? I’ll just close my eyes and remember Tabernacle Baptist Church – and that time when we were one in the spirit. I will not forget.
Author’s Note: I took this picture of a young Tabernacle Baptist Church member (whose name I’m still looking for!) standing before the bust of Robert Smalls after the 153rd Anniversary Celebration. This essay will appear in the September 7, 2016 issue of Lowcountry Weekly.