It's hard to stumble when you're on your knees.
God will be right there to give your soul ease.
Don't worry about your enemies,
Because it's hard to stumble when you're on your knees.
When a National Day of Prayer was declared following the attacks of September 11, 2001, I don't remember what my motive was, but I attended a service at New Hope Baptist Church at 218 Chapin, just across the railroad tracks from downtown Ann Arbor. I'd like to claim that I had a noble purpose, like playing a small role in making the day of prayer for a national tragedy less racially segregated than what Martin Luther King famously called "the most segregated hour of the week" (church time on Sunday). Also, New Hope is the church that is closest to where I live. Honestly, I don't remember why I did that, and I remember little about what happened there that day.
However, after nearly nine years, I finally returned there, armed with a camera and notebook. Two strong themes that I perceived at worship were hope in the face of problems and mutual support to overcome problems and build a good life, from one's family and one's church. These were highlighted by recognition of two occasions for this time of year. They recognized those who are graduating from area high schools and universities, expressing congratulations for these students' accomplishments to date and hope for their individual futures and the church's collective future with the participation of these newly educated people. At the same time, they prayed for protection from the temptations of the world to which they will be exposed.
They also remembered Memorial Day, honoring those who had gone before, who had made possible what they have now. In particular, this church honors its founding pastor, Rev. A. J. Lightfoot, now deceased, as well as his widow, Mother Lightfoot. One of the pastors, Rev. Threet, also listed those who had died more recently.
This church has much of its history encapsulated in a photo gallery hung on the wall in the hallway outside the sanctuary. They have pictures of choirs, groups of ushers and family groups from the 1960s and 70s. They have pictures of their current leaders, including pastors, deacons, and trustees, of visits from Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1996 and from Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008, and of their building in different stages of its development. The building that was previously on the site had carved and sold burial monuments, apparently prompting Rev. Lightfoot to coin the saying in which he characterized the church as transforming its people "from tombstones to living stones."
In the men's choir rehearsal, led by Sister Fay Burton, the singers had no printed music in front of them. However, this didn't mean that everyone was entirely free to choose any note he wished to sing. On some of the songs with which the singers were more familiar, we mostly just sang through them. But one song, titled "It's Hard to Stumble When You're on Your Knees" required dictation of notes to each of the sections. In choirs using printed music, it's often hard to rehearse the notes for only one section without the other voices joining in. When there is no music in front of you, it seems even more tempting to join in, for me and the others. Much of the music prominently featured solos. I didn't catch the names of all the soloists, but much of it was done by Sister Burton, one by her husband Deacon Burton, as well as Brother Stevenson.
I expected that I would be singing without a printed page, and that I would need to watch for signals on the fly of how many times to repeat certain sections of music, but found watching and heeding the signals more difficult than I anticipated. But there was a real payoff to a lot of repetition--some of the songs seem like they've gone on long enough, but then suddenly get a second wind, and take on renewed urgency and meaning. The processional, "Something's Got a Hold on Me," started up anew after completely stopping. And the time of greeting fellow members featured a slow build of "This is the Day That the Lord Has Made," with everyone joining in as they concluded greeting each other. As at King of Kings Lutheran Church, it seemed that everyone greeted absolutely everyone else, but this was a larger church. Add on several more times through "This is the Day," and it took a while.
The sermon by Rev. Green used Joshua 4 as its basis, in which the Israelites set up a stone memorial for those who crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land after leaving slavery in Egypt and then wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. He likened New Hope Church itself to a memorial that reminds us of those who went before us and of the God who saves us from trouble and keeps the church going. Some of his points took on a repetitive, chant-like and rhythmic quality, and at the climax of the sermon, the organ joined in while he recounted brief summaries of a number of stories of the power of God, both from the Bible and from modern times, connecting them with the words "The Same God." He thus pulled together the history of the Israelites, the early Christians, our ancestors, the founders of New Hope congregation, the graduates in the caps and gowns, and all those present.
The only white person in an African-American church sticks out like a sore thumb, and I also didn't have the male choir's standard gray suit, but I am happy that I forced my way into making this work. I was warmly welcomed by all those there. One thing that I had understood for a long time was that clapping on beats 1 and 3 is the white person's way of doing it, as opposed to clapping on the off-beats, 2 and 4. Although this stereotype may have some basis in truth, it is not strictly true. During "Something's Got a Hold on Me," I joined in clapping on beats 1 and 3. If this was wrong, I blame it on everyone else who was also doing that. Clapping during all the other songs was on beats 2 and 4.
After the sermon was the collection of the offering, which in most African-American congregations is done by having everyone walk to the front and place their offering in a box or plate. The benediction of the service had everyone join hands and sing, "Go ye therefore; teach all nations. Go, go baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."
For those who want their worship to pass by quickly, this is not your place. From the devotion leading into the service, to the benediction, the elapsed time was about two and a half hours. For some of you, though, you might gain from moving outside of your box for a while and sticking out like a sore thumb, and at the same time, soaking in some new hope.
I may be picking up a few loose ends and making some sporadic visits over time, but this concludes the main phase of the Itinerant Chorister project. I thank all those who have read and commented on my blog, and my Annarbor.com entries. I am negotiating with Annarbor.com about how I should wrap up this project with them; I will definitely put some sort of synthesis here also, but its content will depend on what I do there.