Sunday’s clock change threw me a surprise, and a calamitous night of howling winds and slamming doors made it a doubly difficult morning, with me fumbling downstairs for the ritual of fetching the newspaper, watching the dogs relieve themselves, feeding them, feeding myself and reading the latest baseball news in the Sunday Times. As I opened the Times, the familiar clock graphic under the fold pf the front page reminded me I was out of time if I wanted to get myself to a church. I hadn’t picked a place and it was nearly nine, so I remember the suggestion from Paul Noonan that I might like to visit the Zion Union Church in Hyannis. A quick online search said services began at 10:45, so I relaxed, finished my oatmeal, then got on my way.
The Zion Union Church is a Baptist congregation of mostly African-American and Brazilian parishioners. The service is delivered in English, but the scriptures are read in Portuguese as well, and a Portuguese translator does a real-time translation of the sermon — to whom I can’t say, perhaps some remote worshippers listening in via the internet or telephone. I saw no UN-style earpieces or translation devices on people’s heads. I’ve hoped at some point to see a very musical, “gospel” type of service, and on Sunday morning I found it at Zion Union. It was, in classic Baptist tradition, a very vibrant service with all the accompanying cliches of “Can I have a Hallelujah,” swaying in the pews with arms held high, and a great choir with a particularly wonderful lead singer who would have given Arethra Franklin a run.
The church, a grey shingled, brand new affair, is on Attuck’s Lane to the south of the East-West runway at the Barnstable Airport in Hyannis. It’s surrounded by a bank, a women’s health club, and beyond a bunch of auto body and alignment shops. There is no steeple per se, but a small cupola over the side entrance into the narthex bears a cross. The main nave is a large space with metal structural supports, some ceiling fans, and sunken lighting. At the apse is a two tiered stage; the band in back, then a row of seats and benches for the choir, then a low wall in front of which is a large podium and altar. Before the altar, on a cradle, rested a large Bible. Beside the altar were two large bouquets of spring lilies.
The pews were new — about a dozen on each side — and the carpet was blue. In the pew backs was a baptist hymnal and a hand fan with a local merchant’s advertisement on it. The tall windows looked out into the parking lot and some scrub pines adjacent to the property.
I took the back row, right side, sat down, and read through the order of worship. As is the tradition in “lively” churches I was warmly greeted by the Reverend Ronaldo Eloy and the Pastor Bernard Harris, Sr. Each asked my name, welcomed me, and moved on to greet other parishioners.
The projector bolted to a strut high on the cross beam showed a picture of a wooden cross in a rain storm. Fitting given the northeaster raging outside, keeping, I assumed, the parishioner count low. I think the rain and the vernal equinox conspired to knock down the early arrivals, but by the end of the two hour service the place was pretty full.
The congregation was younger than usual (I’d guess the media age at 30) with some older couples sitting here and there. As the order of worship indicated it was “Youth Sunday” there was a good number of kids in the pews and a few people dressed in bright purple robe/surplice things (purple being the color of Lent).
The service started when the keyboard player began noodling on his electric piano. The choir (also known as the Zion Union Church Praise and Worship Team) started rocking out as the Powerpoint let us following the bouncing ball with a couple peppy tunes essentially expressing the sentiment that “I love the Lord” and “The Lord loves Me.” The deacon-in-training kicked things off with a prayer, and there was a lot more singing. A good 15 minute warm up designed to get the crowd moving. This is where yours truly starts clapping to appear somewhat engaged and not overly observational, but not getting down by engaging in the full side-to-side swaying, the hands over my head (torn rotator cuff would prohibit the “Hey-Ho” MTV move anyway), and other physical displays that I was getting down with the music. Again — most dreaded words in the Churbuck language is “Everybody get up and put yours hands together.”
The only other white guy in the crowd was standing on the podium — he turned out to be the guest speaker, the headmaster of the local Christian academy — and he was dressed in a kind of cool blue robe that reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on. I watched him and tried to time my claps to his, as I am so devoid of rhythm that I can’t even keep time with my hands. This was sad, and my self-consciousness rose as late arrivals straggled in and took a look at the big geek in the bowtie trying to act like he was moved by the spirit.
The scripture was read: Psalm 46:10 “Be Still and Know That I Am God” and Romans 8:28-39.
“28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers
There was some youth choir singing: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and then the guest preacher delivered the sermon. It was okay, my mind wandered, and he covered a lot of ground with an occasional dive into specific Bible citations. As he got going the Pastor Harris would offer some encouragement from the sidelines and the crowd would murmur its assent. People got into this service. This was not a passive or academic crew, but people who wanted to get pretty involved.
The Reverend Harris invited those who needed “Christian Discipleship” to come forward. This is the point where I expect Robert Duvall to come down the aisle and exhort me to come clean. There was a pause, then the offering took place. The deacons moved around handing out envelopes and one of the Brothers said some words about tithing 10 percent (which explains the nice new building I would imagine).
Baskets were held at the front of the altar and congregation was invited to file out of the pews and up to the baskets. Not being in the mood to move feeling particularly exposed, I stood put and effect stiffed the church out of its due.
The Powerpoint screen flashed the words: “Please refrain from unnecessary movement especially during Prayer, Scripture, Tithes and Offering and the Sermon.” That was not a problem for me, but it did beg the question of what behaviors had occurred that inspired someone to compose that admonition. Some mysteries of the church are unknowable.
Following the offering, the Pastor got everyone in the church (except for me an an old lady) to come forward and gather around. A prayer was said which resulted in a crying attack by the young man leading the prayer. He was very emotional and the deacons — all of whom wore white gloves (save for a woman who wore black gloves) went around the church with boxes of Kleenex. This made me suspicious and I wondered if the crying portion was planned or a weekly feature.
Announcements were made. A skit was performed to persuade us men to come to Men’s Fellowship. The people in purple and two little children did a dance to a pre-recorded piece of Christian pop music that consisted of them making coordinated hand and arm movements.
The benediction and “threefold Amen” was sung and we were done. I headed for the doors, shook hands with the guest preacher and the Pastor and was in the parking lot in a flash.
- Untucked shirts in preachers is a strange fashion statement. Dress codes are all over the map. The guest preacher was in a blue bathrobe sort of gown. The Reverend was tails hanging out. And I wore a bowtie.
- When the sermon concluded the guest preacher seemed to be emotional with a towel.
- The Portuguese simul-translation was strange
- I wasn’t in the mood and suppose it will show. I daydreamed a lot during the service and felt like an anthropologist. I need to recharge — as I approach the half-way mark I am starting to feel a bit bored with long church services, but I also realize this whole project is about devotion and trying to experience what it is like to be a devout church goer. Doing this 52 times in a year in the same church? That’s dedication.
Next week: Christian Scientists anybody?