Monday, July 21, 2008

Providing A Little Cultural Diversity

I intended to blog last night, but a thunderstorm struck down our hotel's internet access until this afternoon. So, I will say a bit about yesterday's ventures in the DC area. Even when I/we are on vacation we attend worship. There have been only very few occasions in my adult life when I have avoided worship on a Sunday morning, and when I am on "vacation" I enjoy worshiping with others in a place where I do not have specific responsibilities. It's an opportunity for me to worship God, of course, but also to see "how others do it." Fortunately, Kyle is always agreeable. Fortunately, over the years, Kyle has been a willing worshiper in our family. From the beginning he saw it as important, and even through college he was almost always in worship somewhere. (Of course, during college it helped that Claudia and I provided incentives for him to worship, but that's another story).

On Saturday night I took a look at several websites and decided that we would worship at Gethsemane UMC in Capitol Heights, MD, a church not far from the hotel where we are staying and relatively "on the way" to Annapolis, where we intended to spend our afternoon. (When on vacation I usually find a United Methodist Church to attend because I enjoy the marvelous diversity of my denomination; each time I am in another part of the country I experience how richly diverse the Methodist movement is).

Kyle and I left the hotel at about 9:30 in order to reach the location in time for the 10:00 service. We arrived in the parking lot by about 9:45 and Kyle said, "It looks like there will be less people in worship here than in our church today." The location is quite lovely, with plenty of green space and a nice sanctuary, with a parsonage nearby. I said to Kyle, "This is when you can tell whether you are at heart an introvert or an extravert." (He and I have parried over the years as to whether he is an introvert or an extravert. I contend he is an introvert, but he's not convinced). "What do you mean?" he quizzed. "I mean, it's at a moment like this, when you arrive in a place as a perfect stranger and you ask yourself whether you should just leave or stay. That's what an introvert does. An extravert can't wait to get out of the vehicle to meet new people." He smiled knowingly, tacitly acknowledging what I have been contending over the years (that he is, indeed, an introvert). I said, "How about we wait a few minutes?" "Yeah, that sounds fine, Dad."

So we sat in our rental vehicle and waited. Vehicles continued to arrive, though at a fairly relaxed pace. We observed. And Kyle said, "Yeah, and it looks like we will be the only white people here, too." "I think you're right, Kyle."

Five minutes later we were walking from the vehicle toward the sanctuary. Reaching the first door and stepping into the entry area we were immediately greeted with a "Good morning" and a double-armed, cheek-to-cheek hug from a friendly female greeter. While very welcoming, she was momentarily perplexed because she couldn't find a visitor card for us to complete. I have to chuckle to myself in retrospect, because emblazoned on their church bulletin is the mission: "Church growth." And while visitor's cards are not essential to church growth, they do assist in the process. Frankly, it was comforting to know that other churches anticipate the arrival of newcomers about as well as my own. Eventually I simply wrote our names and addresses on a sheet of paper she found for us to use, and we walked to the sanctuary. Along the way we were cordially welcomed by a number of other church regulars.

We found our pew and waited for the service to begin, glancing through the bulletin's liturgy to anticipate what was to come. Judging from the liturgy I could tell we would be worshiping in a UM church. The four-fold pattern of worship (Entrance -- Proclamation -- Response -- Sending Forth) was clearly evident, as were the traditional elements of worship. All three of the lectionary readings were present, as well as a fourth sermon text Scripture. There were seven congregational hymns identified and three special numbers from the choir. I could tell we were going to be engaged in worship for some time. But I had no idea how long.

Having worshiped in African-American contexts before (but admittedly on a very limited basis) I anticipated a lengthy service, a call-and-response pattern of sermonizing, and worshiper involvement, so I was ready. Or so I thought.

Just before the service the congregation's Lay Leader came to where I was sitting and said, "Our Pastor would be happy for you to join with him in the pulpit this morning." I said, "Thank you," but declined the kind offer. I had already noticed that Kyle and I were woefully underdressed. We had on shorts and casual shirts, while all of the women were dressed in dresses (some with beautiful hats) and many of the men were adorned with suits and ties. It pleased me to see worshipers take their Sunday more with such serious reverence; it's been a long time since I have experienced that.

And so the service began. After a call to worship there was a choral introit in African-American style. As the choir moved to their appointed spot behind the pulpit and altar area, they sashayed while singing. It was not a speedy entrance, but their sound was heartfelt and uplifting. We worked our way through the Act of Praise, the opening hymn and a special from the choir. There were plenty of "Thank you, Jesus" responses, including one choir member who was so very blessed by God that she just couldn't stop shouting. (I have heard of "shouting Methodists," but it's been a long time, like since my childhood, that I've worshiped with shouters). After a good two or three minutes, those closest to her were able to fan her into submission (literally, with hand-held fans), and the liturgist of the morning shared announcements. We were at the one-hour mark when Kyle leaned over and whispered, "Looks like it's going to be a long service." I smiled knowingly and said, "Isn't it great?" To his credit he simply smiled appreciatively.

It is the tradition of this congregation to have visitors introduce themselves, so after we were introduced we were asked to remain standing. The other guests introduced themselves, and it was our turn. I spoke on behalf of both Kyle and myself (I don't think he minded). I said, "Good morning. We are happy to be with you in worship this morning from Minnesota, where I am an Elder in the Minnesota Conference. ["Thank you, Jesus" resounded through the congregation]. And," I said, looking around, "we are happy to provide you with a little cultural diversity today." [After a brief second for my words to sink in, and then recognizing that ours were the only white faces in the service of 100+, the response was friendly laughter and clapping]. I took a moment to rejoice that as United Methodist brothers and sisters we have so much rich diversity to share. Then I sat down.

The choir had two more special numbers, the third of which sent another choir member into spasms of spiritual expression. (Not the same choir member). She cried out to God, thanked Jesus and praised God's name. For the minutes as she continued rapturously proclaiming God's goodness the congregation lifted thanks to the Lord. She, too, was fanned into submission and the service continued. With a baptism, using the precise liturgy we would have used in my congregation were I baptizing that day.

At the two hour mark the Pastor stood and offered some apologies to his congregation for the length of the service, to which the congregation responded, "It's OK, pastor. Preach the Word." And so he did. For the next twenty-five minutes the Word was preached. God's love was explained, expounded, experienced. An invitation to pray at the altar was given and a number went forward to pray as we sang "Soon and Very Soon."

By the time the words of benediction were spoken at 12:35 it was time to go. But there would be no quick and easy "we're visitors" escape for us yesterday morning. We were individually greeted by at least twenty different individuals, who asked us to return next time we were in the area, who inquired about our plans, who offered kind words of welcome. By 12:45 we were able to reach the door where the First Lady (pastor's spouse) of the church was wishing all exiting another blessing. She pulled us to herself, hugged us warmly and left us with these words, "I hope you found something this morning from God that will help you in the days ahead." I thanked her and we walked to our car.

"Now that's one of the reasons I'm a United Methodist, Kyle," I said. "What do you mean? There's African-American churches all over." "I mean," I said as patiently as I could, "that while there are many denominations and many African-American churches, there are not many denominations as diverse as ours, with so many worship styles and so many cultures." Unconvinced, Kyle simply muttered an "Oh."

What a great morning for worship. And what a great opportunity for two white boys from Minnesota to provide a little cultural diversity in the heart of our nation's African-American community.


Gary Zimmerli said...

Great post, Bart! But I hope this doesn't mean we're going to start having 2 1/2 hour services! ;-)

Chris P said...

I echo great post Bart! I enjoy visiting other congregations when I am away. I often visit the local Air Force base chapel service or whatever I can get too. It has allways been a blessing to worship with other brothers and sisters.
Hope you and your family is well!