It will take me a long, long time to digest the three hours and more of worship at Golden Gate Church of Christ in New Albany and make real sense of it. My heart was lifted, my mind was blown, I want a shot of whatever that pastor was on, I need a whole new vocabulary here. Church isn’t like this. I’ve seen drearier carnivals, more buttoned-up discos, far less entertaining variety shows, than Sunday morning at Golden Gate. But if what thrilled and perplexed me this morning counts as a church service I feel I need another word for what I’ve been conducting most Sundays for the past thirty years. This was other; alien, although mostly in a very good way.
In New Albany, as elsewhere in Mississippi, there are black churches and white churches. It’s not that anyone’s excluded; just that they have dramatically different styles and they don’t mix like Stainer doesn’t mix with the blues. Earlier I had attended the First Baptist church, a curious experience in some ways but not one to challenge my preconceptions of what ought to happen in worship. Robed choir, printed order of service. Centre piece: this guy delivering a tightly structured sermon in polished sentences to which we listened in respectful silence: he had a meaty message requiring concentration. The most obvious link with what was to follow came in a solo just prior to the sermon, delivered over a pre-recorded backing track with expertise and flair by a young woman whose style was mainstream MOR pop, soulful sliding around, blue notes, vibrato shrieking on the high notes, all the usual tricks. If you’d heard it over the PA in Wall-mart it would NOT have screamed at you: this is a "Christian" song. You’d have thought - a typical contemporary ballad and, hey aren’t those Christian words? I’m saying: that solo fed off and straight back into the daily culture, it was in no way set apart from it, advertising itself as "sacred".
But this was still a white church and white folks conduct themselves with formal dignity while their doing their religion. They stand up and sit down when they’re supposed to. They remain quietly in their places through the preaching. The deal is they know roughly when the service ends and if it goes too long over the hour it’s like the contract has been broken.
Golden Gate is a black church and practically the only formal thing about it is the dress code. Sunday best means you wear what you would if you were expecting to meet royalty; which in a way you are. After an hour things are just nicely warmed up with the real fire still to come.
When I drove by earlier I was startled to find the morning service timed for 11.30; but that of course was to allow for two hours’ Sunday school earlier on. Sunday school for all ages, natch.
I’d had to slip out of First Baptist during the last hymn to make Golden Gate even approximately on time, but there were lots of approximate things about the place so that was no big deal. It seemed my arrival was, though. The usher greeted me, clocked my whiteness and led me to the best available seat .... right at the front. Good job I’m a hard man to embarrass, but it got better, though my wife - who is embarrassable - would say worse. Next thing I knew I was being shown to a seat on the platform, among the elders, right behind the main pastor. Talk about being put on show! Various people, deacons I assume or the equivalent, came and shook my hand and in greeting me registered my double novelty: not only am I white, I speak a different version of English which, if they had as much trouble understanding as I did in understanding theirs, makes me wonder if I really communicated with them when I had the chance.
The worship band was in full swing. Two keyboard players, one on a jazz organ who sounded like a real pro and unless my ears deceived me was laying down a bass groove with the pedals, another guy on electric keyboard; a guitarist and a drummer. Above them were singers who kept the flow going, but what was scarcely bearable in its intensity was the way all the musicians seemed to function as a unit, throwing tricksy rhythms and scrunchy harmonies from player to player like it was the most natural thing in the world. The classically trained musician in me says come on, you don’t get to be that good and spontaneous without years and years of first training and then practising together, but maybe for black instrumentalists raised in that Gospel tradition it IS the most natural thing in the world.
If this had been a club you’d have to say it was jumping. Everyone was clapping along, one woman in particular got up and danced like a newly-freed slave in the aisles, with others strutting their stuff alongside her, throwing their arms in the air ... Some of the older guys just sat and - I think! - enjoyed it, there was no compulsion to throw yourself into the proceedings, though it was better if you did. In my restrained white way I did my best, at least from the waist up. As anyone who knows me will confirm, I can feel dance, I can write dance, but I haven’t learned TO dance. On the dance floor I give a whole new meaning to the word gauche and there’s a time and a place to make an idiot of yourself.
Then the choir filed up onto the raised pews behind me, seeming at some points to outnumber the congregation, whose size varied as people drifted in and out: call of nature, restless children, they had to go and fix dinner, they’d already had dinner and were turning up an hour late? I’ll ask. Anyhow the choir - no scores needless to say, I saw neither printed music nor lyrics anywhere, black worship does not presume literacy and there could be historical reasons for that - produced a gleaming wall of sound which enveloped me in full stereo, built of that uniquely black combination of improvisation and musical discipline. The soloist called out in counterpoint with the other singers, sometimes musically, sometimes just shouting. The band went skilfully berserk, the fantastic organist as opposed to the ordinarily good one turning tricks on the electronic keyboard now. The choirmaster simultaneously kept time with his arms and broke into a dance that would have made John Travolta in his Night Fever days creep away forlornly to the bar. And just when you thought you’d heard just about enough of that song, the rhythm would change and another one would launch itself out of nowhere.
It was an experience to surpass the blues club at Clarksdale in the Delta three days earlier; here the musicianship was not quite as virtuoso in technique but the style and harmonic language were more complex and the sense of mutual dependence among the players so strong it was like a one-man band with eight arms and legs. There is another point to this comparison: the blues we heard at Clarksdale are part of the ordinary cultural scene, and so was the music at Golden Gate although serving a different purpose: it was black music first, sacred only in terms of lyrical content. The awful churchiness of most Christian music in Britain would be shamed by comparison.
I’m filling up as I replay the memory just as I did at the time. Difficult to wipe your eyes discreetly when you wear glasses but so what if anyone did see. Worship cannot be this liberated, this chaotic yet purposeful, this flamin’ loud, connecting not just with heart and mind but with feet and guts too, this much of a threat to the windows, floors, fire regulations, blood pressure and more besides, this much of a pharmaceutical-free high like you’ve won the lottery and topped the charts and got married all on the one day, and still be holy; yet God was in this or I haven’t encountered him yet. I would have to say something to explain my highly visible presence and I hoped I’d have collected myself sufficiently when I got the look.
I told them I’d been to the Baptist church first, then I’d died, gone to heaven and woken up at Golden Gate. Well, I thought that was a good line; so did they and I meant it. Then I said: it’s a pity there’s black churches and white churches, some of you black folks ought to get out there and teach white folks how to worship, and that went down well too; but again, I meant it at that point. We need to use music and dance the way they do, not be so scared to freak out, get lost in our exuberance.
These folks were treating me like royalty - they even offered to feed me as I was leaving, and hope it didn’t seem rude when I declined. But then came part 2 of the service, and here I struggled.
If part 1 had been collective, collaborative worship largely in the hands of the musicians, we were now to focus more on the pastor, who had disappeared for a while, to return in a striking cream gown to signify he had become the Preacher.
I knew I would not be in for a monologue to which the congregation would dutifully attend. I was ready for the question and response approach to preaching, cries of "Yes preacher!" and "Amen!", of significant phrases being echoed back to him, giving the impression of sermon construction by popular approval, each affirmation being checked with the congregation to make sure it had been understood and endorsed. I wondered how much scope this gives the pastor for feeding new ideas to the people, ones which they might have to ponder for a while. Perhaps that is the role of Sunday School; however, I was not prepared for the theatrical range of the preacher. In describing him I don’t want to condescend or make him sound like a madman, although out of context his behaviour might seem deranged: what proved it otherwise was the way he carried his congregation, working the jokes, scoring his points, making sense to them, feeding them as a shepherd should. But I did have one huge problem: his delivery was so fast and so strongly accented I reckon I picked up one word in twenty. I needed an interepreter.
The pastor/preacher rattled away, starting with a verse of scripture but then darting about as inspiration took him. Not only unscripted (I’d seen his notes, which were simply a list of Bible passages, and if he touched on half of them I’d be surprised), it was also unplanned; since I could not follow content, I observed the style.
He shouted, he whooped, he screamed, he pointed his finger, he worked up his congregation into a response and got it; then he’d hit on a word - usually "Father", his theme being the fatherhood of God as a model for human parenting - and sing it; then the band would pick up his pitch and riff on it, followed by some keyboard noodling underneath his next few sentences. Sometimes there’d be a HEY! Jesus!, spat out almost belligerently; he’d play for a laugh, he’d play for applause, he’d rise above the constant babble, then he’d blend in with it and pick up on phrases called out to him, sometimes accidentally on purpose forgetting a word and casting around for a prompt. It was the performance but of a man absolutely not on an ego trip, almost the opposite of that, a man riding pillion on some alternate form of consciousness careless of where it might take him. I had the feeling he no more knew what he was about to say/scream/sing next than the rest of us did. I felt no trace of exhibitionism, of attention-seeking: I might want to call it idiosyncratic but I’ve no basis for comparison; perhaps a lot of black preachers are like this.
In and amongst there would be sharings of concern about individuals, present and otherwise; this being Father’s day, all dads present were called forward and prayed over: I’m a dad so I went. The anointing, sensitively done by a big guy tipping olive oil from a bottle and pasting a little on each forehead, was a wonderful moment of challenge and affirmation. Visitor or not, white or not, I was a child of God along with all these black folks and if I had chosen to be among them for these hours who were they to say I didn’t belong? If ever I felt the truth of the old cliche about there being no strangers, just friends you haven’t met, I felt it at this service.
I’ve got some questions, inevitably: there was a strange emphasis on money, with people being asked to declare openly how much they were putting in the collection, to wave their tens and twenties aloft as their offerings were blessed; I want to know what was actually preached through all the histrionics. I think I heard "the rapture might come any moment", which worried me. Looking around I felt that some of the younger people who weren’t in the choir actually switched off during the preaching, didn’t take part in the exchanges; how much impact was the Gospel actually making on their lives, I wondered. In Britain there is a culture of disaffection among young black men, many of whom underachieve at school, fall into bad company and don’t stick around to raise any children they might beget - but this is rural, religious America so presumably it’s different ... or is it?
Questions for the pastor when I meet him, but for the record - and another cliche, sorry - if ever there was a time when I went to church as I was but didn’t come back the same as I went, then June 18 was that time. That’s when I dropped by at Golden Gate, they treated me like a king and anointed me along with their own. Glory!