Monday, March 29, 2010

Worshipping in my Spiritual Comfort Zone

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

AFTER just a few minutes a startling revelation: I felt comfortable – for the first time in six weeks. I was sitting on the fourth row of the center left pew of the House of Prayer International, a multicultural church in Monroe. It was yesterday, Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter Sunday.

I’d arrived a few minutes late, and parked myself in the pew during the middle of a praise song when I realized I felt right at home, though this was my first visit. What gives? I believe it is because I was in a multicultural church, rather than a segregated one. I’d given up segregated churches – specific to my experience, all-black churches – more than a decade ago. I arrived at this point of enlightenment after I began what I term my “lucid walk with God” – meaning my personal relationship – in the late 1990s.

Allow me to digress briefly: I proclaim proudly and without hesitation that I am a Christian, a Jesus Christ follower. I am on God’s team – the great “I Am,” Moses’ friend and the one whose own heart King David was after. When I identify as a Christian, I am merely stating that I am a sinner who daily falls short of God’s glory (worthiness) and who is in need of salvation/grace/mercy to get through each day and to get to heaven and avoid as much hell as possible, literally and/or figuratively. I don’t believe that I am better than anyone because of this association, but I do hope (and pray) that all will join the team. It is not my intention to convert or condemn anyone who believes otherwise and who may think me a fool. In the end – for heaven’s sake – I hope we are all talking about the same Creator because, man, God is awesome!

My lucid walk began one night in 1997 after I’d returned home from a swanky party in Boston. Strangely, I felt empty inside. Something was missing. There was a hole in my heart. I was hurting and wanted to die but didn't know why. However, I was too sensible to do something as stupid as take pills or slit my wrists. By all accounts I should have been on top of the world. I had a fabulous job as a newspaper editor and writer. My friends, colleagues and sources respected me. Generally, I was well-liked. I was good-looking. Had a nice apartment with a view of the beach. Nice car and clothes. Decent money in the bank. On my arm was a handsome, charming, brilliant Darmouth-educated banker boyfriend. My name was on the guest list of parties that were written up in the social pages of The Boston Globe and other major, local publications. I was an “It” girl. Absolutely fabulous – but only on the outside.

Inside, I felt worthless. And inferior, not because of gender or ethnicity, but because I had a recording playing in my head – implanted when I was around 12 by another who shall not be named. In a continuous loop it said, “You’re dirty, lowdown and no good.” Regardless how much I achieved or how congenial I was or how well-regarded, I always felt inadequate.

Stephen Johnson is the current pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Dedham, MA. Photo courtesy of Fellowship Bible Church.

Inexplicably, to soothe my ache I decided to read my bible. Even today I don't know why I turned to it. And I found my bible – in the booth in the back in the corner in the dark of my bedside nightstand. After giving it a good dusting, I opened it and started reading. I would learn life-changing truths that night and in the coming weeks such as the meaning of Passover and that the love of money is the root of all evil, not money in and of itself. I read numerous passages that were counter to the messages I heard from pulpits – mostly Baptist – during my formative years, which could be summed up thusly: “If you don’t stop sinnin', you goin' to hell.” The most startling revelation was that drinking in moderation was not sinful. I’d already given God to know that this Champagne lover could not go forward if she had to live without Veuve Clicquot et al. My jaw dropped when I read the account of Jesus turning water into wine at that wedding, his first recorded miracle, incidentally.

Now that I had straight some biblical facts and my heart was glad, I was ready to join a church. I grabbed the Greater Boston yellow pages in search of bible churches A cousin recommended such a one, owing to their focus on God’s word as it is written in the Bible – no additives and preservatives. Influenced by Galatians 3:26-29 (3rd Chapter of Galatians, Verses 26-29), which basically states that we are all one in Christ regardless of our ethnicity and should get along, I declared that I could not attend anymore segregated churches. I phoned every Bible Church listed within a 30-minute drive and asked about its racial/ethnic makeup. Based on this criterion I would later join Friendship Bible Church where I was a member until I quit Boston for Paris. I have not been a member of a segregated church since, not in Paris. Not in D.C. And not in New York.

It is not surprising, then, that in 2010 I might feel uncomfortable in an all-black church. It’s segregated and it was in the Black Church where I was initially misled. Of course, not every all-black church is guilty of misrepresenting/undercommunicating God’s words. Absolutely not. But a significant number are. (Ditto for many all-white churches.) Black churches have served a commendable role in society. They are where many blacks of a certain era learned social graces. The Church has produced countless black leaders and also served as educational and recreational centers and so on. Once upon a time they were the nerve center of Black America. I’m not advocating their demise, but merely noting the source of "The Biblical Miseducation of Vevlyn Wright."

Anecdotal evidence, personal experience and accounts from others strongly suggest that these “rogue” churches are thriving in Monroe, as they likely are in every city in the country. While Calvary Baptist Church is doing a commendable job, I cannot say the same for several others I’ve attended. The pastor/preacher starts off OK enough, reading the scripture. But too soon descends into showmanship mode. Regardless of the passage, the default phrase is “God is able.” Of course, this is true, but one needs a bit more substance when s/he is coping with a difficult teen, spouse, finances, coworker. Or a health problem and so on. There are specific passages in the Bible that address many such issues. Indeed, they provide instruction about how the Christian should handle them. But these showmen – and they are primarily men – fail to address such details, lest they interfere with their performance, which can be summed up in three words: "whoopin’ and hollerin’" accompanied by enthusiastic audience participation, all the while radiating abundant heat and no light. Imagine James Brown in concert or a church scene in a Tyler Perry movie. One Sunday, I leaned over to a friend’s father and said, “I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a good show.” He concurred. No doubt, this could also happen in a multicultural church, but that has not yet been my experience.

At House of Prayer International, the Rev. Ronald Brown, took his message, “Jesus is praying for you,” from Romans 8:34. To buttress the message, he borrowed a page from the experiences of the disciple, Simon Peter, specifically his bold statement that Christ was the promised Messiah, his chiding Christ for disclosing the latter’s impending death, his stated allegiance to Christ – even to the death, his denial of Christ and his restoration by Christ. (Read the latter chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the details). The pastor’s overarching point was that when we – like Peter – have failures Christ is still there for us, praying/encouraging/forgiving/restoring.

Yes, God is able, but if one has a setback or reverse, reading about Peter's experiences would be reason for hope. Interestingly, I remembered the sermon. With the exception of the message I heard at Calvary, it is the only one I could recall later in the day or the next day. Why? Very possibly because it had some meat and was not heavily punctuated and obliterated by theatrics.

Learn more about House of Prayer International at, Fellowship Bible Church at and Calvary Baptist Church at 318-323-0238.

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