If you know me, you've heard me talk of Grace Temple Deliverance Church in Mpls, MN. I worshipped there from 1994-1998 and it's perhaps the most formative experience in my faith development outside of seminary. Rev. Dr. Willa Grant Battle was and still is the pastor. Gospel composer Doris Akers ("There's a Sweet, Sweet Spirit In This Place") was the Director of Music before she died. I proudly trace my Christian lineage through these two outstanding women of God.
The very moment I stepped in Grace Temple, I knew, I just knew, that this was the place I had been looking for all my life. To this day I still recall the 1st sermon I heard Dr. Battle preach. For the next 5 years I would be one of the few white people in this black, Pentecostal church. I'd still be, if I had not moved back to New York.
Long story short, I church shopped, found Sayville UCC, became a member and attended Eden Theological Seminary, graduating in 2005; called to my 1st church and ordained in 2005.
But Grace Temple Deliverance Church will always be my home. Where I learned how to bring my Bible to church, to show respect to God through the clothes I wore, to eat chitlins, collards and smoked turkey, and to let go of my ego and make way to the altar to be vulnerable enough to have someone pray over me.
In return, the members of Grace Temple called forward my gifts, asking me to pray, to say a word before the offering, to help with Youth Sunday etc.
It's been years since I've been back to Grace Temple, but when I do return it is as a son, and since I am ordained, Rev. Dr. Battle always has me sit right beside her.
To this day, the place I feel most spiritually nourished is in the black church. I can't tell you why, but I get it. I get the kinetics, I get the prayers, I get the songs to the point that after hearing one verse I am able to sing along. I get the the message of perseverance and resilience in the face of obstacles.
I get the songs and stories of triumph even in the midst of despair.
But it's been years since I've worshipped at a black church; I can give many excuses, but that's all they are.
However, after the events in S.C., I knew it was time. Verification came when I received an e-mail from the local clergy group announcing our newest member- Rev. Laura White from Greater Mt. Zion AME. I wrote her a letter; a week later she called. We talked as if we already knew each other.
Today, when worship and fellowship at my church was over, I made my way to Mt. Zion AME. Made sure to wear my suit so people knew I was legit. Carried my Bible (NRSV). Walked into the building...
...and it hit me.
All the years I've worshipped in black churches I was aware of my whiteness. But I quickly got over it, as I knew the worshippers did not care the color of my skin.
But today I became aware that for some, my whiteness could possibly be a threat.
A few weeks ago a white man walked into a black church and after an hour of prayer opened fire. How could the folks of Mt. Zion AME know I was safe? Was it possible I, in my white skin, could make everyone around me, fearful?
Thankfully, Rev. Laura White is a true woman of God. She raised her ushers up right. Instantly, I was warmly greeted. Instantly I was asked to fill out a visitor card. Instantly, she had an elder come and invite me to join her in the chancel. I declined, stating I wanted to be a participant. Then, as typical in black churches, visitors were given a chance to stand and speak, and when I did, and said who I was, I knew, I knew I could let those worries go.
And then- well then we worshipped. We sang. We tithed. We had altar call. We celebrated communion. We heard a message on Joshua 24 with e message that said "It's Time to Get Serious." Rev. White made it plain- we don't need to wait until we're perfect to go to church because "God wants you're 60% so God can give you the other 40%!"
I had already experienced church this morning as the pastor of Emmanuel UCC in Sebring, FL. But later on I got to experience church as someone who was ready for God's 40%, 50%, 60% and so on.
And it felt good.
At service's end, Rev. White and I talked of how to continue an ecumenical relationship. Hopefully she will come worship at EUCC; I plan to go back to Mt. Zion.
But the lesson I learned for today is that for the first time in my worship life I realized I could be seen as a dangerous entity. I didn't like how that felt. It means there is plenty of work to be done. It means there is plenty of work to be done.
Lord, help us to get it done. Lord, help me to do my part.
Amen and amen.