I arrived early and sat in the parking lot for a while, watching other worshipers arrive and go inside, imagining that a couple of them looked my way and wondered why the white woman was there.
In his welcome to the unusual white presence, my friend the pastor warned smilingly, “This is a black church, so hold onto your pew.”
I was there because I was invited to preach there in a couple of months, and, whenever possible, I like to get a feel for the congregation beforehand, as every congregation has its own unique worship style, theological perspective and personality. When invited to speak, I want to be as careful as possible to respect the beliefs and practices each individual church has adopted.
I loved the seeming spontaneity of the singing. Someone would begin a song, and others would slowly join in. No books needed as the lyrics were repetitive, usually changing only slightly from verse to verse, but going on as long as someone continued to begin a new verse with the change of a word or two; and spirited prayers might go on for 20 minutes at a time, with one person leading and others murmuring in agreement. The sermon was dynamic and also enveloped in congregational murmurings. All the while my soul was processing at a level deeper than words, of which I have no words to share here.
As I walked back to the parking lot following two hours of lively singing, praying and preaching (I think they are never first in the restaurant lines for Sunday lunch) and a very warm welcome from all, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of humility. I have taken great pride in my interest in the black story: reading multiple slave memoirs, watching every movie and documentary I can find on the civil rights era, visiting the International Civil Rights Museum and other black historic sites, giving my money as a founding sponsor of the MLK Memorial in Washington DC, having my name listed on the wall of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, AL, and having decorated my office walls with MLK pictures and sayings, some of which I’m sure led to my invitation to speak. It hit me this morning, however, that I will always be unworthy to stand before such a congregation and offer them my learned wisdom. I have not lived their history, nor walked their life’s pathways. I can know so much; yet I will always know so little.