Soul Searching at the Thessalonia Baptist Church

“America has always had a problem with racism,” said the guide for the benefit of the foreign tourists, which was everybody on the bus but me that January Sunday morning as we left Times Square on the Harlem Gospel Spirituality Tour. During the 40-minute drive north to Harlem he gave us a quick history of the reasons Harlem came to be, and how, as a result of the Great Migration of blacks out of the south,  developed its distinctive African Americans culture that has drawn curious whites ever since.

“You might want to leave your coats on the bus,” he said as we pulled up in front of the Thessalonia Baptist Worship Center. “It will be warm in there.” Then he briefed us on the protocol: Photos permitted but not videos. There would be a collection, but giving was optional—he carried a check for the church. Be ready for his signal: “We won’t stay for the whole service, just about an hour.”

Inside, Black men and women milled, beautiful in their Sunday clothes, as the early service gave way to the late one. Greeters showed us to the rear pews. Young women in white dresses and young men in dark suits with white boutonnières passed out programs along the aisles. It was warm in the church beyond physical heat—it glowed with the warm spark of souls connecting.

Choir singers took their places on a raised dais behind the pulpit and lecterns. The congregants settled, listening as a keyboard player and drummer laid down a quiet groove. Their music stopped at the deacon’s signal. The choir lifted their throats and began to sing. Hymn verses appeared on TV monitors above us and the congregation joined in. The patterns of an ordinary church service unfolded: A lesson read, parish announcements, another lesson, alternating with hymns. The young ushers passed collection plates. I was already so moved, I placed the last $20 in my wallet in the plate. (I would regret that later when the guide said it was customary to tip the bus driver.)

Next up, according to the program, was the “Worship Experience.” It began like a hymn, but slowly grew into something more. Voices rose and the sound grew, like the church was a belly and this was something quickening inside it. Two phrases—of music and of words—interwove in a free-flowing call and response. It was tuneful but couldn’t be termed a melody. The paired phrases on the monitor started out with something like “Oh Lord come down” and “Fill us with your glory,” but morphed every few minutes into some other pair of phrases. The music had a harmonious life of its own. It would seem bound for a concluding crescendo—but not conclude. Instead it calmed itself, collected its energy for another run at Glory, and began to swell again. The congregation swayed and sang in the pews. The sound itself seemed to fill the space until it pushed the walls like a fetus nearing term.

Some worshippers stood and raised their arms in a kind of introspective solo wave. Babies were passed among relatives to free more arms for raising. Those babies! So mesmerized by the music, there was no crying, no babbling, no wriggling, just solemn-eyed gazing or slumbering in the embrace of warm flesh and amniotic sound.

Silent tears leaked down my face, a silent witness—not singing, not praising, just feeling their soul, my soul, all God’s children’s got soul.

The driver’s signal came and we tourists crowded through the narrow foyer and down the steep steps like newborns spilling into the world. Back on our bus, the guide said, “They’re nowhere near done. There will be a sermon, another collection—then more singing like that. A good Sunday service takes three or four hours.”

I had found my soul, and it was singing still.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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