Lord, Have Mercy!


Amazing church hats are a staple of black Christian churches.

I have been going to church since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. In my nearly 37 years of attending Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, Bible classes, pastors' anniversary programs and so on, I have learned one thing: The black church has nuances that make attending a service an unforgettable experience. If you have never been to a black church, here are some of the interesting things you can look forward to:

• People dressed to the nines. Members put on their Sunday best in the form of tailored suits and shoes to match. Sequins, feathers and glitter are perfectly acceptable at 11 a.m., and you may see a daishiki or two in homage to the motherland. Women wear hats that rival any fascinator Princess Katherine or Beatrice may own, and those without hats show off hairdos that they suffered for hours to get the day before at the salon. For the children, ruffles and lace are essential for the girls, and young men choose to keep it simple with a starched shirt and slacks unless their parents say otherwise.

• Singin' and shoutin'. Whether it is an ensemble or choir, expect music that will either have you on your feet or have you in tears. There's nothing like an upbeat song that inspires you to make it through next week, or an inspirational song that makes you thankful that you survived last week. The soloist may hold a note long enough to earn a Guinness World Record if he or she is moved by the lyrics. Also, the musicians play hard enough to set the instruments on fire if the song is upbeat. I think every church drummer should have at least six drumsticks with them for each service because the likelihood of breaking at least two is quite high. Of course, the audience does its share of stirring up the atmosphere with clapping, dancing and getting new clothes all sweaty.

• "Preach, pastor!" I have heard that exclamation more times than I can count. A sermon is an interactive experience, so the occasional "Amen!" Or "You better say that!" Is common—even expected —because the positive feedback encourages the speaker. There is nothing like a fiery sermon to grab your attention for the next 20 minutes (could be 90 minutes depending on the speaker's enthusiasm.) Thanks to African influences, some ministers preach with a rhythm that most rappers cannot compete with. For example: "Aaaaand—heh—when Jesus met Nicodemus—heh—in the midnight hour—heh—he told him—heh—that you muuuuuust—heh—be born again—heh ..."

Mind you, not all black churches are the same, but most of them have at least one of the characteristics I just mentioned. These qualities are what make coming to church so much fun—and what makes you want to come back for more.

Suggested reading: "Preaching in Black and White: What We Can Learn from Each Other" by E. K. Bailey and Warren W. Wiersbe (Zondervan, 2003, $19.99) is an analysis of the similarities and differences in preaching styles in black churches and white churches, common stereotypes and political views. The book is written as a dialogue between the two authors, so reading it is like watching an interview and can be quite captivating.


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