“Competing To God” — South Church MLK Day 2014

There is an argument that happens within churches about what it means to worship.  For some, majestic music is the thing that gets us close to God. For some of us, ties to others in the denomination and mission does it. For some churches, (not my church, but some churches) worship rises and falls on the sermon or the preacher. In some churches, the thing that makes worship is the altar call.

For me, the thing that makes worship is community and experienced theology. If, at the end of worship, you have experienced what it’s like to be a Christian, worship has done it’s job. The day each year that I know that happens at my church — South Church in New Britain, CT — is Martin Luther King Day worship. This year was no different, and — though choosing between great things is difficult — may have been the best ever.

Worship this year, instead of featuring three churches who share space at 90 Main St, it featured four. (We’re doing something right at South Church to have that, but more about that later). This year, sharing our building are South Church UCC/First Baptist New Britain (the church I normally attend), plus Manantial de Cracia (a hispanic church), Another Chance Ministries (an African-American church) and Peace Missionary Baptist Church (a second African-American church) each with their own worship style.

I don’t think that quantity is the issue here. It is the mystery of whatever happens when people do there best to express their love for God. Sunday’s whole worship was more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, as though the churches egged each other on to better and better worship, making everyone (especially God) look better.

There is not a typo in the title. It occurred to me as worship progressed Sunday that in the world outside, people argue about as though we were competing for God — as though one of us owned the title to God.  None of us do and all of us do.  None of us own God. God owns us and our lives. We do our best approximation of what that means. See what I mean about “Mystery”?

So here’s what happened on MLK Sunday 2014: Manantial’s musician David Gonzalex started off with an improvisation and worship seemed good-normal as George Harris, our pastor led us into our standard welcome and news.Then we really kicked it up a notch with the hymn, “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” in classic march/sway style I had never heard the song before seminary, but a classmate, Steven Clover proclaimed it one of his favorites and it’s stuck with me. George began congregational prayer with a review of “dream” passages from the Bible and our response of “I have a dream!”. The Spirit rose up with each time we spoke. It was getting good at 90 Main.

Following this was one of the sweetest, strongest, most heartbreaking (and heart mending) versions of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” I have ever heard, sung by Pastor Pauline Wilkins of Another Chance Ministries and supported by the church’s choir.  Known to be one of King’s favorites, the song was a tribute to him and the God he served. She was incredible and I thought to myself, “There’s no way Anthony (DeDominicis, our soloist) was going to be able to outdo that”.  His version of “Ride On King Jesus” more than held its own, though, and the people who should know — musicians in the various choir roared their support.

Prior to and after Anthony were scripture verses from Proverbs and the Revelation to John read in English and Spanish by members of each of the churches, with one of our leaders, Yvette Ghannam, reading in Spanish.  After the scripture, there was a beautifully quiet and moving liturgical pantomime done by a girl from Manatial de Gracia,  Jedxenia Gonzalez-Santiago. The Spirit had moved the gathered congregations to a speedy crescendo and now had circled back around to make sure we were all together in community.

At this point, Pastor Maritza Gonzalez preached in her  own unique style of rabble-rousing for God and God’s people. Maritza (one of the UCC’s own) compared Martin Luther King’s speech to the poem by Langston Hughes about the dream deferred. She reminded us that King’s dream of a better, less-violent, more fair, world was deferred. She spoke of sexism and racism and being Puerto-Rican and American and called us to dream our own dreams in this time and in this place.  She spoke of small steps for justice and healing which had continued despite the general slide backwards in civil rights in our country and she attributed that constant push to the Holy Spirit, which was alive in this place.  As she spoke, my mind wandered back to Ron Brown and Katherine Fagerberg, former pastors at South church, one UCC and the other a Baptist, who had pushed to have the church become Open-and-Affirming (UCC) and Open-and-Welcoming (Baptist) on the days when such things were still very controversial. The had also welcome (African-American, Charismatic/Evangelical) Second Baptist to the place all those years ago while Sundays remained the most segregated day of the week. It was their small quiet and steady leadership for justice which had laid the path here.

Next, Peace Missionary Baptist Church did a song I’d never heard before called “Jesus at the Center” which was lovely and well-received, accompanied by Paulette Stevenson.  The Spirit continued to touch us and was noted by Pastor Barger from Peace Missionary who said, “This is what heaven will look like– all of these faces together” and we knew he was right. George Harris, our pastor, then took this and — without a mic —  ran with it in his prayer and call to offering when he acknowledged that Barger was right, and Maritza was right, and the singing was right to see this as The Beloved Community, but was aware that MLK Day was like a New Year’s Resolution that didn’t always live up to its promise the rest of the year, even if it felt good and right. He asked his colleagues at 90 Main to not let that happen this year as this was all so incredible. Again, we knew he was right.

George then spoke about a tragedy which had happened in the community we all connected to — the shooting of a very young boy in Hartford due to gun violence and the decision to support his healing with our joint Sunday offering.

Somewhere in there, what is now my favorite African-American hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” made my heart skip a beat. The song is not about my culture — we didn’t suffer the “chastening rod”, but the song talks about faith and progress and hope despite evil and I have been lucky enough in my life to witness the power of that song many times over. For that, I am forever grateful, even if I don’t really have a right to be.

Of course, we closed with the song most associated with King, “We Shall Overcome”, and with Pastor Wilkins’ help it became a community-building exercise all unto itself as we were asked to stand with someone we hadn’t met. then hold hands, then hold hands across our bodies. She responded to George’s call to be accountable this quickly and the mix of congregations went with her lead.

Next there was a benediction by each of the pastors, including an African-American man I had not seen earlier who was nearly crying with joy at the burgeoning Spirit among us.

David Gonzalez did a postlude which was no doubt beautiful, but many of us were abuzz about the community and couldn’t wait to get out there doing the work of The Spirit in our community. Musicians and pastors moved toward him and took it all in.

We had outdone ourselves — each of us — for God and the community. There was pride, but there was no Pride-over-the-other-church. There was pride in the God who had brought us all together that Sunday, January 19, 2014.  This is as it should be. We knew the gospel that day, because we were the gospel that day.

I give thanks to all for the experience and look forward to living it all year.





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