The Gospel at First Presby

I was eight, maybe nine when my mother introduced me to Gospel at Colonus. That might seem odd, but remember that I was born in the ’70s. I grew up watching The Electric Company. I knew about Morgan Freeman before Lean on MeAnd that voice just captivated me, as it does to so many of us. Mom pulled out a vinyl record and sat me in front of our hi-fi, a spot where I would come to discover Synchronicity I, Born in the USA, and News of the World. But that is another story.

Gospel at Colonus became an obsession.

Faithful Reader will know that I grew up as an atheist, but my parents were not militant. I think at times I painted it that way to make my conversion more dramatic. Any militancy that I had in my own atheism came from me and my decisions. My parents were not hostile to the concept of God, they were simply disgusted with the realities of religion. So when I asked for a Bible, I got one. When I wanted to go to church, they would arrange it (although I didn’t go for the first time until I was 19, but again that is another story). Gospel at Colonus, which is a dramatic reading of Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles with gospel music interspersed, introduced me to the cadences of the Black Church; the use of call and response; the singsong delivery of spoken word. Morgan Freeman plays The Messenger. James Earl Jones makes an appearance as well. It is, simply put, a work of genius.

From Gospel I went to Mahalia Jackson. Again, still an atheist, but in love with gospel music. And not just Black gospel; Bluegrass gospel as well. That, Jesus Christ Superstar, an obsession with Judas, and studying the historical Jesus provided the foundation of my conversion

Last night at First Presby we hosted the African American Culture Works (AACW) Gospel Fest. Liturgical dancers from Jeraldyne’s School of Dance,members of the Central State University Gospel Ensemble, and preaching by Rev. Joshua Ward of Omega Baptist Church filled our stately sanctuary. The crowd could have been bigger, but those who were there allowed themselves to be moved and inspired. We paid homage to Miss Faith Patterson, a matriarch and inspiration to so many. She is having her homegoing this weekend, though she went to be with the Lord almost a year ago.

She was a queen.

I sometimes get side-eyes for how rooted I seem to be in the Black church. My influences are genuine; my experiences growing up, and the emphasis on race consciousness that was central to my education at Yellow Springs High School, have combined with my preference to be in worship situations in which we are demonstrative. Where we get up, we shout, we sing, we dance, we hug, we call out exclamations. Where we let the preacher know we agree by vocal acclamation. But I respect that such is not really the kind of congregation I serve. That’s cool. It is not my place to try to make something artificial. But when I get the chance to do something authentic? Wooooo doggy, you best believe I’m going to be all over that like gravy on biscuits.

On my left arm, I have tattooed three scripture references, each inside a multicolored ichthus. One of those scriptures is Galatians 3:28

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“There is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free; we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Unity in the Body of Christ does not mean that we ignore one another’s differences. In fact, being a Christian, I think, should make one more appreciative and aware of the wonderful diversity God has provided. If we want to understand who God is, we have to look into the eyes of others. We have to permit ourselves to be vulnerable, to prioritize others over ourselves when we are able, to affirm differences as part of what makes community so powerful.

The Associate Dean at United Theological Seminary, the wonderful Dr. Harold Hudson, and I were speaking a few weeks ago. I asked Dr. Hudson, “You gonna come to the Gospel Festival in Yellow Springs?” “I didn’t know you joined the AME Church,” he responded. “I didn’t,” I replied. “Are you a Baptist now?” he inquired. “Nope,” I assured him. “I’m still at the Presbyterian Church.” Wide-eyed, he asked: “Gospel? At the Presbyterian Church?!” I smiled, “that’s just how we roll at First Presby, Dr. Hudson. That’s just how we roll.”

There are times when we are able to stop being the White Church or the Black Church. Baptists or Presbyterians. And while a worship style may not be endemic to a particular denomination that does not mean that such worship cannot be had, authentically and joyfully, if God so wills it. If God so causes it to happen.

Gospel at First Presby.

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