Monday, January 14, 2008

The Spirit's a Rockin' in Harlem

My father is turning over in his grave.

Last Sunday I attended the 9 a.m. mass at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, NYC. My wife and I had talked about going there for years to experience the Church, the Gospel music and possibly find a community.

I believe that my appreciation for the deep and rich sounds of Gospel music is directly tied to my Philadelphia roots. Philly has a rich musical history and I grew up listening to my older brother and sister's 45's of Doo-whop and classic Motown. Philadelphia was a stop on the Underground Railroad and reading the history in elementary school made me proud to be a son from the City of Brotherly Love. There was a certain beat in Philadelphia music, a combination of the Gospel, Blues, Doo-whop and jazz that created a gutsy, griding and truly soulful medley.

The M60 bus travel time from where we live in Queens to Harlem is just thirteen minutes so, we arrived 125th Street and Lennox Avenue with plenty of time to walk the thirteen blocks to 138th Street where
Abyssinian is located. Ten years ago we looked at renting an apartment in Harlem but by that time the neighborhood was so gentrified that it was untouchable. Strolling up Lennox Avenue the brownstones on the wide side street are neat, tight and well maintained. I thought, "Oh, how I wish I could have been here in the 20's, 30's and 40's. What a time, what a place!"

We arrived the Church and mulled around looking as if we new where we were going and one of the Church members kindly and silently led us to the entrance and were immediately felt welcomed. We knew that a lot of tourist buses would soon be unloading hundreds of curious visitors and we quickly went up to the balcony to get a sweeping view of the Church. Taking our seats in the second row of pews parishioners smiled and wished us good mornings and the Church staff handed us the days program. There was a real sense of community and sincere friendliness and my anxiety over being an outsider quickly subsided.

After the female minister informed us that the Rev.Calvin Butts was traveling and that a guest Reverend would be speaking she rattled off at least two dozen announcements that ran the gambit from the Baptist Weight Loss Challenge to a call for volunteer life coaches. The woman sitting next to me introduced herself extending a hand and asked if this was my first time to the church. The Musical Director walked to the piano looked up to the Choir perched above the altar and commenced in a soul lifting rendition of "Great and Glorious." I felt tears running down my face as a young female Choir member let spill forth some of the most beautiful notes I have ever heard. "So this is what it means to have the Spirit move you," I thought. It does and it continued throughout the service. I wished that my own religious up bringing had a rockin' House like this one. Maybe I would have stuck around longer and continued its traditions and practices.

The guest Rev. Delman Coates sermonized about Non-Prophet Churches which tickled my non dogma beliefs and I stood and raised my hands to the ceiling when I identified with the good Reverend's message that, "Cities can find the money to finance new sports stadiums and not fix their schools is..."

An hour and half flew by and when the Service concluded more parishioners greeted us and asked us to come back next Sunday. We agreed and danced our way out into the fresh winter air with the beat of the Spirit in our souls of our shoes.

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