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Godless but grateful with the Reverend Al Green

On a road trip this past winter, I did something I’d never done before. I went to a Sunday church service. Not just any service, but the two-and-a-half-hour praise fest at the Church of the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where music lovers flock from all over to see the Reverend Al Green in action. With a long drive to Texas ahead and half a day to spend in Memphis, my husband and I had picked Reverend Al’s church over Graceland on the theory that a living, rocking, joy-proclaiming icon beats a shrine to one who died of drug abuse. There was just one catch: those hours in a pew. “Let’s sit at the back,” I suggested. “When we’ve had enough, we can slip out and no one will notice.”

I manage pretty well in a church if I can pretend it’s a museum. I’ve exclaimed at the Caravaggios in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi, marveled at the stained-glass windows of La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. I’ve hunted for frescoes in obscure Tuscan churches the way some people hunt for white truffles.

But when worship enters the picture, I start to get twitchy. I think of my Jewish mother, whose schoolmates called her a Christ-killer. And my father, terrorized as a child by the doomful warnings of his missionary parents. He broke with their faith, but the fear of damnation dogged his steps like a hellhound. I can still see him late at night, in his cups, demanding that I tell him the purpose of life. I couldn’t have been more than 12, so I muttered something about fun. My father moaned. He banged the table with his fist. He practically shouted, “The purpose of life is to save your soul!” I didn’t yet know that my father is an alcoholic–that word was never spoken in our house–but I knew I didn’t buy that soul-saving business. In our house, religion was a scourge of souls.

My husband and I must have passed a hundred churches on our way to the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Some looked like schools, others like corporate offices. The grander ones could have passed for high-end malls. I expected flash and dazzle at Reverend Al’s church–gilt-trimmed porticoes, a parking lot worthy of a stadium. What we found was a modest white frame building where camera-toting tourists in jeans far outnumbered the regulars, identifiable by their regal bearing and flamboyant Sunday best.

A man who looked to be in his 60s cut a dashing figure in a purple suit with the sheen of a butterfly’s wing. Women old enough to have fought for voting rights had me feeling decidedly drab in my understated black pants and foot-friendly hiking shoes. Hot pink, flounces, hats that ranged from a gold fedora to a crown of fuchsia feathers…the sisters were strutting their stuff, every one of them in patent leather heels.

In the doorway I struck up a conversation with a dapper gentleman who beamed at the news that we’d driven all the way from Toronto. “You’ve come for the Word,” he said. Didn’t everything about me scream, “Unbeliever, come for the music?”

My father’s God-fearing parents, Plymouth Brethren missionaries, did not believe in music. They thought it was the devil’s work–along with everything else that smacked of fun. What would they have made of Reverend Al’s church? The call rang from the pulpit: “We gonna have FUN!” Lucky us, explained the assistant preacher. We were alive to get up that morning. Lots of other folks weren’t.

Reverend Al had clearly learned in his previous career that every star of song needs a warmup act. And this particular warmup was not too shabby. Up jumped the faithful to clap and sway to “God Did It.” Fun, indeed. Who knew? I sat with my hands in my lap as the the place throbbed with worshipful joy that was only just getting started.

Well over an hour must have passed before the Man himself took the pulpit, silver sneakers flashing at the hem of his robe. He has the girth of Santa Claus, with a grin that puts Santa’s to shame. In his free-form preaching, the dominant word is “Hallelujah!” I’d expected at least a nod to pointed oratory on the economic struggles facing his community. Census data released last year show that Memphis is by far the country’s poorest major metropolitan area. Jesus would have had a lot to say about that. But I had come for the music–and the musical high point was at hand. Reverend Al roused the flock to a frenzy of excitement. “Rock your faith!” sang the choir. And by God, they did, ever harder. Each time I thought the ecstasy tap had run dry, one more gusher burst forth.

The most fervent worshippers, all elegant women and none of them young, shimmied and shook as if on a celestial dance floor. Their more restrained friends pulled out fans to cool the heat of the inner world to which tidal feelings had swept them. One woman, aglow with sweat, paused to brace herself on a pew before the next wave of rapture.I felt like a witness to something as intimate as orgasm or childbirth. Meanwhile a bevy of tourists pointed their camera phones and clicked away (if the regulars minded, they were too polite to say so). We visitors had come for the music, but a church is not a concert hall. It’s a meeting place for a community of believers. And although I’m not a believer, I felt welcome among them.

As the service drew to a close, Reverend Al made an announcement. Sister Somebody-or-Other had brought fresh asparagus from her garden; anyone wanting a bunch could find her at the door. Too bad I wouldn’t be stir-frying some with mushrooms and a little chopped shallot. Oh, well. I was alive and in Memphis to share a Sunday morning with the happiest people I’d seen in ages. Godless, but grateful.

Speaking of musical icons, click here to read my post on Bob Dylan.

Posted by Rona

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