The hard rat-a-tat of the drums set the beat for the choir as they processed into the high-ceilinged church. Swaying, bouncing, and clapping, they mounted the stage and sang out in a near-shout over the booming bass, the organ, and the jazzy guitar. The shout gave way to bright harmonies as they repeated, "You ain't/Seen nothing/You ain't seen nothing yet." More shouts from the congregation, and a round of applause -- the first of many. Pastor Williams was presiding over his last Sunday at Bethel A.M.E. before moving on to Los Angeles. His voice rarely rose above a deep purr -- river-smoothed gravel. When he spoke, the shouting subsided, except to respond to his murmured "Amens."
After the Call to Worship and the Opening Hymn, Roderick Washington led the Celebration of Prayer, speaking from a low pulpit on the right. He begged "Father God" for forgiveness. "Where would we be without forgiveness, Father? For the darkness in our hearts would overtake us." As he prayed, Pastor Williams and Pastor Brooks knelt with their backs to the congregation, heads bowed, leaning into the seats of their carved wooden chairs. Throughout, congregants spoke out, "Amen!"
Washington continued, thanking God for life and for blessings, and asking blessings for the departing pastor, the incoming pastor, the sick, the homeless, the incarcerated ("Let them know that no steel bars can hold you back, Father!"), children, soldiers, and the bereaved. "There is darkness for some of us, Father. You are the light switch.... You bring us out of the darkness, and for that we say, 'Thank you.'" As he left the lectern, he dabbed a tear from his eye.
Call-and-response readings followed, and then the Creed. Then four congregants were baptized. "Father," said Williams, "we thank you this day for the privilege of baptism, for both the joy and the power that it brings. Thank you for those who have come to you to give their hearts over to you."
Williams addressed the candidates. "Baptism is simply an outward expression of an inward manifestation, an inward feeling.... We believe that each one of us is born into a world of sin. Baptism with water is one of the tangible ways that we can use through the sacrifice of Jesus to cover ourselves while we are still living." When Christ was pierced, "both water and blood flowed out. Therefore, the two most important liturgical acts in the church are baptism and Holy Communion." The candidates knelt. Williams drizzled water over their heads with his hand, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A group of youngsters put on a dance routine in the aisles, wielding plastic trumpets and drawing the congregation once more to its feet.
Pastor Terry Brooks, who was visiting, gave the sermon.
"Pastor Brooks!" said Williams.
"Pastor Brooks!" replied the congregation.
"Preach the Word!" (Again they repeated.)
"Until Heaven [repeat]...is satisfied [repeat]."
Before he preached, the Youth Choir rang out "I Am His." Then a woman launched into a gut-wrencher of a ballad, the last of the service. "Tell me what do you do when you've given your all/And it seems like you can't make it through?/Well, you just stand when there's nothing left to do/You just stand and watch the Lord see you through." Like the previous ballads, it built and subsided again and again, drawing round after round of shouts and applause, rising each time to a new height. "Don't you bow/Don't you bend/Don't you give up/Don't you give in..."
Enduring suffering was the theme of Brooks's sermon as well, though he generated such enthusiasm that he might have been preaching on the joys of paradise. More than once, the congregation all but drowned him out. Referencing Peter's imprisonment and rescue by an angel in Acts 12, he said, "'Angel,' in the original language, just means messenger. God takes him from incarceration to liberation by giving him a revelation!...The devil desires to have your joy locked up...but I have some messages for you! You're drinking your tears at night. I've got a message for you -- that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning!"
A little girl answered the altar call -- though preparing for baptism, she had not yet accepted the Lord Jesus. Williams had her repeat after him: "Dear Lord...forgive me for all that I have done wrong...and I ask you to come into my heart...I want to be saved...I want to be whole." Then he addressed God: "Thank you for this little girl that you have sent.... Bless her now. Amen."
What happens when we die?
"Every Christian believes that our spirits go to heaven, while our bodies go back to the dust," said Williams. "Our spirits live forever. Therefore, death is not a goodbye, but just a hello for heaven."
Denomination: African Methodist Episcopal
Founded locally: 1887
Senior pastor: Reverend Dr. C. Dennis Williams (departing)
Congregation size: around 2000
Staff size: 20
Sunday school enrollment: around 60
Annual budget: over $1 million
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes, for older singles
Dress: mostly formal -- suits and ties, dresses, and several fabulous hats
Diversity: almost entirely African-American
Sunday worship: 7:45 a.m., 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 2 hours, 10 minutes