"He hath sent me to proclaim liberty to captives," read the Scripture verse painted on the side wall. The Lucite lectern bore the church's logo: a crown imposed over a tilted cross, itself imposed over a pair of hands breaking a chain. Bursts of "Hallelujah" and "Thank you, Jesus" dotted the room before the service; a woman roamed the space, crying, "Come on; say a prayer for Him!" and the congregation responded with applause and a gathering volume of outcries. By the time the band started -- rollicking electric piano, thumping six-string bass, rifle-sharp drumset -- the pump was primed. The five-woman choir repeated the refrain, "Let! All the people of God say!" while a soloist launched into Hallelujahs, riffs, and exhortations. The congregation joined in, and the sound became a pulsing, tactile thing, the way it might at a small-venue rock 'n' roll show.
"We're gonna have a time on today," said Rachelle Benson from the lectern before reading the responsive psalm: "Praise ye the Lord; praise Him in the Sanctuary; praise Him in the firmament of His power.... Put your hands together! He told you what to do!" That started up the music again, the song giving way to a succession of repeated refrains: "Yes, Lord; yes, yes, Lord! Wake up; joy is here!" ("In my home, on my job, even in my finances, Lord!" belted out the soloist.) "Hallelujah; you're worthy to be praised!" White-gloved ushers passed out fans for the overheated.
"The presence of God is here," said Rachelle. "That's what happens when you worship; that's what happens when you praise Him. His presence comes, and He's happy to bless you.... You just have to stay steadfast...understanding that God is going to deliver you. It's not for punishment; it's for preparation.... Get ready to reap all the promises that He has made."
It was offering time. Four gold canisters sat on a Lucite stand. "Stretch forth and give God an increase," exhorted Rachelle as the bass kicked in, "so that God may increase in your life."
The choir sang as the congregants processed past the canisters, dropping in their offerings. "It's the season for the favor of the Lord! Pressed down! Shaken together! Running over! With the favor of God!" The four ushers lined up, arms folded, in front of the canisters, facing Rachelle, who stood weeping with her arm outstretched, praying a blessing over both the offering and those who offered.
Another musical outburst followed, during which an elderly woman stepped into the aisle, sobbing, and seized Rachelle in a prolonged embrace. By song's end, the air was filled with wails, howls, yelps of praise, and thanks. Ushers brought tissues to the weeping while Pastor Benson took the lectern and said, "Sometimes, God is so good to us that Scripture has not come up with a word to describe it. The only thing you can do is allow tears to run down your cheeks and just shake your head when you look back and see...what God did to show up and show out."
Pastor Benson's sermon began with two quotes from Scripture: God exhorting Samuel to stop mourning for Saul and go out to anoint the new king, and Jesus warning against putting new wine in old skins. "God is getting ready to elevate and give gifts, but He can't do it if you begin the year with old wineskins.... So often, we go into the New Year with a new mindset, but the same bad attitudes. You want God to give you new favor, but you're still holding on to old hate. This is the year you have to forgive your mother for not being there. Right here, right now, you have to forgive your father for abandoning you.... Everybody that you've held hostage, you have to release. New blessings will not fit into old..." "Skins!" shouted the congregation, which had been murmuring its "Amens" and "Say it, Pastors" throughout -- applauding, laughing, responding to Benson's earthy analogies as the spirit moved them.
Benson's voice gathered intensity. "God had to tell Samuel, 'Why are you mourning? You're not going to get anything from Saul. Get up!'" Speaking to the embittered, he cried, "You might not get an 'I'm sorry,' but you better get up! God wants to make a new king, and that king's name is..." "Jesus!" shouted the congregation. "God is telling you to step over that thing that's been in your way. You need to get over it to get past it! It takes some strength to get over it! You've got to have some tenacity to get over it! That's what the Holy Ghost is for -- not to take care of your issues, but to give you the power for you to take care of them!"
What happens when we die?
"God will be the judge," said Benson.
9617 Campo Road, Spring Valley
Founded locally: 2001
Senior pastor: Dr. William A. Benson
Congregation size: 300
Staff size: 5
Sunday school enrollment: 125
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes
Dress: mostly but not exclusively formal -- dresses, hats, suits, ties
Diversity: mostly African American, a mix of other ethnicities
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10:45 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 50 minutes