"I want to testify." A large black woman in blue-flowered dress stands swaying slightly, heavily, "I want to thank God for coming with me on this journey..." her voice trails off, and her body becomes quiet.
"Oh, Jesus," she breathes, from far-away rapture, "how do I love you tonight." Soft heartburst, it spirals upward from the sweet intimacy of her soul's commingling with the Holy Ghost.
I am in the house of exaltation. I came here, to the Apostolic Prayer Temple, a storefront in between a nightclub and a fish market in Encanto, to see the Rev. Tom Shaw in the Gospel setting that is so much a part in his life. He is playing his guitar, sitting in the front of this small, bare white room, with its eight rows of pews that were just moved in today. But he is subdued, not as active as some of the others here tonight.
"Sweet, Jesus, I thank God for Jesus!" A black woman in long white satin gown grabs a tambourine and beings to shake it high over her head.
"Testify, it's good to testify," urges the Rev. Shaw. The tambourine lady raises her hand, turns to the congregation — about 20 people here, mostly blacks.
"Brother Somerville said on Sunday, you all remember, to give $3 as offering to God, and I want to testify here tonight that I thank God for giving it back to me, and more, because you see at my job today I got $5 more. So when God says to give, I'll give even if it's the last I got, because I know he's got somethin' on the way."
She laughs, joyful, and earnest. "You know it's on the way, brothers and sisters, on the way!" The room grows warm with responsive cries of "Sweet Jesus!" "Yes, yes, thank you Jesus!" "Amen, 'men!"
A very old black woman, huge, with white hair pulled back from her face and wearing a long blue ceremonial robe embroidered in gold, makes her laborious way up the aisle. She takes her place behind the pulpit, bids everyone stand and give thanks. Some stand with arms raised to the ceiling, some clap to the singing, others pick up drums, tambourines, castanets, guitars — each choosing what it is at this moment his best instrument of celebration. The room is warmer still, a heavy musky scent in the air, cries growing more intense as people away in transport, and the old lady finally must sink into her armchair behind the pulpit, still singing out, now moving her head in large, slow circles of passion, now raising her arms in jubilation.
The tambourine lady now begins to jump, a strangely mechanical motion, her arms hanging limp at her sides, her eyes shut tight. She is elsewhere, oblivious of the woman she is moving into who pays her no mind, just keeping her motion, then suddenly arms shoot out in a wide embrace of what I cannot see, and she cries, "Yes God yes God yes God hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah" again and again, so many times more, until word becomes sound signifying ecstasy, and from deep within her comes one continual "Hallelelelelelelelelel..."
Three times more this night I see her, in ritualized preparation, begin to jump, jump like a marionette moved by sacramental strings, until suddenly it enters her, arms flung out she receives the orgasmic shattering of unendurable joy — and then, in a state of grace, incomparable relief, her thanks begin to flow.
Six little children in the pew before me are enthralled with the lady, carefully watching her every move. They, like me, are only witness here; but for them these experiences will be integrated into what is theirs, delicately woven into total tapestry. For me, it was old men dovinning in magnificently embroidered taluses of gold and royal blue threaded through gleaming white satin, indistinguishable words strung together in a hum in the sanctified air, and my feeling that these ancients had always been thus — in slow and reverent rocking on their heels giving body to what was holy — and always would be.
The lady offers to lay hands upon and pray for anyone who wants something, anything of God. This is truly a democratic, participatory worship — anyone is empowered, at any time, to give blessing, cry out revelation, testify, shout in despair, dance in exaltation — whatever their embattled or enlightened should require they know they can do, in this atmosphere of total, full-hearted support.
A man gets slowly to his feet, holding and twisting his hands behind him, turning to look at each of us as he speaks.
"I don't really belong here," he begins.
"Yes, you do brother, yes you do," from all around the room.
"I'm a backslider, you see." Cries of "Amen, amen." "My father was a minister, passed away when I was 17, not I'm 28. you know how they always say a minister's son is the worst."
He is interrupted again with cries of "Beses you, bless you brother."
"Well, I was walking by and I couldn't help but come in, it sounded so sweet, and I'd like you all to pray for me." The Rev. Shaw puts his hands on the man's head, others circle around him, laying hands on him.
"Please deliver this man, "prays the reverend. "Come on in, come on in, come on in, come on in. Teach him. Father, teach him. Father, teach him." The others echo the reverend, there is a great swaying and crying out, all the energy in the room is concentrated within this circle as minutes go by.
Then the circle dissolves away, everyone seeming momentarily drained from the exertion. The prayed-for-heads for his pew, but before sitting down he repeats again and again, like one just rescued from disaster and still in a state of shock: "I was just on my way —" he points in the direction of the nightclub next door, "I was on my way to the club..."
The service is ending. The old lady, elder of this church, calls on various people in the front of the room to preach. One is a white guitarist who has been near the pulpit the whole time, obviously one of the regulars here, not just a passerby. I have been watching him for some time, trying to understand why I cringe so from him. On his guitar there are letters that read: "Are you SAVED! JESUS SAID: I am the way the truth and life no man cometh unto the Father buy by me."
"I thank Jesus," he is saying, "for bringing me out of the bars and the nightclubs, and I serve God because I love him, I love him, I look for the days when he will be seen more on the highways and the byways."
He smiles always, a manic gargoyle grimace, his face cracked into deep lines, his eyes become slits. "There's deliverance in this kind of meeting," he proclaims avidly," it doesn't matter the color of our skin, we're all children of God, no chains anymore, devil can't get you."
Among these innocents he stands out, the indoctrinator, the whiplasher, saying of course that the devil can get you.
"This country's goin' down, the Communists are comin', the devil's comin', but this army's gonna march on to victory, marchin' through the streets."
He softens a little from his martial approach, and now it is still harder for me to watch him. "There's no heartaches here, you know, there's love. This woman," gesturing to the elder, smiling his crackling smile, "This woman is like a mother to me. You know I've been where there was no love, no love, here there are no big Ls and little you's, we're all laborers together." He turns, embraces the old lady, and they stand thus for minutes, locked in his need.
Later he tells me that he's been a street preacher for a year and a half. Before that he played in clubs here and in Las Vegas.
"I wore a gold sequined vest, took pills to get high. I don't need that anymore. I traded in my sequined clothes, my Fender amp, all I need is this guitar." He points to the letting. "I advertise for Jesus."
It if Brother Reggie who is called upon to read from the Bible, to give a fitting finale to this evening. he is a short, powerfully built black, muscles bulging from his white t-shirt, and he has a round, cherubic face, round eyes, round mouth.
I have heard a lot of Bible readings, but never one like this. The Bible by Brother Reggie is not only read, it is shouted, sung, danced. He reads a passage or so, then takes off from there on a wild tangent of inspiration that brings the words closer to home, makes the text more meaningful here.
"You're rich tonight, even if you don't have a million dollars," insists Brother Reggie, leaving the pulpit and shooting towards us.
"You're rich, he shouts, "all you gotta do is reach up, reach up, reach up tonight!" His arms are reaching, he leaps from the shock of the raw energy he transmits.
And of Jesus: "He's so real, and so close, you could call him on the phone. Pause. "And you won't find the line busy. That lie is open, open, open all the time!"
He is circling the pulpit, he cannot be still, his body is shaking with his passion, running with sweat, now he struts like a heavyweight champ in the ring, now he leaps and stomps toward us. And in the midst of it all, he tells his own need.
"I've had preachers tell me you ain' no preacher. They run me out but still I'll tell what God tells me to tell. Don't never follow nobody. Follow Jesus. Don't even" he adds a little wistfully, "follow me."
The service is over, everyone filing out. Brother Reggie shakes my hand in his grip of power, says, "You've got a beautiful spirit, I was watchin' you and I know you're searchin' — you don't have to tell me. But God will come. God will come."
Our van is standing at the curb and Brother Reggie and the Rev. Shaw and the tambourine lady all exclaim over it: "We really need one like this for the church." "Let's claim it for Jesus," they laugh. "Let's lay hands on it for Jesus."
Heavenly transport is over; we are back on Imperial avenue in Encanto, and we give the Rev. Shaw a lift home to the end of Z Street.