For extra credit in my "History of African-American Religion" class, I visited a church this morning that has mostly black congregants and a black minister. The following is the short paper that I wrote about my experience. I hope it touches you in a loving, peaceful way:
Hymn #431, “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, was the closing hymn at Bethel United Methodist Church on February 24, 2008, the day that I visited. I know every word of that hymn by heart. It was one that I sang growing up in the Catholic Church, and again, later as a teenager we sang it at my church of choice at the time, the United Methodist Church of Lake Orion. Even now, occasionally, out of the blue, that song bubbles up out of my heart and over my tongue. I was really surprised when I was singing it and I looked around, that almost everyone was reading and singing it out of the hymnal-even the choir members read it as they walked down the aisle. It was being sung by the book. I am used to singing that song from the heart, with more joy and celebration in sound. That is one of my all time favorite songs, up there with other church songs from my youth such as “Amazing Grace”, “Ave Maria” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” That last one was part of the service as well, but the congregation didn’t sing it. It was sung by a quartet which sounded beautiful, but it was hard for me not to sing along. It was sung slow and reverently. I had a more upbeat version in my head.
I chose to visit Bethel because I wanted to compare my experience in an all white town in an all white United Methodist congregation with an African-American United Methodist service. I was surprised at how much of the ritual aspect I had forgotten. (It has been about 20 years since I went to UMCLO.) I was also surprised at how much of the music was done by the choir, even though much of it was music I’d experienced as congregational hymns in other churches. In the United Methodist church of my teenage years, the choir (and sometimes the youth choir, of which I was a part) tended to perform songs that were more what I would consider “high church music”, not songs found in many hymnals across the country.
I focus so much on music in this writing because, to me, music is always in me and it is one of the ways that I connect to the divine. Music, for me IS prayer. (I believe that everything we do and say is a prayer, but I feel it consistently through music.) I often find myself humming when I am not initially aware of it. To me, God is love and love is peace and peace is music (often).
The sermon was on Peace. What peace means and how to find it. Rev. Dr. Tara Sutton’s sermon was very powerful and eloquent in a relaxed way. She spoke of finding peace through prayer and through helping others find some sort of peace in their lives. She spoke about gratitude and surrender (my word, not hers). She spoke about the peacemakers of the civil rights movement. She spoke about Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Her sermon included several bible passages about peace, and went into detail about the morning’s scripture reading, Luke 8:22-25. She spoke about praying as we make decisions throughout our day and throughout our lives. She spoke about praying for peace when we are troubled. She spoke about peace within and peace in the absence of war.
The service was as low-key as I remember the services at my former church being. Maybe low-key isn’t the right term. I guess maybe I mean calm. Peaceful. Comforting.
One major difference, other than the music, that I found was that I don’t remember having an altar call at our United Methodist Church in Lake Orion during Sunday services. There was an altar call at Bethel. In the past, I only remember that happening in other churches that I visited throughout my childhood, like the Pentecostal Church my oldest brother attended, and at the Billy Graham service I went to once. In the United Methodist context, I only remember that happening during a regional youth rally/conference that I went to and at a retreat called “Mountain Top” that I attended 3 or 4 years in a row where we went down to Appalachia and did service work.
Like the United Methodist church of my youth (and my current Unitarian Universalist Church), doing good works was an integral part of the message at Bethel. In the welcome packet that they gave me, there was a quote from John Wesley that I thought was beautiful and powerful and simple, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, for all the people you can, as long as you can.”
To me, that is what being human is all about. To me, that is what being a spiritual being is all about. To me, following that tenet is what living peace within and without is all about.