Historic church visit enjoyable, valuable decision

As I write what you read now, it is last Sunday afternoon, after Kever Avot, our annual pre-Rosh Hashanah cemetery visit to recall and honor those we love who have predeceased us.
I visited many family graves during a recent stay in my hometown, but I remembered everyone again as I placed a stone on the local grave of my husband. And this was certainly a far different Sunday experience for me than the one I had just a week before …
On Sept. 10, I was in a small group of National Federation of Press Women members who stayed on after the conclusion of the group’s annual conference (this year in Birmingham) for a four-day tour of the homes, and other places of importance, in the lives of Alabama’s most honored writers. Our first stop — and its picture graces the front of the state’s official Civil Rights Tour brochure — was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the first pulpit of Martin Luther King before he became a figure of history. Its name has long since been expanded to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and it is a current candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This was an auspicious Sunday for our group of 30-plus to visit: It was the church’s Women’s Leadership Day Celebration, with all elements of the service introduced and/or led by women, some of whom are ordained ministers; current Pastor Cromwell A. Handy, latest in the line of MLK’s successors, had only a minor role.
The enthusiasm with which Black worship is so often portrayed on TV and movie screens was somewhat in evidence — but only somewhat. Decorum ruled. Parishioners arrived wearing what I would call “Sunday best,” their young children in suits and party dresses. The nearby parsonage which was once MLK’s home is now a museum; although it is closed on Sundays and no tours of it or the church are given on those days, there is a sign welcoming all to worship. And indeed, our group was warmly welcomed by the large congregation already in attendance as we entered and took seats on several of the old wooden pews toward the back of the second-floor sanctuary.
A period of quiet meditation with an organ music background preceded the Call to Worship: “…we are God’s handiwork, created to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth…”
After several readings and musical selections, by percussion ensemble and choir, came the formal recognition of visitors. As we entered, we had been given press-on cards to fill out with our names and addresses. Then, when the offertory was taken — called the “celebration of giving” and involving the ritual passing of collection plates — we were asked to remove those badges from our clothing and drop them into the plates, so the church would have a record of its visitors. (Of course, all of us also contributed something more tangible to the collection…)
But what was most interesting, and most touching — quite literally: As money flowed and music played, everyone rose, and many parishioners left their rows to walk where we visitors were standing, to give us handshakes and hugs, and to say, “God loves you, and we love you.” There was no reason to doubt their sincerity.
In our visiting group, only three of us were Jewish, and afterward, we talked a bit about the service, which we found paradoxical — very informal in a very structured way — but a most enjoyable and valuable learning experience. I didn’t hear anything from the Catholics among us, but the Protestants, almost to a woman, said they’d be much happier if their own church services were more like the one we’d just attended and participated in.
And that — the participation of loving and giving — was my takeaway from this very special interfaith Sunday.

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