Church #53, Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church

Date: 3/23/14

Church name/type: Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist- affiliations include: Hudson River Frontier Missionary Baptist Association, Empire Baptist Missionary Convention of NYS Inc, National Baptist Convention USA Inc

Pastor: Reverend Elgin Joseph Taylor

Style of worship: Formatted but in a way that seems mildly flexible.

Overall Impression: Good!

I actually have a lot of different things to say about this one. I guess I’ll start by giving my general impression. I liked this place. The people greeted me but didn’t overdo it. One woman named Penny greeted me before service and then spoke to me at length after service about the church. I don’t mean to say she was pushy- I was driving the conversation by asking about the church. She told me the pastor was new(ish) and had only been at the church about four years. I asked about the push or lack thereof to get current attendees to join either the church or Christianity. She told me the church and pastor are relaxed enough that one can show up frequently and not be hassled. That squares with the vibe I felt on Sunday. I didn’t get either a desperate “please stay!” or a high pressure “give your life to Jesus or Doom!” This might actually be a place I could show up again and feel comfortable.

Now, I’d like to describe the building. The outside looks in good shape, the sign appears new. Once inside you must ascend a somewhat daunting staircase to the sanctuary. The steps are just a little steeper than they need to be and this makes the trip a bit slow and ponderous. Just as you’ve despaired of finding anything special at the top of what seems an ill-designed stairway, the sanctuary swings into view. The space is bright and sun-kissed, lit by large but simple stained glass windows the color of watermelon candy. The floor is gently sloped downwards toward the altar as you might find in a concert hall. The benefit to this is twofold. First, you can easily see the altar area from wherever you decide to sit. Second, this design makes it easy to approach the altar as the gradient gives you a boost, almost like some combination of God, gravity, and the building designer want you at the center of the action, down near the altar. Above the altar are the giant, decorative pipes of a pipe organ. Above the pipe organ the ceiling is white, but highly detailed with lines and flat pieces like shingles. The whole effect of the ceiling is like that of a cake with lined and woven icing. The sanctuary is thus, very inviting.

Memorable bits of the service were the guest welcome and the liturgical dance. During the welcome they simply asked guests to stand and acknowledged they were glad we joined them that morning. The church was well-filled with people, but I didn’t get that- all turn your eyes on the newbie– neck turn that happens sometimes. I have not talked before about liturgical dance. So, in the same way we reach out to God through song, there is dance that is meant to be more prayer than performance. Liturgical dance is usually a slow series of movements that correspond partially or minimally with a piece of music suitable for church. The variety of liturgical dances I’ve seen are set to taped music, presumably to keep them uniform and keep the music from distracting from the dance you are seeing. This day’s liturgical dance was no disappointment. Four individuals took up places along the altar and performed. Meanwhile dancers stood in the aisles with long fans covered in fluttering fabric. Their motions were soothing and beautiful, and did feel holy in a way. I very much enjoyed the liturgical dance.

There were some other things I noticed as well ranging from intentional messages to subconscious messages this church was sending. There was a youth near the front making random movements and sounds, but bigger by far than a toddler. I imagine this young person was challenged in some way and the noises were not meant to be disruptive. What’s more, no one around was shushing or stopping it or acting annoyed. I tend to see this as a positive thing. If a mom or caregiver feels comfortable bringing an untypical child to a place, it speaks to the environment being one of welcome. In a broader sense I wonder if a church like this one (that encourages more noise from the congregation in general) is a better choice for someone with similar difficulties over, say, a church where silence is encouraged. It’s probably easier to have crying baby in a more vocal congregation as well.

Something I liked from the direct message (before the actual sermon) was the mention of fasting. I don’t remember if the term lent was used.* However I’m always happy when nuance is used, especially in defining ‘fasting’. Not everyone should be fasting from eating food. I’ve never done a food fast on purpose and my health issues dictate I should never do one. The pastor mentioned that we ought to fast, but he included the important qualifier that fasting need not be food. We can fast anything as a way to get closer to God, make us realize we are lucky, or just gain insight into ourselves. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve realized this or written about it on this blog, but it’s so nice to hear from the pulpit. One good point from the sermon itself (most of which I liked) was the point that sanctuary is not the building we worship in, but rather the presence of God we meet with. This was as from Psalm 73 verse 17. The gist of the verse is a man complaining that evil men reap good rewards. He wonders why, and can’t figure it out. Then he enters the sanctuary and finds peace. If we can find this place of peace, that’s good. I don’t mind someone having this and I think we all find it in different ways.

*The Catholic Church I was raised in pays an awful lot of attention to lent, but some denominations do less so. They may even drop the term altogether.

Church #48, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church

Date: 1/19/14

Church name/type: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist, unclear if there is any further affiliation

Pastor: Dr Robert Bradly

Style of worship: Songs were sprinkled throughout the service, which had a regular and straightforward format. It included scripture, prayer and collective reading as well as sermon and call to the altar for group prayer.

Overall Impression: I actually really liked it.

I arrived early this time and followed someone inside. I asked about the sanctuary and was directed up some stairs. Inside a bible study was happening so I sat a little back and tried to be quiet and respectful. The young woman leading the study took a second to say hello and handed me a book of the study material so I could follow along. The lesson was from Luke 14; the story of the wedding guests. We talked about the section in which Jesus instructs us to take the lowest spot at dinner, that we might be exalted to the highest spot. It warns that those seeking the highest spot will be downsized to the lowest spot. It’s a pretty standard Catholic lesson in humility and not seeking prestige, so it was not unfamiliar to me. I probably could have contributed if there’d been anything standing out to me. After the lesson was done several of the bible study membership approached me to say hello and welcome. Then they left me alone. They were very relaxed and low-key, which I like.

Once the service started a woman seated near me told me to come and sit by her; she’d tell me what was going on. I decided to take her up on this so I moved. (Minutes later, after I had decided to leave it in the other seat until the service ended, someone brought my warm hat to me from the seat I’d left.) My new friend’s name was Anna, and she told me what to expect at several key junctures of the service. Because of this and the format being listed in the church handout, I really had no trouble following along. At one point we were asked as a group for witness. This was more like news and updates. The sermon followed, continuing a few verses more into Luke.

The next part of Luke is again about a wedding feast. A man has invited a group of his friends to a wedding feast, but none of them show up. When he sends servants to them to ask what’s up, they beg off for various reasons. The host then sends his servants out to find anyone out in the street and bring them in as guests. One of the points that stood out to me in the sermon was the idea that this message relates to us today by representing the kingdom of God. We have to reach out to the people we don’t expect. We can’t only invite those we think belong. This is a strong message of accepting others and I really like it.

After the service a few more people came up to me to unobtrusively say hello. There was a bake sale in the basement so I hung around a bit and talked with a couple of the church members. They seem really nice. And they had what I’d consider the right balance of engaging me and leaving me alone. Everyone was warm but no one was pushy. Even during greeting time for visitors I didn’t feel forced- it was more ‘stand if you want to’.

Conclusion: I should come back here at some point.

Church #43, Union Missionary Baptist Church


Church name/type: Union Missionary Baptist (Not sure of the exact denomination)

Pastor: Reverend Victor E Covington

Style of worship: A regular format with portions for prayer, announcements, sermon and communion- heavy on music but less so on singable (for the newcomer) music

Overall Impression: Great! …until the very end

This church really had alot going for it. Of the several in a cluster on my project map, I chose one this week with a nice website. A nice website tells me 1) the church is still operating as a church 2) they realize most people are online these days 3) gives the service times 4) sometimes parking tips 5) denomination/philosophy. So I knew not everything would be a surprise at this place. I had to rush off to work afterwards and I didn’t want them springing a 3 hour service on me.

The service started with a thanks to God that we made it to today and God kept us safe. The ‘thanks for being alive’ stuff is something of a recent pattern in the churches I’m moving into at this point in the project. I guess it’s good to remember the simple stuff we forget we have. I find it hard to explain why but this church reminds me a little of the one I attended as a child. I think it’s partly the shape of the church and how the outside is plain and the inside is sunny. Also the people here seem open and friendly. The usher sat me next to a dad with a baby. She made silly faces at me most of the service.

I liked the way no one turned to look at me before I introduced myself at new visitor’s time. This week I was literally the only white person there, but I didn’t feel misplaced at all. I went up front during a call for prayer time. More than half of the congregation was up there so it didn’t feel weird. I liked the music which was an organ and drum set. It was very peppy and both performers really seemed to know what they were doing. I even recognized one of the songs (basically the Glory Be prayer set to music).

The sermon started by describing the two ordinances of Baptist churches; 1) baptism by immersion 2) communion. Then pastor went on to describe communion. The Lord’s Supper is something Christians have done together for 2000 years. We commemorate Jesus’ suffering at the hands of others. This reminds us that we are at fault and someone else suffered. I think it’s pertinent sometimes to think of our mistakes that have caused others to suffer, because once we acknowledge this we can learn. We remember Jesus suffered so we can have life. Pastor Covington said, “There’s no greater love than a man who lays down his life for his friends.” I do believe at the very least that Jesus sacrificed himself so twelve others wouldn’t be killed. I think we should always honor those who suffer so we can have__. We also heard that communion is a celebration and also contemplation and it’s a very important thing.

Then came the bit that seemed kinda like a turnoff. Pastor Covington said that we cannot come to the the table if we are committing sin or have not been saved. He said he does not practice an open communion. He named a list of sins that were unacceptable to communing. He said he didn’t mean to turn anyone away and that we ought go get right with God and come receive. But the thing is, he is deterring people with words like this. He was closing communion to me because I probably don’t fall into his category of ‘the saved’. The worst part about this week was that I really felt nice at this place. I wanted to return- I still do. It’s just hard to hear that I’ll never be welcome to take communion with them if I don’t do it their way and have a saved moment. I think I am safe. I think I am alright. It feels wrong and unnecessary to question this to myself. So I’m left very mixed about this one.

What did you wish happened: I really wanted to see what the membership was like to talk to. I was sorry that I had to head to work right at the end. This is why I still might return. The people all seemed warm and friendly and a number of them said hello and even remembered my name. Still very torn on my church assessment…

Church #40, Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Albany

Date: 9/15/13

Church name/type: Mount Calvary Baptist, part of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc

Pastor: This church is in a transition to a new pastor who hasn’t been chosen/found yet. Our guest pastor was Reverend Gertrude Harris of Macedonia Baptist Church.

Style of worship: I found the format had a surprisingly formal structure for songs, children’s time, announcements, prayer, scripture and sermon. It ran a bit long, but the length was from singing and announcements rather than a drawn-out sermon.

Overall Impression:
Seems pretty good

So another baptist church with mostly black membership. This time I felt less awkward and out of place. By comparison to this church, I think I figured out why I disliked Metropolitan Baptist. The size was too big. I had this problem also with Bethlehem Community. I don’t want to go overkill describing these other two churches so I’ll just say that size matters and a church can be too small, but it can also be too big. Thankfully Mount Calvary Baptist was neither of these things.

So this church had a good bulletin. It clearly outlined all parts of service and gave numbers for the hymns in their hymnal. It also had a short statement at the top which read:

This is the house of God. Be thoughtful; be reverent. Speak to God before the service, let God speak to you during the service and speak to one another after the service.

It’s nice to have such a statement for newcomers because it sets a tone regarding expectations. Actually there was still an amount of speaking during service. I was greeted by a man sitting near me and by the entire congregation during the ‘greeting of visitors’. I was asked to say my name and anything else I would like to share. I said my first name and that I was seeing different churches around Albany. A few people came up to me after service to chat briefly as well. It was kind of nice to feel not ignored.

The sermon was energetic, but never dissolved into something unintelligible. The pastor shouted out some of the message, but in a way different from other shouted sermons I’ve heard; I’m talking about the ones where it’s all catchphrases- “God is yes. God is amen!”- Those make zero sense to me. Nor was it a simple recitation of a bible story. The sermon was about the prophet Jeremiah and the Babylonian captivity. Pastor told us Jeremiah is sometimes called the weeping prophet. He has a massive amount of bad things in his life. He was put into a pit, beaten, disowned and arrested. His whole life was changed by the Babylonian capture of the land that was Judah. Part of the Book of Lamentations is him complaining about all this. I think I would. And of course we do complain. Pastor said we find it hard waiting on God when everyone else gets — (fill in your own desired thing). But somehow the pastor managed to make the message seem hopeful. The energy with which she described our own struggles made it feel like the whole church was alive, and like struggles are not so bad. The strength of her voice and the shouts from the congregation rose to such a pitch it was as though we were talking not of sadness and struggle but of triumph and success. Then the moment passed and the sermon was ended. And I’m having trouble figuring out just what made the talk(shout) so dynamic and happy when it was something of a downer for poor Jeremiah. I guess that’s part of what to carry away from this week’s adventure. Part if life is how you see it. Sadness can increase if you see your life as sad, or decrease if you see it as hopeful. As someone who has been depressed at times I realize this answer is somewhat simplistic. Yet I’m drawn to it because it advocates examining one’s outlook. And that’s definitely one important aspect of dealing with life’s problems.

Website?: No website. They should definitely get one. Either that or a Facebook page. Great churches need websites today in our age of information. At least that’s how I see it.

Church #37, Metropolitan New Testament Missionary Baptist

Date: 8/18/13

Church name/type: Metropolitan New Testament Missionary Baptist, part of the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc

Pastor:Reverend Dr Damone Johnson

Style of worship: praise music first, message, altar call (any coverts today?), closing

Overall Impression:I’m having a hard time with the impression synopsis this time, and don’t know if a short tidbit will do it justice. Please skip ahead to the thoughts section.

So to start with, this church is technically out of order. When I programmed my list I just typed the word “Second” into my maps program and it must have auto filled the word “Avenue” instead of “Street”. So I went to church on Sunday knowing that technically it is way too early for this church. Why did I do this? Well part of my project is to see things I haven’t before. This church is the first Baptist variety for another page and a half. Also since I’m trying to be open to this thing I call spirituality, I decided to just treat it like the spirit moved me this way. Maybe God wants me at this church right now. I thought- hey maybe I’ll find something awesome there. Well, here is what I found.

Parking was slightly confusing. The entrance seems to be at the back around a side street. I managed it and went inside. So, based on the website pictures, I had a feeling this church might be predominantly African American. Yup I was right. It’s hard to describe what it was like walking into this church. I’m pretty bad with numbers, but I guess there were about 200 people inside. I think I was the lightest face there. I’ve never felt so aware of what I looked like. I kind of knew I’d feel different, but it’s incredible how striking the feeling is, especially with the added fact that I showed up alone with little idea what to expect. I was pretty sure I stood out like a sore thumb. Is this what the 1% black population at my high school felt like every single day? For the first time in the life of my project I couldn’t decide if I was annoyed or relieved that so few people greeted me. It’s changing my ideas about greeting newcomers as once again, I gain new experiences. It may be less of a good thing to be greeted profusely if one is already afraid of standing out as different.

Ultimately I think I wanted someone to talk to me from the church lay leadership or pastoral staff, but I didn’t catch any of them and they didn’t catch me. Once again I found a church with no coffee hour. And I kinda lost track of which one the pastor was after service, so I never got to talk to him. It’s not the first time this has happened, but usually I’m able to figure it out from the context of them greeting everybody at the door on their way out. There are churches whose pastors (and deacons) dress more obviously pastor-like. All it takes is a name tag, or cloth drape, or little white collar to make the pastor stand out. That would be helpful, because I’m totally unwilling to go up to someone and wrongly guess they are a pastor. It’s just not gonna happen. Last week I greeted the deacon, thinking he was pastor and felt weird enough. Maybe I’ve been sitting too far away.

Anyhow, the service itself was familiar enough. The music was great, performed by a youth-ish choir called (from the bulletin) Metro Stars and the Drake Chorus. The message was roughly in the middle going through some verses in I John. I liked the fact that he mentioned the Gnostics and went a bit in depth in terms of context; the fact that John would have been a young disciple when Jesus was around, now writing a letter in older age to one of the churches. Pastor also mentioned that John was among the three disciples Jesus was closest to; Peter, John and James. And he spoke about the nature of Jesus, stating he was not 50% God and 50% man but rather 100% God and 100% man. He said, “If you try to understand it, you’ll lose your mind.” The Catholic Church would call that a mystery. The fact that it doesn’t make logical sense is part of the point. I’m still working on how I feel about the use of logic in religion. There’s a fair amount of religious stuff that works metaphorically. That conversation is probably for another post.

In the end, since I couldn’t figure out who was church leadership, and no one approached me, I just left. It was a little disappointing a guess. And I’m not sure why God wanted me at this church on Sunday, or if there was nothing more to the mistake.

About what I wrote:I’m really not very happy with this post. I guess that reflects my experience with the church. It seemed like an ok place, but I’m still feeling dissatisfied. It is also why I waited so long to add this up on the website. But it’s got to go up at some point so I guess now is that point.