This past Wednesday evening I decided I could postpone no longer my encounter with the Seventh-Day Adventist church on Pleasant St. in Worcester, and so I worked up my courage and made the short drive over to the 7:00 pm Wednesday prayer service.
I have been apprehensive about immersing myself in the spirituality of the Adventists because of the larger goal of this project: I hope to communicate, from within each religious tradition, what they all seem to have in common, and what we all--whether practitioners of that religion or not--might learn from the particular way they orient themselves to the divine.
All I knew about the Adventists prior to Wednesday evening came from their national web site, which puts a strong emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Bible. I have never thought much of strictly literal interpretations of the Bible, and so I was concerned that I would find more to criticize than to praise in the Adventists--and I have no desire or interest in criticizing people's deeply held beliefs on this blog or in the book project to come.
But, as I noted last week, I hoped that an encounter with people whose beliefs were so different from my own might ultimately prove more illuminating than one with people with whom I identified more easily.
At 6:45 pm I pulled into the parking lot, which had just another car or two in it, and then came around to the front of the church, where two black men were shoveling and salting the steps.
“Is there a prayer service here tonight?” I said to one of them.
“Yes,” one of them said, giving me a look that was somewhere between surprised and suspicious.
I faltered, and then worked up my courage again.
“Is it . . . open to anyone?”
“Oh yes,” he said, and then he took on a more friendly tone. “I'll open up the sanctuary for you.”
So I followed him in the front door, through a hallway, and into the foyer at the back of the church. My guide left me alone there, and so I was free to wander through the back foyer and out into the church itself. What I saw there I will save for a future posting, but suffice it to say now that--as a musician--I was immediately excited at the prospect of attending the service on Saturday. There was no doubt, from the equipment and set-up that I saw, that music would be a major part of this service, and that the music was going to be loud and awesome.
I went back and stood in front of a pamphlet rack in the foyer, planning on stopping the first person that came in, introducing myself as a newcomer, and asking them to orient me and let me know what I should expect at the service. Fifteen minutes went by, though, and still I was the only one in the church. I finally went and sat down in a pew, admiring the church's beautiful interior and wondering whether the weather--we were just off a six-inch snowfall--meant that I would meet no one that evening.
I was about ready to give up when a well-dressed black man about my own age came in and sat down with me. He introduced himself, and seemed delighted with my explanation that I was simply here to learn a little bit about the Adventists. He told me all about the church, about how tonight's prayer service would work, and about the schedule for Sunday's worship services, which began at 9:15 a.m. and went into late in the afternoon.
“We're here all day,” he said with a laugh.
He let me know that he would be preaching this Saturday morning, and he really hoped I would come back for the service. I'm not sure I have ever felt as welcomed or attended to as I did in the few minutes we sat there alone; he seemed so sincerely delighted to have me in the church that I felt immediately at home there.
And yet, as we were speaking, I was beginning to suspect--based on the reaction of the men outside, and upon some of the things I had seen in the church--that I had wandered into a situation in which I was going to stand out from the regular worshippers in more ways than one. Before I could ask him the question that was now in the forefront of my mind, though, a handful of others began to straggle in. Each of them initially gave me that same curious look I had received from the men outside, and then smiled warmly and introduced themselves to me.
By the time we were all in and ready to pray, I knew the answer to my question:
Yes, I was going to be the only white person in the church tonight, and likely would be again if I came back on Saturday. This was a black Adventist church.
Of course it made no difference to our purpose that evening, and nobody said a word about it, neither I nor they. I was certainly glad I didn't know about it before I decided to come down that evening; it would have been one more source of apprehension for me, and so perhaps one more reason I might have postponed the visit or changed my mind about exploring the church.
But I will stop here for now, and post again next week to describe what happened when the service began and the group of us sat down (and sang, and stood up, and held hands, and hugged) to pray.