Today’s entry continues the narrative from last week, which describes my orientation to the Wednesday night prayer service at a black Seventh-Day Adventist church in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Once the prayer service itself kicked in, things only got stranger.
At the outset, there were just three of us present, although a few more would eventually join us over the course of the next forty-five minutes. The service opened with three hymns. The two others who were there with me, all of us sitting in pews near the back of the church, each picked out a favorite hymn or two, pointed me to the correct hymnal and page number, and then we launched into song.
Just three of us, a capella.
I don’t have much formal experience with singing, though I have been doing a bit of singing recently in a little musical side project. Still, it was difficult and disconcerting to have to join in on completely unfamiliar tunes in this context, trying to read both the tune and the words with no advance preparation. When there are forty people in a room, you can mouth the words and not actually sing; with just three of us in there, I had to do my best to belt it out and try to stay in tune. I would not have made it far on American Idol.
Fortunately, though, the male service leader had a great and powerful baritone, so eventually I realized I could just match my voice to his and get by. It remained enough of a challenge that I don’t remember anything about the songs themselves; I think I can say with certainty that they were about Jesus, but I wouldn’t venture anything beyond that.
By the time we were done singing, our group had swelled up to a half-dozen, and then it was apparently time to go around the group and state what you were thankful for. When my turn came, I muttered something vague about gratitude for my health and family.
Then we went around the circle again, this time stating what prayer intentions we had for the evening--another thing I had not prepared for. As I listened to the people before me asking for help for various family and health issues, I was wracking my brain to see what I could come up with. Finally it occurred to me that I could throw out the name of a friend who had suffered from several medical setbacks over the past year or two. So when my turn came, I mentioned this friend and briefly described her problem.
“What’s her name?” the service leader asked.
I hesitated, not wanting to expose her problem to the world, but then figured that it was highly unlikely that anyone in the room knew her. So I said her first name.
When we had all stated our intentions, everyone stood up, and so I did the same. We scootched out into the aisle, and then we formed into a circle and joined hands. I am not the most physically affectionate person in the world, especially with strangers—so as a friend correctly guessed afterwards, I was much more uncomfortable about having to hold two stranger’s hands than I was about being the only white person in the room.
At that point the prayer service leader designated three people as the ones who would speak for the group. So we all bowed our heads and closed our eyes, and one of the group members began praying for each of the intentions we had articulated. When he got to me, he not only prayed for a minute or two for my friend’s affliction, and referred to her repeatedly by name, but he also prayed for a few minutes for me—thanking God for bringing me into the church, and hoping that I would benefit from the service.
When he had finished, five or more minutes later, one of the other designated leaders took up the task, and also went around and prayed specifically for each of our intentions, again asking Jesus’s help for my friend’s medical problems in great detail and referring to her by name again and again. She also spent a minute or two thanking Jesus for bringing me to the service, always mentioning me specifically by name. When she had finished, a third leader followed suit in the same way.
The whole process took fifteen or twenty minutes, by the end of which—after dozens of repetitions of my friend’s name and medical problem—I could almost see her standing there in the midst of us. She had been invoked so specifically by each of the three prayer leaders, and they had spoken of her with such intensity and hope, that it was difficult not to feel as if we had done something good for her. I felt deep gratitude, as well, for the way in which they had invited both her and me into their prayer lives.
This was the real surprise of the evening for me. I had come into the church expecting to find people who believed in a six-thousand year old earth, or who handled snakes and spoke in tongues, or who would argue with me about the literal interpretation of scriptures. Instead I found a handful of people who seemed genuninely happy to welcome me into their presence, who prayed intensely for me and my friend, and who spoke with great faith and hope about the way in which they believed God could improve their lives. It was a salutary reminder of the ways in which spirituality and religion can act as a force for building community and creating connections between people.
After we sat down, the service leader spoke for ten minutes about a book that they had been studying. It was less of a sermon than a conversation, as other members of the group would occasionally interrupt and offer their own perspectives on the ideas in the chapter they were to have read for this week.
The service concluded with a song, and then one last gathering into a circle and hand-holding session for a concluding prayer. Afterwards we all hugged, and they asked me for my name and phone number, which I was happy to give them. The leader had told me that he would be preaching at that Saturday’s service, and as I was putting on my coat he reminded me to make sure I came by.
“I’d really like to see you here,” he said.
That was two and a half weeks ago, and I have not been back since, either for Saturday Sabbath services or for the Wednesday prayer service. That has not been entirely my fault; the snow here in Worcester has been brutal, and school and family obligations have interfered a couple of times. I did drive up the following Wednesday for the prayer service, during a snowstorm, and waited in the parking lot to see if anyone showed up, but no one ever did.
I am doing some background reading on the Adventists now, and expect to be able to get back to a service of some kind this week, either on Wednesday or Saturday, so I hope at that time to provide a more informed perspective about my next experience, which I will post about next Sunday.