While I was growing up, I went to church every Sunday. Over the summers I’d attend vacation bible school in both St. Louis and Chicago. Whether it was before choir rehearsal, hanging out with friends after Sunday School, in the church parking lot after VBS or simply driving along bouncing to a mixtape of my favorite Kirk Franklin tunes, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by gospel music. My father’s upbringing is undoubtedly the reason for this, and I’m thankful for it. He’s told me that when he was a teenager, Thursday nights in Harvey at Bethlehem Temple (BT) were the most fun for his friend group—because of the music. For hours after rehearsal ended they’d hang around singing and practicing what they learned or creating songs of their own.
Last month, Alicia and I decided we needed a little (a lot of) spiritual guidance and went to First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC) for their 11am service. One week after that, I was in Chicago and was able to catch the choir’s anniversary musical at my grandfather’s church, BT. Exactly one week following, I was in St. Louis and able to enjoy my home church Blessed Hope (BH) for its first Sunday service. These back to back services, at three geographically diverse Baptist churches, paired with all of the concerts I attended in Chicago and STL, opened my eyes to the spiritual impact secular and non-secular music hold over me.
Before that first Sunday even rolled around, I kept reminding Alicia how her going with me to church might hinder my seat placement in the sanctuary. In every ounce of honesty, for a historically black church in Harlem, it is apparent why I do not stand out as possible tourist or visitor. Alicia, however, does. So I basically told her: if the welcome staff separates us at the door, I’ll leave you if it means being closer to the altar.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯#WWJD #thelordknowsmyheart #blessed #etc
…but without realizing it, I was starting to treat service like a general admission show. In this sweet twist of fate, we stumbled upon FCBC’s young adult Sunday and they performed gospel remixes from Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Drake, effortlessly weaving between more contemporary hits and (newly) old school tunes like Ricky Dillard’s, “There Is No Way.”
A week later in Chicago, I was so thrilled that I’d be visiting during the Praise Chorale’s 45th anniversary. When I was younger, every summer I remember watching my uncle, cousins, and friends preparing for this special night, year after year. Those same Thursdays my dad told me about became my Thursdays. The younger choirs would end rehearsals and we’d sit waiting for the adults to finish, a tradition we were carrying on but didn’t know existed. Tonight, I sat between my grandmother, the First Lady of the church, and one of my best friends visiting with me, flipping through the program filled with all of the lyrics to the songs they’d be singing throughout the night. As soon as I read the words “Praise Is What I Do,” I went into my standard freak out mode. Were they really going to perform my ULTIMATE worship selection on one of my FAVORITE days of the year? What happens if I lose my chill in front of my friends and am sent quickly into a personal praise/shouting session by the spirit??? For better or worse, that time never came. “We Magnify Your Name” was the actual song they were performing and Praise Is What I Do was in fact the album title… Nonetheless, that heart-racing anticipation was all too familiar for me. Weeks later, I’d be seeing Sam Smith for the first time in NYC, and I’d be feeling the exact same feeling—prematurely crying and waiting for Sam to open his set with my favorite song (and aptly titled)—“Nirvana.”
Two weeks after that initial concert vs. church comparison seed was so gently planted in my mind, I was driving around STL with my mother, listening to my new favorite new song (I could tell you the song title, but then I’d have to MIB you, Crushers). When the lyrics got overwhelming good and the newly released harmonies took hold of my emotions, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and throw my hand in the air, giving God thanks for the sounds I was experiencing. My mom’s response, “This isn’t church.” Whether she knew it or not, this half-joking half-serious comment made me take pause to genuinely reflect about my relationship with God and music. How far back could I trace the significance of my relationship between spirituality and song? Doesn’t everyone experience a taste of nirvana/heaven when a song becomes too much to handle? How closely linked are my emotions during praise and worship to my feelings during my favorite band’s concert?
When I thought about writing this, it wasn’t my goal to even attempt to answer any of those questions. I’m actually not sure I even had a goal…But when I stopped to think about my connection to faith and my connection to (live) music, I couldn’t ignore the similarities in my church going and concert loving practices.
My trips to both Chicago and home were primarily to see a few concerts and to visit with friends and family, but it might come as huge surprise (to those that don’t know me) that a significant amount of planning went into making sure I was available for church services during my stay. These moments are equally, if not more, important than the trips themselves. The joy I feel seeing my dad play the piano and direct the choir, is similar to the joy I feel watching my favorite guitarist playing to an arena. During any given worship service, there are moments that each person in the congregation uses as their spiritual fulfillment, mine comes from the music. Am I a God stan? Probs.
And I think my mom is wrong. That moment I experienced in the car, and each passing musically spiritual high I’ve received before and after that point is in fact a personal kind of church and I’m glad to be in the service.
Alicia’s Takeaway: I didn’t know if I wanted to add a takeaway to Rachel’s deeply personal post, but I don’t want to deny the moment. I too grew up going to church every Sunday. And although the parishioners at FCBC might have looked at me like a tourist – I didn’t feel like one. For me, church has always been about the music. Don’t get me wrong, I have faith as well, but as a child I would spend my time in the pews pouring over the hymnal. I still remember the moment that I discovered that most of the traditional hymns are written to classical composer’s music – mind blown. Growing up, I always preferred the services that included a choir, so it’s no surprise that I truly enjoyed the choir at FCBC and it was everything I was hoping it would be and more. To borrow a line from Rachel, “my spirits were raised.”