I never really enjoyed the theatre growing up, but being forced to go once a week for the first fifteen years of your life will do that to you, even more so when you attend the same production, week in and week out. I even got there early for most shows. Usually just in time to catch the microphone and orchestra sound checks. I observed the wardrobe changes and individual makeup sessions. I’d watch as the lights were adjusted just right and the audience began to fill the seats, each segment of preparation lending a helping hand in the creation of the dramatization.
At times in my mind I can still hear the hand claps and hallelujahs of Franklin United Methodist, and imagine the routine Bible Belt Broadway performances Sister Evans would put on every Sunday morning. I remember sitting in my usual corner seat, close to the aisle, so a quick exit could be easily executed following the show. Services began roughly with the same routine each Sunday. Ms. Moody would be teaching Sunday scho0ol as mom and I quietly slipped in the door and perched ourselves on one of the rear pews. Being an usher, it was one of her churchly duties to fold programs and fill them with inserts before the start of service. I’d often help out just to pass the time. Before long, in came Pastor Bradley to interject his few, often stutter filled sentences about, “Yes, Lord” this or “Oh, Jesus” that. I imagined it was his way of saying, “Don’t panic everyone, the star has arrived.” Not that anyone would have really cared if he didn’t show up. My mom would always complain about how horrible his sermons were.
“I gotta find another church to go to. He just don’t sit right with my spirit,” she’d occasionally say.
“Well, ma, why don’t we just go to another church?” I’d ask
“Cuz’ there are good people here in this church,” she would always reply.
I used to agree with her. I used to believe that all the old ladies that would pat my head, and give me candy when I was a youngster were the epitome of good church folks, the ones who live life by the book without deviation. I used to believe that they etched every chapter and verse onto the stone tablets of their minds and held them up high for everyone to see. I used to be naive enough to believe that everyone who came to church really followed those Ten Commandments.
Act One: Testimony
Church always began around ten in the morning. First we would begin with the testimonial portion of the service. Normally Sister Bennett, all dressed up in her enormous church hat and one of her florescent Sunday dresses, would get up and say something like, “Well, church, I almost didn’t make it this mornin.’ I walked outside my door and it was a rainin’ and a thunderin.’ Now yall know that ain’t nothing but the devil. But I said, SATAN, get thee behind me, and I came on anyhow! Praise God!”
Then came the cheers and claps from the crowd all in grievance that the devil had tailored the weather just to delay Sister Bennett from making it to service. The sister, still encased in the holy spirit, would take her seat for a moment, rise back to her feet to receive her encore of applause, then sit once more.
Now, I won’t say whether the devil himself did or didn’t toy with the weather; I don’t know Satan personally. I’m fairly confident, however, that if he really wanted Ms. Bennett to miss church that immensely, the forecast would have included more than just .58850 inches of rain and an occasional roar of thunder. Maybe a typhoon would have been more appropriate.
Act two: Praise and Worship
The second portion of service was always the section where they would say that anyone could take part, as though the other parts were reserved for elite performers. Often by this time, the half-steppers, as Pastor Bradley called them, had trickled into the sanctuary and the room was nearly full. From over the top of the crowd a voice would sometimes moan out, “Lean-in on the everlastin’ arms…” or some other slow monotone hymnal, and the voice of all those in the crowd would join in, everyone’s voices encompassing a tone of resistance to singing the song. Yet, still they all sang. It was one of those ‘well, I’m here now so I might as well’ moments.
After the song, Pastor would stand up and repeat the same line he began with every Sunday, “Good mornin,’ Saints! Let all the people of God say ‘Amen!’”
By this time, normally all the older women in the congregation had burst out those paper fans, usually located in the wooden holder on the back of the pews. It was sign that things were about to really get started. It was a sign that their blood was beginning to pump a little faster, their hearts were beginning to beat a little quicker, and their excitement for service was beginning to take over. The men would begin to strip themselves of their blazers and sit them aside, while from my view in the rear, I would notice the huge wet spots on the backs of their shirts.
Keep in mind that, while I’m paying attention to all this other stuff, Pastor Bradley is still behind the podium talking. He’s probably going on about his week, and how he was out doing his part in spreading the name of Jesus. Following every other sentence I’d hear someone else in the crowd yell out, “Yes, Lord!”
I recognized most of the voices of everyone in our church and usually I didn’t need to see a person say something to know they had said it. Funnily enough, whenever I did look at the person that would yell in agreeance with Pastor Bradley, most of the time they weren’t even paying attention to what he was saying. Some would be texting on their phones, fumbling around in their purses, attending to crying babies, or any other number of things. I assumed the rule of thumb was that when the Pastor is speaking, you don’t have to listen, just agree and back him up.
Act Three: The Choir
“Now, we will have a selection from the choir,” Pastor Bradley would always say.
This was probably the best part of service on any given Sunday. Those with uniformed voices would rise to their feet, and often arouse the congregation with an uplifting song. Their overarching sound was joyous, and often incited claps and brought out the remainder of the already protruding energy from everyone listening. When the choir sang almost everything seemed genuine. For the first time everyone seemed to be responding in real-time, and not simply following the itinerary of tradition, but somehow it still felt halfhearted for me.
Were they clapping and shouting because of their love for Jesus Christ, or was it simply the melodic sound of the keyboard, and up-tempo steady beat of the drums that brought out the best in these Sunday morning evangelists?
The first time I ever got saved – well, at least that’s what I thought at the time – I was only about eleven years old. I wasn’t old enough to be comfortable with the conclusions about church that I had already drawn for myself. I was sitting beside ma; it was one of her off-Sundays from ushering. The choir was singing, the entire church was in a frenzy of praise, the temperature was high, and the a/c was on full blast. The stage was set perfectly for a good old-fashioned Sunday morning worship. I looked to my left, then to my right and noticed everyone seemed to be caught up in the Holy Spirit. Even ma was crying, I suppose as a confession of her love for Jesus. I seemed to be the only one not caught up in the performance.
I looked down because I felt ashamed. I felt left out. I felt like I was supposed to be doing what everyone else was doing. Was I a bad person for not partaking in the ritual? I thought so. It didn’t matter if I really wasn’t feeling anything at all inside. I still felt the need to participate. The tears rolled down my face. I let those around me know that I was normal. I wanted to be accepted. These tears weren’t a confession of my love for Jesus, but it didn’t matter. I assumed everyone else was doing the same, so if you can’t beat em,’ well, you know the rest. I felt bad for succumbing to the pressure to be accepted and vowed that I would never allow it to consume me again, so that was the last acting job I ever took.
Act Four: The Sermon
Now was the time for Pastor Bradley to finally stand up and tell us how to live our lives, to give us the direction that we were all obviously lacking. He was a brief speaker, largely due to the fact that he had to go preach at his other church in a neighboring town three hours after our service began.
“I would like that thank the choir for that fine selection! Now, church, it’s time we get ready!”
For the first ten minutes or so, everyone listened attentively. All eyes focused solely on him, and it gave everyone a chance to readjust themselves back into their seats, not saying that they stayed there for an extended period of time.
“Now, now, now, I say, church, it’s a good day to be in the house of the Lord one more time.” By this time he had put on the preaching voice.
“Tell em, Pastor,” I could often hear mom say. It almost sounded genuine.
As he really got into the meat of his sermon, the congregation became antsy. Thus, the longer he would speak the more applause and praise he would receive from the crowd. All pastors know subconsciously that this is a sign the congregation wants you to wrap it up, and so he did.
“I’m going to end today with an altar call. If there is anyone today who requires prayer, please come gather around the altar,” said the Pastor.
Everyone would rise out of their seats to make the trip down to the altar, and receive the blessings of Pastor Bradley. Then, one by one, Pastor would take out his healing oil, and touch the foreheads of everyone in his reach. Sometimes one of the members would fall dramatically to the floor after being touched, almost instantly. If the person was wearing a skirt the ushers would be called up to come cover the area, as if anyone would be tempted to look up someone’s skirt in the middle of church. After a few moments, the person would rise to their feet and walk back to their seat as if nothing had happened.
Act Five: The Procession
The conclusion of church normally included the Pastor, the deacons, and the choir all walking down the aisle out of the church together. It was as if everyone who had a hand in the performance was coming down from the stage to take their final bow and be applauded by everyone who had thoroughly enjoyed the show. I never understood why they did this, but I suppose at the end of every great performance there is a great finale.
Being a church goer, I’ve learned that you can’t take people at face value. Often what’s being portrayed may be a product of false advertisement. I used to have such a great respect for the church, and I still do. My view, however, is now a bit skewed. Yes, I truly believe in God, but I also believe a good performance is nothing more than exactly what it is: a performance. A show that we all attend not to give reverence and praise, but to show everyone else, ‘hey, I believe in God more than you, and I’m going to publicly show you now by doing all these extra things to prove it.’ At the same time, by putting on a show, isn’t one contradicting the very beliefs they claim to hold so dear? I’m not one to judge. I’m simply making observations; that’s why I’ve always sat in the back of the church. Though I will say, I never really enjoyed theatre growing up.
Devonta Steward is an aspiring journalist from Denmark, SC. Steward is currently a senior at Coastal Carolina University, where Steward minors in creative writing, and actually wrote this piece for a creative nonfiction workshop class.