I had attended an AME service during college, as part of a religion-in-America class and so I knew it would be a long service, with a fluidity between song and sermon and lots of tangible worship. By this I mean obvious physical and verbal means of praise--clapping, standing, dancing, raising hands in the air, calling out "amen" and the like. This is the part the kids were unsure of. As UUs, we don't tend to praise or worship anything--as there are as many concepts (or not) of the divine as there are congregants--much less make noise or move during service, unless it's a particularly rousing hymn (and then, really, it's only some of our more extroverted members.) So to praise God, call out worship of Jesus, raise hands, stand up when moved was new. Such organized UU kids--they were disturbed that they couldn't even figure out where we were in the order of service because of the fluidity between music and sermon. They seemed uncomfortable with the emotional and passionate style, quite opposed to our UU intellectual and reflective services. But I liked it. Whether you call it holy or divine, or not, there was clearly a spirit in that church. A community coming together in joy. For some parts of it, I could just allow myself to be moved by that spirit, instead of analyzing what was happening.
But of course I did observe and analyze. I had told the kiddos that people would be dressed up more than at our church (and so I wouldn't let them wear t-shirts) and, though there were some who were not, there were a few rows of older church ladies in hats with fans; most of the men were in suits. I noticed the various oratorical methods (and here) used to engage the congregation--pauses, repetition, call and response, experiential preaching. There was even that noticeable expulsion of breath after some words and phrases--the appending of "ah" such as "Jesus-ah"--when the preacher became really impassioned. I pointed out to Sis and Bud next to me that this was the black preaching style that Martin Luther King, Jr came out of and then influenced. I could also see the clear connections between the Gospel music and more secular pop, particularly when one of the deacons sang "Way Maker," interspersed with his own words and stories. I think that song went on for 15+ minutes and couldn't even just be called a song--it was more of an interactive experience. (Same with "It Could've Been Me.") It reminded me of line singing, with the next verse called out, a tradition leftover from a time of greater illiteracy and a lack of hymnals (though, actual line singing is a more sorrowful tradition from white Appalachian churches.) There was also a guest musician, Alaina Rose, who is launching and sang a beautiful song and had the church's full support.
As for the message, the service, "ministry of words" I think it was called in the bulletin, it was nothing like the slow, word-for-word exegesis of the Presbyterians we visited. (The only part that felt like other Christian services was the recitation of the Apostle's Creed.) There was a guest "shepherd of the house," Rev. Figueroa, who apologized for not focusing on the Word, so caught up in the Spirit was he. He said sometimes you need to praise with your feet--and he began to dance. The scripture of the day was Mathew 21:2, when Jesus told two disciples to go fetch a donkey that was tied up and bring him forth to be used; and if anyone were to ask them what they were doing, they were doing His work. Now, I would never have thought you could do a whole sermon on the phrase about "untie and let loose" but he did. The "tied up" part was the issues and difficulties all people have (he mentioned poverty, illness, drugs, the ghetto, he said, drawing from the song, "It's not just that it could've been me. It should've been me.") He preached that it's these issues that make you worthy to be chosen to do God's work. And so he encouraged the tied-up congregation to let loose. And oh what praise there was. In fact, he kept saying the crowd had him worked up and he wasn't going to end on time for the next service (which he barely did!)
So much was unfamiliar to our kids, beginning with the palm fronds passed out. They weren't even sure what Palm Sunday was, much less the tradition of the palms. I tried to whisper info to them throughout the whole service. Another unfamiliar part to UUs was the altar call, when certain people feel the call to be saved and go to the front of the church. One young man did this and was welcomed by several deacons. UUs don't convert like that--they attend a newcomer's class and might sign the membership book during service. The offertory was at least recognizable by the kids--except that the whole congregation rises and circulates to deposit their envelopes in a basket up front.
When we spoke to the pastor afterwards, the kids had questions—typical UU questions about history. How old was the building? How old was that pipe organ? They learned that this congregation was founded by ex-slaves in 1818; it's the second-oldest AME church in the world. Booker T Washington once spoke from pulpit. The current location is not far from a spot believed to be a lookout for the Underground Railroad. I asked the pastor what he would have the kids take away about his faith and his church. He said that even with a rich history, we must always look ahead.
My kids were exhausted by the whole experience and didn't have much to say about it on the way home. Which was the exact opposite of me--I had been touched by the worship and wanted to discuss the whole thing. This isn't to say I want to convert to AME--beyond not being a Christian, I clearly noticed the absence of the hallmarks of progressive churches, like rainbow flags and calls to social justice around issues like immigration and gun control. I'm pretty certain they don't support same-sex marriage. But I liked the music and the joy. It was a beautiful morning and I appreciated the experience of their community spirit, which, for just awhile, I was a part of.
About appending "-ah" at ends of phrases (from straightdope.com):
It's caused by failure to breathe properly while orating. Preachers who end up sounding that way usually start out ordinary enough, but as their adrenaline begins to flow and they talk faster and longer and louder, their diaphragms start squeezing hard to empty their old breath so they will breathe new air. What you hear is this expulsion of breath through the preacher's vocal chords.
It's been a phenomenon for a long time. C. H. Spurgeon wrote for the July, 1875 Sword and Trowel, "Hints on the Voice For Young Preachers" (http://www.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/voice.htm):
It is an infliction, not to be endured twice, to hear a brother, who mistakes perspiration for inspiration, tear along like a wild horse with a hornet in its ear till he has no more wind, and must needs pause to pump his lungs full again; a repetition of this indecency several times in a sermon is not uncommon, but is most painful. Pause soon enough to prevent that "hough, hough," which rather creates pity for the breathless orator than sympathy with the subject in hand. Your audience ought not to know that you breathe at all—the process of respiration should be as unobserved as the circulation of the blood. It is indecent to let the mere animal function of breathing cause any hiatus in your discourse.