The Singing, Not the Song
One morning not long ago I placed a phone call to the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, located in the Lower Ninth Ward, just down river from the industrial canal in New Orleans. Feeling slightly foolish, I explained to the nice woman who answered that I had seen the church’s choir perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and I wondered if, well, if it would be okay, I guess, if anyone would mind if—if visitors might be welcomed at a service. She said of course. The service begins, promptly, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, the nice woman said.
And so on a Sunday morning a week and half later E and I and our friend Marc put on Sunday clothes and we went to church.
Jazz Fest takes place over two long weekends, on the grounds of a big horse-racing track about a 10 minute walk from our house. It’s a large, sweaty, unwieldy event, with many acts performing simultaneously on many stages, all day long. These stages, and the food vendors, and the sellers of “crafts,” take up the entire grassy area defined by the track itself. There’s more over in the air-conditioned grandstand. Also, there are a couple of huge tents—really small buildings made of canvass—standing on what is normally part of the parking lot.
One of these is the Gospel Tent. It’s often said by devoted attendees that the very best place to spend a day at Jazz Fest is in the Gospel Tent. And so, on the festival’s second Friday, I got to the tent at around 2 in the afternoon, as the Desire Community Choir was performing. The truth is that I chose this day because, according to the schedule, Michelle Shocked was supposed to sing with the St. Paul Spiritual Church of God in Christ choir. This appearance had attracted almost no advance attention, perhaps because interest in Michelle Shocked is limited.
The further truth is that I did not particularly enjoy the Desire Community Choir. I was distracted by the crowd, or the “scene.” There were a lot of shirtless white guys drinking beer, for instance. They seemed to be enthusiastic about the music, and I’m not religious so I can hardly critique their engagement with the spiritual message. But still. I wasn’t having a very good time, at first.
On the day we went to church, we arrived at about 10:45 a.m. at an unassuming brick building. Of the 70 or so people in attendance we were the only three whites, which was not unexpected. The Lower Ninth Ward is one of many low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods in what is, after all, a low-income and predominantly black city. People looked at us, which was also not unexpected. I remember one young guy in an untucked white shirt giving me what I was pretty sure was a resentful glare.
But almost immediately people began to come over and greet us. Some sort of deputy pastor introduced himself. Everyone was warm. They shook our hands. Some asked where we currently “fellowship,” and we dissembled. We did not, exactly, explain ourselves to anyone. Shortly before the service began, the kid I thought was glaring came over with a big loopy grin on and his face and shook hands with all of us.
Michelle Shocked did in fact perform with the choir at Jazz Fest. She wore tight black jeans and T-shirt, with a sliver of midriff exposed. She carried a white guitar. Her hair is now shoulder-length, brown, and I never would have recognized her. She explained that she would say she was honored by our applause, but that would be wrong. As wrong as saying that she and the choir were here merely to entertain us, because it’s not about her, and it’s not about the choir, and it’s not about entertainment. It’s about Jesus—and she’s not ashamed to say that name! She went on like this for a while.
My heart sank. I have respect for the faithful. But I dislike holy-rollers who are so theatrical, so pushy. I grew up around people who said things like this, put Jesus in your face all the time, and basically I consider it rude. I pondered leaving.
Meanwhile, the St. Paul Spiritual Church of God in Christ choir filed on stage. There must have been 30 singers, forming two rows, mostly black, mostly young. Maybe there were two or three whites in choir. Michelle Shocked began to sing, and the choir began to sway. I don’t really know my gospel numbers so well, and I’m terrible at picking out lyrics, but the song concerned “the rock.” It built momentum. The other singers joined in on the chorus in an astonishing wave of sound. It was incredible, and I was swept up in it, filled with emotion. I was more or less choked up, okay?
I looked around. There was a thin white woman in a big straw hat, shorts, and high heels, balancing a plastic cup of beer and a camera. I didn’t care. This sound, I decided, is the best thing I have heard at Jazz Fest this year. So I convinced E, and Marc, to come to church with me.
I guess I had imagined a stifling old room with wood floors and a vaulted ceiling and garish image of Christ on the cross, like something out of The Apostle. In fact the interior was carpeted, and air-conditioned, with modest but upholstered chairs, and, curiously, not a single religious symbol in sight. There was a drum kit and two sets of keyboards. The music began. Five or six women were at the front, behind microphones. A couple of guys took turns leading a combination of music and preaching. For half an hour or so most everyone was on his or her feet, and, with the exception of us, singing and clapping along. There was a weird sense of dislocation that came with this—the music was coming from everywhere. It was transcendent, in the sense that being within the music seemed to lift, or maybe push, us out of the normal way our five senses perceive the world.
At various points we were all instructed to greet or even embrace our neighbors. Later there was moment when people were positively flooding over to greet us, including many people who had already done so, but moved from handshakes to hugs. Eventually, the music stopped, and the pastor began to speak. He spoke for a very long time; the sermon related to money. (I had no small bills on me, so in another non-surprise I threw an absurd $20 into the collection jar). As the morning and early afternoon wore on, late-arrivers kept coming, and I believe at the peak there must have been 120 or more people there, including three more whites, older than us.
Then, apropos of nothing, there came a point late in the service when the pastor announced to the room that there were some people here today who had come because they had heard the choir sing at Jazz Fest, and would these folks please stand up so everyone could recognize them for this compliment they were paying with their attendance?
We stood up to accept a round of applause. It was mortifying.
There’s this line in an Eric Bogosian play in which a yuppie character looks back on his life and wipes away the notion that there might have been any hint of hypocrisy buried in his privileged lifestyle. Vis-a-vis those less fortunate, he says: “Hey, I was concerned.” Something about the Gospel Tent had made me feel as though I was in a place zoned for cultural curiosity, where people like me could take a seat and say to themselves: “Hey, I’m open-minded.” Take the shallowness of that sentiment and multiply by ten and you have a reasonable idea of how foolish I felt being applauded for barging into a place of worship to listen to music.
On the way out, again, everyone was wildly cheerful and friendly to us. We shook hands with the pastor (who asked, hilariously, if we ourselves could sing) and told him, honestly, what a fine service it had been And thinking about it later, I now believe I was misguided to be so embarrassed. Michelle Shocked had said that her relationship with this choir began on a day when she came to this church just for the sake of the music. “I came for the singing,” she declared, “but I stayed for the song.” Now, I can’t say that I heard “the song” in the way that she did, or that these various friendly parishioners do. But I do finally realize that the song is what it’s about at the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, whether there are curious interlopers on hand to hear the morning’s singing or not.
As we left, everyone said they hoped we would return. I can only assume that they meant it.