The International Central Gospel Church, on Park Avenue in the Bronx, faces a set of railway tracks on a quiet industrial block, next to United Collision auto body shop. The church’s renovated interiors, converted from a warehouse, provided a cavernous room with an altar at the front and rows of neatly laid-out red chairs, each with a pocket slipped onto the back for pamphlets. A PowerPoint presentation projected the text of the hymn on the wall facing the Sunday crowd.
I had never attended a church service of any kind. This was in 2008. I was reporting on stories from the West African community in New York City for a journalism class, It wasn’t my comfort zone. I was new to reporting and my beat was the West African community. I wasn’t from the community. And now, my first church service was at a Ghanaian gospel church in a warehouse in the Bronx.
“The light of God shall shine upon those in darkness,” sang Deacon Richard Nyamedi, as churchgoers slowly found their place in the aisles and sang along. The deacon’s family had converted to Christianity in Ghana when he was about 12 years old. I was there to interview him and get some background on conversions from indigenous traditions.
Later, the pastor asked everyone to raise their hands and feel the Lord’s energy. “Seek God and prosper,” he advised. A woman wearing a cream kabba sang along with raised hands. Then she knelt down with her elbows on her chair and prayed. Soon, everyone around me stood with their hands raised and eyes closed, swaying and singing.
I did not realize till much later how often over the course of that semester – and long after – I would be around people when they prayed to their gods. These frames of personal refuge occupied a world where faith deftly held off skeptical inquiry. They were often the kind of moments that one passes by on the way to more pressing stories with beginnings, middles and ends. But they’ve tended to linger, being often the commas that punctuated my experience.