Sunday, February 27, 2011
forty-first visit: Feb 27th 2011 Missionary Baptist
New Testament Missionary Baptist Church
1036 Penn Ave, Wilkinsburg PA 15221
As I mentioned in the previous post, this little church has been drawing my eye for some time. I pass it at the start of my weekly drive to Baltimore every Tuesday morning. No website, no answering machine; so I just show up according to the time posted on the signage.
One room. Or so the building appears, with the front door opening directly into the sanctuary. Four pairs of shoulders fit to the right of the center aisle and four more to the left, width-wise in the wooden pews. Choir crowds behind the pulpit. There is no where for your mind to be except here, present.
Once when telling a group of art students about this project, I received a remarkable reaction from one of my listeners. It was as if there was something terribly frightening in the process of imagining herself doing what I'm doing here in gatherings. She spoke very slowly, loudly, and deliberately: "That would be a really, really intense project." Admittedly I was anxious before my first few visits, but not in they way her reaction implied. Maybe she had a bad experience with religion. Maybe doing unfamiliar things in unfamiliar surroundings really frightens her. Maybe I'll never know. But her reaction stays with me. And I am left wondering from time to time if there something I'm unaware of, regarding this project, something really intense slated to happen during one of my visits.
This probably is not exactly what she had in mind, but this visit does have an intensity. Somewhat like the realness of Baltimore, that I miss after having moved away.
I have been the sole Caucasian attendee at services many, many times over and this began as such. A few minutes after I arrive, the only other white visitor chooses a spot directly next to me. I learn his name is David, and he visits so often that he is referred to as family—is welcomed as such by a woman speaking from the pulpit. He is thin, tall, at least 83 and nimble. Vocal during call and response. Heart-felt: "Oh, my father in heaven, glory be." The Bible he carries with him is beautiful. Titled in the most Gothic of all lettering, tattered leather cover, and a much, much thicker spine than I've ever seen in any edition. I learn that his Seventh-day Baptist church meets on Saturdays, so he often comes here on Sundays.
Today the congregation here is celebrating the end of Black History Month. Biographies delivered by members of the congregation, a planned program of speakers on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama. It was a white person who started the underground railroad, did you know? During the time of slavery, you see, there were some white people who were kind, [the speaker relays] and we need to thank them.
Following, a high-school-aged, young adult female asks to speak: It was not too long ago that we were not allowed to even walk in front of schools for white children. Now we sit in the same rooms to learn. That was a fight. People my age are not doing what we can with that privilege. My own classmates get mad and they refuse to do their homework, refuse to write their papers because they say their teachers are prejudiced. Well, what is that? That is just one more paper that that teacher does not have to grade. (reaction of support from congregation) That is not making any point, that is not achieving anything, that is holding ourselves back.
Offering is collected. More song. Few more words.
I put on my coat. The woman in front of me turns to look me in the eye, grasp my hand to shake it firmly. It's funny, the places I feel pulled toward within this city.