As part of a fundraising effort for a cancer charity, the local Pastafarians at USC group took donations, in exchange for which the atheist members agreed to be sent to church. I was sent, along with three other students, to Brookland Baptist church, in West Columbia, SC.
I have not been to church in a long time. The closest I’ve been in the last five years is probably the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship, but as their minister is an atheist, I’m not sure how much that counts. I have actually been to Brookland Baptist before, at the very end of 2006, when John Edwards was speaking there. I was highly skeptical of him, but after seeing him demand healthcare for all and declare we needed a way to be patriotic besides war, I absolutely fell in love. Which turned out real well.
Back to the church:
Brookland Baptist Church is a largely African American megachurch, founded in 1902. On Sunday, not only are the parking lots full, but the lots across the street are not enough. The church claims 5,300 members, seats 1,600 on the floor and 500 in the balcony.
I arrived before my fellow heathens and had to wait outside for them. Initially, I was quite self-conscious because everyone was staring at me, but when I realized it was just because I was the only white person there, not because I was an atheist, it became less worrisome. For better or for worse, church services seem to be very heavily segregated. Just as you’d only find one or two African-Americans at your average Episcopalian service, you’ll only find one or two white people at your average Baptist service. They were, despite the staring, very nice and friendly.
The rest of the cohort arrived and we were sent up to the balcony because one of our members wanted to film some of the service. I was a little disappointed not to be in the middle of the throng of people, but also relieved that no one would be judging me for being on Facebook during the boring parts.
And boy were there boring parts!
I am a temporally minded person and therefore was already highly irked that the service started 15 minutes late. I was even more irked when it turned out that the service lasted nearly two and a half hours. I would have much rather re-watched The Hunger Games with that time! How someone sits through that every Sunday is beyond me.
Aside from the absurd length, I didn’t really note too many significant differences in the structure and audience participation than the last time I went to an Episcopalian service. Admittedly, that service was at one of the churches that left the American Episcopalian church to join the Rwandan one because they hate gays so much, but you know, Episcopalianish. Brookland did, however, have one of the best announcement voices I’ve ever heard — it was like the “In a world” voice, but he was just reading the locations and dates of events. It was awesome.
There was a lot of singing. Interminable singing while the collection plate went around. As much as comedians joke around that the Anglican church is joyless, but the Baptist church goes crazy with the music, there was no evidence of that. The musak style choir songs were not joyful, just very long. Fortunately, I had a book, since we were subjected to what probably added up to over an hour of this.
We were, however, very fortunate to have attended the day that we did because the focus was on education and they were recognizing the scholastic achievements of their students. I don’t know what there normal services and sermons look like, but this was a perfect illustration of how important churches are to the minority community here. It’s heartwarming to see an institution take so much time and effort to help children succeed and overcome the shortcomings of their schools and local environments. It is a real shame that, in most cases, the only place they can find this support is in churches. I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again, secularists need to pick up minority causes — they are basic human rights issues and we should be on the front lines supporting them.
The church gave out scholarships to graduating high school seniors, and then had a college graduate come and deliver the speech for the day. Anrae Jamon Motes graduated from MIT in 2010 and currently works as a consultant; he came to give advice to students in the congregation. He was fantastic.
The entire thrust of the speech was about using education to empower yourself, especially economically. This is an important message to this community, a community that does not generally have economic power. He did not really talk about religion until the very end of the speech, where he focused on the support system that the church had given him. Truly it is not faith that changes these people’s lives, but the actions and support of this community, and that’s something that is quite moving.
That said, he did give some of the credit to Jesus, but I was very impressed by how pragmatic and practical the overall message of the entire day was. This was not a day about God’s achievements, it was a day about people’s achievements, and much more enticing to an outsider for being so.
At the very end, the deacon made a call for people to join at a protest/celebration for the arrest that has finally come in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. There was a general call for people to be more proactive, to do more than just talk and complain and protest, to actually get out there and vote to change things. Their goal is to empower people through evangelism, education, and economic change and they emphasized that their community “is about more than winning souls for Christ, it’s about changing lives.” And to that I can certainly say, “Amen.”