It seems obvious to me that if one of my goals for this trip is to experience culture, I need to go to church. And I do. Nearly every Sunday, no matter where I am, I find a church to attend. In New Mexico I went to the 300-year-old Catholic mission church, in Kansas I visited the infamous Westboro Baptists, and in the Ozarks it was a nondescript First Baptist. While in the South I knew I wanted to visit a traditionally black church, and maybe even catch one of those big gospel choirs you see in the movies. With nothing else to go on, I looked up the tourist website for Mobile Alabama, and scrolled through their list of “historical churches.”
I arrived at Big Zion on State Street almost an hour early, and killed time by parking down the street and writing. I didn’t want to park directly in front of the church for fear someone would notice me. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but I knew I didn’t want to deal with it. The sign outside said that worship started at 11AM, but there was a prayer service at 10:45AM. I figured this would be a sort of collection of hymns and prayers and might be a nice way to ease into things. I re-parked in front of the church at 10:35AM and sat there. I was very nervous, though I’m not sure what about. I saw a few people enter the church. Every face was black. The men wore suits. The women wore single-color skirt suits with matching hats. I worried that my dress wouldn’t be up to snuff. I worried that I would only be seen as an outsider. I worried that I was single-handedly responsible for all oppression white people had ever lobbed onto the rest of the world. And I was being stupid. It’s a church, right? All churches welcome visitors. They would welcome me.
I walked towards the building. The doors were closed, but I saw one slightly ajar and went inside. I was in a foyer and no one was there. I heard voices through a door in front of me and quietly walked in. I was expecting a worship space but found myself in a parish hall – the kind of place you’d host potlucks and meetings and pageant practice. A few tables were set up, and a couple of women were seated. I walked over to them, expecting someone to say something. No one reacted to my presence, so I asked one of the women, “Should I sit here?” indicating the table next to hers. “Of course. Sit wherever you’d like,” she said with a smile. She was polite and nice, and then turned away.
A few more people filed into the room, including an older man who took his spot behind a podium. I felt distinctly out of place. I looked down at my forearm. Four weeks in the hot desert sun had given me a dark tan, and I’d never felt so incredibly white. People were looking at me. I didn’t belong. Anyone could see that.
The old man began a short bible study regarding some of the lesser covered and terribly uninteresting old testament kings. At the end he asked if any newcomers would like to introduce themselves. He looked directly at me and gestured, which was something of a relief. It was a signal that we could all stop pretending they didn’t notice I was different.
I stood up. “My name is Katrina and I’m driving around the country. I saw this church on the Mobile visitor’s website and thought I would come worship with you.”
The mood lightened. I had put my cards on the table and there were smiles all around. I suppose I felt at ease because everyone knew that I was truly “just visiting.” I wasn’t trying to join. I wasn’t looking to push myself into their community as a form of one-woman gentrification. Of course it’s unlikely that any of them thought of it this way. But it’s how I felt, and my admission of transience was the only thing that could make me feel better about the situation.
The old man asked if I would be joining them for worship and I said yes. After the bible study everyone stood up and milled about, talking to each other. I was a little lost, having no idea how I walked through the main church door and ended up in the parish hall. I asked one of the members if it worship was upstairs, and they confirmed. They pointed back to the foyer and told me to head up the stairs. An older gentleman offered to lead the way, and I walked slowly behind him.
The worship hall was beautiful and full of that old church charm. It was decorative but not ornate. I saw a few people in matching robes and got excited for the possibility of that great gospel choir I was hoping to find. Big Zion’s denomination is African Methodist Episcopal Zion, a wordy title befitting the grandchild of a series of denominational separations. The service began with a song, and I will admit I was a bit disappointed by the size and talents of the choir. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t fantastic. And the music wasn’t all clapping and dancing; it was mostly regular hymns. I had set my expectations very high, based on an idea that all black churches must be full of passionate and fantastic singers. Perhaps they should have been wary of me.
I sat alone in my pew, politely following along with the service. When it came time for the sermon I learned that the preacher was also a visitor. He was from out of town and filling in for the regular minister. He preached a sermon meant to be about the AME Zion community specifically, but it could have been about any church or organization. He talked about how we often want new members to come in, but we only want the ones we like. We want new members who are educated and rich. We want new members who will participate in all of the programs that need help. Most importantly, we want new members who won’t try to sit in our pew. I laughed with the rest of the congregation at this last comment, knowing all too well the impossible task of getting parishioners to sit anywhere but their normal pew.
“As if the Holy Ghost will only come to that one spot,” he added with a laugh.
He talked about unity, about not judging each other, about focusing on others rather than our own petty squabbles. He said that if we were truly following the Gospel, we wouldn’t have to preach it with our mouths because people would see it in our actions. “You don’t have to tell someone you’re holy,” he said. I wanted him to come preach at the next Episcopal General Convention.
Near the end of the service there were announcements. The preacher reiterated that he was a visitor himself, and had no way of knowing who in the congregation was also visiting. I stifled a laugh at the thought that anyone could see me and honestly think I belonged. I had worshiped there for nearly two hours, and I still felt like my skin was flashing neon. He asked if any guests would like to introduce themselves and I stood up immediately. My story of traveling and visiting churches along the way was met with smiles and applause, and I was put at ease once more. The service ended.
And then everything changed.
I believe that I can, with total confidence, say that I have never been hugged by so many strangers in such a short span of time. Everyone wanted to meet me. Everyone wanted to hug me or shake my hand. Everyone wanted to wish me well. The welcome I was so desperate for when I walked in the door overwhelmed me as I was trying to walk out. One woman actually ran over to my car to stop me before I left. She and her husband used to live near Seattle, and she wanted to wish me well on my journey.
There have only been a few times in my life where I felt like a racial minority, and I look at those times as gifts. It’s not easy for a white person to understand the length to which skin color effects your daily life, and I see these incidents as opportunities to grow. What’s funny to me is that the church I attend in Seattle is historically Japanese-American, and the majority of our members are Asian. While we at the church adore our Japanese roots, the congregation is no longer strictly Japanese and we would be thrilled to see some other faces walk through the door. It would mean that we had reached out to people truly outside our own community. Big Zion is a different church with it’s own history and circumstances, but for all I know they feel the same way. For all I know they struggle with the same dilemmas we have in Seattle of welcoming new people without overwhelming them. They are a church like any other – filled with their own spirit, their own human failings, and their own desire to see new faces walk through the door.
I had no reason to be nervous or afraid of Big Zion. The true mystery is why I thought they had to be so different. I suppose it’s the same thinking that made me assume they’d have a big choir. It’s the same thinking that keeps churches wishing for “the right” new members to walk through the door. And it’s ultimately what forced the original Big Zion parishioners to gather together in the first place: we assume people who don’t look like us, aren’t like us. We assume that they must want different things, share different ideas, have different feelings. Odd, because I’ve also found that when people talk with someone who does look like them, they tend to assume the other person shares the same political and social beliefs. Neither of these tendencies are helpful, because they are often wrong. It’s as though we’re still carrying around our ancient fear of those outside our own tribe. And at least in my case, knowing that kind of fear is irrelevant isn’t always enough to change my thinking. But I did the best and only thing I could do, perhaps the only thing we can ever do, and the thing that I find myself doing a lot lately. I went anyway.