When we emerge from the subway it is clear that we will be late for the service’s apparent start time of 9:30. Our group is composed of a German woman who works in in media marketing, a male Spanish researcher, an Israeli man recently out of a voluntarily extended service in their military and enjoying it by sporting lothario-long hair, an atheistic female jurist from Martinique, and my English self. We are headed for the 84th Anniversary sermon at the First Corinthian Baptist Church, located on the corner of 7th Avenue and 116th Street, a few roads North of the Northern edge of Central Park. The sun is shining on Harlem this morning and it looks good for it, no sign yet of the imminent blizzard; I feel that we are on the outskirts of Harlem here, a feeling that is verified by a short and pleasant post-service walk that takes us to the attractive campus of Columbia University. At this time on a Sunday morning the streets are sparsely populated; those people that we do see are generally walking in the same direction as us, and their group status suggests that we will end up at the same point. None of these groups appear to be in any great hurry and we judge our pace by theirs.
The FCBC has been converted from the old Regent Theatre, one of NYC’s surviving early cinema theatres [constructed 1912-3]. The large square building has a white front facade and hints at images of Vegas wedding chapels with its large Christian crosses plastered on the front of a building that was not built with religious devotion in mind; still, its purpose is immediately apparent.
When we arrive – barely a few minutes late – it is clear from the bodies milling idly around the entrance that the service has not yet started. Feeling like the beginning of a long winded and multiply offensive joke [A German, a Spaniard, an Israeli, a Martiniquais, and an Englishman walk into a Baptist Church…] we enter and are cheerfully directed up one of the two classic theatre layout side staircases to the second tier seating – the rear of which is reserved for spectating tourists such as ourselves – by a squat black woman with a great smile and a bright blue, slogan t-shirt that reads ‘PRAISE OUR LORD.’ We end up unfolding the classic red cinema style seats in the second row of the balcony, rather closer than I would have chosen myself – I notice that our mostly white group is the closest to the front of the ‘tourists.’ A minute or so later the row directly in front of us is taken by a trio that I am certain are actual members of the congregation. Inside, despite the church’s white and gold trim colour scheme, it resembles its cinema-past and is fairly modern with screens high up above both sides of the lectern that display a video feed of the speaker and in a crisp twelve foot projection. The stage is in a large rectangular, cinema projection sized recession. At the back of this stage there is a three-piece band of keyboard, drums – encased in a clear plastic quarantine box to prevent it overwhelming – and bass guitar.
Though proceedings begin shortly after we arrive, it would not have been an issue if we had been late: there are frequent tardy arrivals for the first fifteen minutes of the seventy-five minute service. The latecomers are all clearly members of the congregation – spectators other than ourselves seem generally to have come nervously early – and they arrive confidently yet respectfully and take their chosen seat smiling, a far cry from the crouched and hushed slipping into the closest possible seat at the back that I associate with late arrivals to the churches of my experience.
The service begins with the two dozen or so strong gospel choir swarming happily on from the side of the stage. With accompaniment from the band at the back they begin a number that I don’t recognise but can’t help but tap along to in a newly single dad at the disco kind of way. The large theatre is immediately busy with the energy from the impressive vocal choir, whose sprightly sway-dancing is unconsciously copied by many seated bodies. The amiable woman who welcomed us to the building is dancing at the front of the balcony section, clapping with each sidestep; when she and I make eye contact she beams and points up at me and I immediately feel more at home. Taking my lead from this woman and an increasing number of the surrounding crowd, I join in the clapping – careful to stay in time at first but quickly finding myself relaxing into it and enjoying the inclusive effect that comes with participation. During the singing, individuals scattered across the audience show their support by standing, an action that reminds me of British MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions, though it is hard to imagine Jacob Reese-Mogg bopping along to the beat after rising to his surely uncoordinated full height.
Once the song has reached its climactic vocal conclusion and has received its deservedly enthusiastic reception there is a short welcome address from the church’s pastor, which is largely devoted to building up the anticipation for the main speaker, Dr. Micheal Eric Dyson – though I am sure the brushing of his ego is a welcomed and intentional secondary effect. At the end of the welcome address we are told that there will be one more “powerful number” from the choir before the main speaker emerges, but first we are asked, or maybe told, to hug a neighbour. Our group of five each hug the person either side of them, happy enough to do it and enjoying the novelty, and then I prepare to sit back down but to my surprise find the attractive black mother from the seat directly in front of mine has turned and is smiling and offering me a hug. I accept, and it is indeed a good hug – of course, it is not as if she is hugging a son that has just returned from military service, but in no way does it feel like she resents my ‘tourist’ status or that she is only doing it out of obligation.
With most of the embraces complete – some continue way longer than others – the music begins once again. Though my personal enjoyment of the gospel number is again entirely secular, there is an infectious energy to both this song and the last that I have only found glimpses of in the best of hymns [e.g. In Christ Alone] despite my participation in those being far more active than the simple clapping and foot-tapping that I undertake now. This might well have something to do with my own singing ability – I have, by popular opinion, as bad a voice as can reasonably be imagined and usually mumble along to hymns in the least participatory way manageable without silently mouthing – but the syncopated rhythms and call-and-response refrains of the gospel tradition are undoubtedly more affecting than the stately measure of most of the hymns that I grew up mumbling.
Feet around the room still tapping, the choir swiftly vacates the stage and is replaced by the single figure of the one and only [so I am told] Dr Dyson, whose charisma is immediately apparent. The three piece band remains on stage and the keyboard plays short runs to accompany the prayers that the good Doctor opens with, unveiling a voice that is exactly what I had hoped for, deep and powerful and tuneful above the keyboard. In a touch that makes their message hard to ignore, the prayers are also subtitled on the screens that now display a twenty foot projection of Dyson’s torso and the lectern that he alternately stands behind and leans on in a natural and comfortable fashion.
Once the initial overtly religious aspect is completed, the Doctor opens his own composition by introducing a guest member of the audience, his literary agent, a white woman who he describes as a “slave driver, but in a good way.” And so begins an hour long speech that largely ignores religion, preferring instead to focus upon the racial history and current state of America, and which is compelling throughout. Dyson constantly varies the tone, volume and speed of his oral instrument as appropriate, and uses it to demonstrate a lyrical and impressively varied vocabulary, which never strays into the Will Self ground of verbosity for verbosity’s sake. The entire performance [perhaps the key word, Dyson understands that a sermon still has to present itself in a fashion that makes the audience want to give him its attention, rather than relying on the inherent obligation that a church-goer’s presence at the service suggests they feel] is professional and entertaining and reminds me little of church, in both content and delivery.
Part of the speech serves as a whistle stop tour of now legendary figures from black American history such as Emmet Till, who was executed for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman and was said to have been told to whistle in an attempt to remedy his speech impediment, and Rosa Parks, in regard to whom Dyson scorns the idea that she refused to give up her seat on that bus because of fatigue: “She was plotting!” The speech also gives an interesting take on Obama, claiming in a rare religious reference that God “snuck him” – a middle class man of mixed race who grew up on the sunny back door island of Hawaii – into the presidency. He states that there was no way a black boy from central Chicago or Harlem could have or could now go on to become president.
Some of the most charged moments of Dyson’s speech – addressing e.g. Jefferson’s calling into question the black nature in Notes on the State of Virginia – are uncomfortable listening as a white man [Now this is obviously not a complaint, I am an outside spectator at this event and not Dyson’s target audience]. For a moment I try to take solace in my English status but the Doctor seems to notice and indirectly pounces, chastising America’s general reluctance to speak or teach or publish on the ugly side of their past, in comparison with the reams of material available on figures such as Jefferson or Franklin. This is comparable to the English blindness to the ugly side of our own colonial past and the slavery it involved, something we are focus on little in our schools, especially in comparison with the American Civil Rights Movement – I guess it is easier to comment on another country’s misdeeds than your own’s.
It becomes clear that audience participation is not limited to the songs: during Dr Dyson’s sermon there are frequent noises and words of approval dotted from individuals across the crowd after a particularly worthy statement. An elderly black woman from the front row of the balcony who sits as if she is at the head of her family table can be heard moaning approval throughout but only vocalises when Dyson states that the majority of white women voted for Trump, while black women voted overwhelmingly for Hilary, at which point she exclaims “Yes we did!”
Now, with this rather nice segue, Dyson moves onto the brightly coloured elephant in most rooms, referring to the current government as a “toddler presidency,” without filter from briefly considered thought to mouth, or rather to 120 character thumbs. In the course of this invective section Dyson blames the presidency on the white person’s passive acceptance of America’s racial imbalance and intolerance, stating that he has had white acquaintances come to him and say that they now understand what he has long been telling them [“Now we get it!”]. While I think this is fairly clearly a reductive summary that ignores the myriad factors that culminated in the current government, it does make me think of the various people in the last few weeks that have shown the effectiveness of the dirty smears of the campaign and told me that they voted for neither Trump nor Hillary, believing both to be unsuitable candidates. As David Wallace says in the essay Up Simba!: ‘in reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting or you vote by staying at home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.’ Those that have told me they did not vote for Trump or Hilary, such as the wonderfully laconic Massachusetts barman or the distressingly organised Virginian interior designer [who tells me that he voted for Gary ‘What’s an Aleppo‘ Johnson, while at the same time laughing that Johnson runs on autopilot every cycle and “cared as much about winning this election as I did.”] unfailingly start by exonerating themselves and telling me that they didn’t vote for Trump, before revealing that nor did they vote against him; they attempt to distance themselves from the Trump victory that they are as complicit in it as the Diehard that DFW mentions.
Dr Dyson draws his sermon to a close with a valedictory nod to the religious element that his sermon has been fairly conspicuously ignoring, before bidding his audience to dig deep for the collection plates that are about to come around – this is religion after all. I pass a note to my Spanish friend who is folding his own into the small envelopes that were handed out as we entered but he wisely tells me to find my own so it is clear that we have both contributed: we must be seen be donating. It triggers – perhaps embarrassingly late – that this is likely why us tourists are tolerated and even welcomed into the church; attempting to ease their awkwardness, I am sure the tourist generally pays handsomely.
With the sermon completed the crowd stands and starts to shift messily but genially toward the staircases; I let myself go with it. I am slightly unnerved by how much my expectations have been met by this experience and can’t help but wonder if this is the usual subject and tone of the sermon, or if it was only so overtly racial because it is the FCBC’s 84th anniversary – surely religion is more prominent in the week-in-week-out sermon.
In the church foyer [an interesting phrase] Dr Dyson is selling signed copies of his new book and is surrounded by bodies, himself the epicentre of the conversation. He appears relaxed and his charm seems to transfer to a more personal setting. As I am leaving I check my watch and am shocked to see that an hour and a quarter has passed since we entered – it seems that few things make time pass as quickly as charisma and high quality gospel music. I find it novel to have spent the morning in church and be able to leave feeling as if I have already enjoyed my day rather than that I am now able to do so.