Sunday #6 – Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church, 1534 Peck Avenue, San Antonio
Why This Church?
This past week, religion reporter Abe Levy from San Antonio Express News and I met to discuss my steeple “chasing and stretching” journey. When I shared that I’d be visiting this particular African American church because it was one of two that had the word “love” in the title, he said, “Make sure you dress up..” Immediately, my thoughts went back to the early 60s in southeast Texas where dressing up became a prerequisite for church.
I often visited my grandmother on the weekends in Bridge City, and as a member of the First Baptist Church of Orange, TX, she would take my sister and I to church. We’d watch as she dressed for church by pulling on her girdle, then rolling up stockings in her hands and slip them around her feet, up her vein covered legs to hook the stockings to the girdle. Then, she’d search for a slip before later pulling on a dress. As we watched from the floor, she’d search through hatboxes in her closet, find the perfect hat, then slip it on with a pair of matching patent leather shoes.
Once dressed we’d pile into her non air conditioned, green 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air and marvel at how she manhandled the steering wheel to turn that hunk of metal onto the street, since power steering remained only a fantasy in her mind. By the time we reached church in the hot mid-morning sun, sweat had permanently adhered our dresses to our backs.
Somewhere during the past several decades, our society has discarded the hats, girdles, stockings, slips and begun taking an “anything goes” approach to what we wear to church. Right, wrong, good, bad, like it or leave it – I miss those days. So this week, I’m excited to attend a church where I might see a few hats. (I’m hoping!)
Preconceived Ideas about Churches Steeped in African American Culture
In both comedic and dramatic films, African American churches are presented as pretty much the same in every film. Unfortunately until now, I’ve never had or made the opportunity to test those film depictions. This week, you will see first-hand if the following preconceived ideas I hold prove true:
- African American churches are filled with energetic and “soulful” people
- Church music is rich in soul and creates an atmosphere where people sway and move to the music
- Many arms swaying in the air, lots of “Amen brothers”
- Ongoing responses from the congregation to what the pastor says throughout the sermon
As I park my dinky Smart car in the lot, I notice that most of the women are streaming into church in red dresses. You guys didn’t spread my blog far and wide, because I didn’t get the memo that everyone should wear red for “Heart Month.” At this point, you can imagine my delight in seeing a few women sporting hats! Most men shared this garmented respect for church by dressing in suits, ties and all carrying bibles.
I took a seat four rows from the front, and a woman (in a red dress) sat next to me. Myra tells me she is the pastor’s mother-in-law and is visiting from Hillsboro, TX; we exchange a few words. She also became a great source of inside information. I noticed a poster on the wall that read: $56 a square foot. How many square feet is God asking you to give? When I ask about it, she told me that this church “burned the mortgage up” for the building they worship in now and members are raising money for a new church building.
Once the deacons had filed in, the service began with a reading from Ephesians, followed by prayer. Some people say, “Lord” “God” “Jesus” or “Heavenly Father” when they pray, but this deacon kept using the word “Father God” which is a little different than I’m used to. All works. Then came lively music, another reading and then more music with a spirit-filled choir.
At one point, I lean over to ask Myra why two women are standing up front waving medium-sized blue flags. I then learned from her daughter, the pastor’s wife, why. Just another way to praise and worship. Okay, then, works for me. You see, I’m not afraid to ask a few questions, if I don’t understand what’s going on.
After the most unusual way of saying the Lord’s Prayer, complete with audience singing responses, two young people came to the front for a Black History Moment of the Week. The young girl read from an iPhone about Maxine Waters, while the young man read about Frederick Douglass. Then, the organist rocked it with the choir by performing “We Shall Overcome” and one other song.
Finally, Pastor Gillespie walked up to the podium in a three-piece suit, complete with bowtie. The organist continued to play, all from ear (I’m really jealous of this particular skill) as the pastor spoke. At one point, he says, “Tell someone around you ‘I get tired.’” And Myra leaned over to say, “I get tired.” He did this several times and I thought it was an excellent way to engage the congregation. Then the organ music stops and the pastor began his message by telling us he has been battling allergies all week and didn’t know if he could make it today.” When you get to the next video in this blog, you’ll understand how allergies could seriously hamper a pastors’ sermon in a Baptist Church rich in African American heritage.
Pastor Gillespie is wicked fast with the one-liners. These caused the crowd to break out in “Amens” “That’s right” “You said it” Yeahs” and “Alrights.” He had so many one-liners, it hurt my hand to write that fast. Here are just a few for you to ponder:
“I come from a day where if my family had something, your family had something. We shared everything.”
“You can have more fun with nothing than you can with all that we have today.”
“Some people live in a mansion, but only have a .50 cent personality.”
“Some people care more about what you have than what you know.”
“The loudest person in the room is usually the weakest person in the room.”
“Too many folk are on their way to do good, when they should do good on their way.”
“Be what you is.”
“Your opinion and my responsibility are two different things.”
At this point, it must have gotten hot from the front, because the pastor ripped his jacket off, threw it to one of the other ministers and raised the volume considerably. Loved how he engaged the crowd with this statement: I wish I had three people to wave at me, because I’m almost finished.
Then, the pastor touched on the subject of work and having a job by sharing about a time when his kids were young. “I worked several jobs because I have this affection for kids who want to eat.” At one point he said to the crowd, “Get off your lazy self and go get a job.” Pastor Gillespie instructed the congregation to, “work where you can until you can work where you want.” I immediately took a liking to this pastor based solely on his thoughts about work ethic.
Then, he explained at one point he became a night manager for the Southland Corporation (a.k.a. 7-11). “Night manager is the knucklehead who is brave enough to be at the store all by himself and they ain’t managin’ nobody.” He said he had been robbed twice during that time. The first time, a big guy with an overcoat, ski mask, gloves and holding a big gun came in. “That changed my perspective; I looked at that big gun and thought maybe I need to give this dude some money,” he said.
The second time a little short guy walked up and pulled out a bottle of pepper spray and squirted it in his face. He said he struggled to get to the back so he could wash out the stuff that was burning his eyes. His first call after that was to his boss. “Want to know what she said?” asked the pastor. She said, “How is the store?” Pastor Gillespie said he did not leave that job right then, even though he wanted to. He waited until he had the job he wanted.
Then, the pastor hit his high point where I suddenly realized why he had concerns about being able to deliver a sermon with his allergies in full bloom.
After that the pastor sat down and what appeared to be a nurse attended to his needs with a towel, water and generally looked after his wellbeing. The altar call was made by one of the other ministers and this was quite similar to what I had experienced in Baptist churches previously.
Then came the offering. Now this was quite different, but I’d been forewarned. Everyone gets up and files to the front to put their money in the plates while the band is playing, then goes back to their seats.
Finally, came the Recognition of Visitors, (yes, I stood up), then birthday and anniversary remembrances.
Post Service Commentary
Many churches declare they have a church family; In fact, they all do. However, this is truly a church family at Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church. Everyone knows everyone else. Hugs are preferred over shaking hands. Children sit with their parents and join in on the service. Guests are welcomed from the time they walk through the door until they hop in their cars. I count this experience as truly a blessing. I have many African American friends in my circle, and I would encourage you all to invite one “white bread” friend like myself to come with you to church next week. They will have fun and you will be opening eyes to what makes the rich African American culture thrive and to another way of worshiping God. And, they might see some HATS!
A few weeks ago, my hairdresser told me about the Under the Bridge churches in San Antonio. She had seen some of these church services held under the freeway bridges for the homeless and said they were well attended. Not sure if I’ll find a website for this type of church, but I’ll reach out to my contact at the San Antonio Express. Bet he knows the details. Got my mind set on that one, but I’ll just have to see.