I attended my first service at a traditional African-American Baptist church Sunday.
Friendship Baptist Church services began at 11 a.m. By 11:10, the church was alive with a live drummer backing a rousing sing-a-long praising Jesus. Congregants clapped, sang, swayed and shouted affirmations along with the music.
The people I met were warm and friendly, even the ones who knew why I was there. And they put a lot of thought into their Sunday best. The men wore a variety of suit colors, including turquoise and mustard, and many accessorized with long coats, cuff links and pocket squares.
The women wore their best dresses, some with long scarves and spectacular hats. After a brief Scripture reading, the drummer resumed pounding the skins and the church roared into “Glory to His Name.” Several more songs followed.
Friendship is split at the moment and there is no doubt more trouble lies ahead over the decision by a handful of trustees and deacons to dismiss the Rev. Melvin Baber. The congregation has gone to court in an effort to reverse that decision.
A couple of things occurred to me as I listened to the music. One, Sundays at church represent a huge part of African-American history dating back to the slave era. As Hans A. Baer of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock writes, “churches function as centers of social life, ethnic identity, and cultural expression in the African-American community.”
In the years following reconstruction, Sundays at church represented a day and a place where African-Americans were on par with whites. Many feel this is where the tradition of dressing to the nines began in African-American culture.
Secondly, I noticed plenty of young people in the pews. In my three months covering religion, I have been in a lot of white churches and I can’t recall seeing as many young people as I did this Sunday at Friendship.
There would seem to be a strong correlation between the uptempo music, the freestyle format and the youth participation.