What a worship! I may have to leave the Presbyterian Church and become black so I can join the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church. The original music leaders couldn’t make it. But the “substitute” music was so awesome I don’t think I could have survived anything more spirited. They started out with a couple of bass guitars and kept building; by the end, it included a sax and drum set along with the third and fourth guitar. We tapped, clapped, snapped, hooted and swayed. We Amened and Hallelujahed. We praised the Lord and gave thanks for just about everything there is on the face of the planet. I was limp afterwards.
The very first song in the service was the song I’ve dreamed of singing in such a gathering. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is called the “Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.” It is a stirring piece and moves me every time I hear it. This Sunday their pianist was sick so they sang the song without any accompaniment, without a choir or a choir director. Not even somebody waving their arms keeping time. They didn’t need it. The folks at the Greater Mt Zion AME Church know the song. I like to sit at the front of the church whenever I can because the sound is so much better there. I stood there with my eyes closed and let the sound wash over me.
Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies;
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on, till victory is won.
The worship program had pictures of major figures in black history. Along with the ones I knew like Dr King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, there was one man I had never heard of, Richard Allen, the founder of the AME church. He was a slave who saved $2,000 and bought his freedom in 1787, after the Revolutionary War. As a free man he entered the local Methodist church one day to worship and was turned away. Thus was formed the AME church.
At the end of the day’s address, it was only natural that the speaker held up the latest issue of Ebony magazine that had a picture of Barack Obama and the title “In Our Lifetime.” It was definitely a chill bump moment for me.
We ended with singing “We Shall Overcome.” The last time I sang this song it was a similar occasion, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first black graduate of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. I felt seriously lacking that day and wondered what I had done to deserve the right to sing the song with the rest of the crowd. Sunday, I felt far less out of place.
I haven’t done all that much to change things in Mississippi but I have witnessed a great change. I’ve been told the KKK was active even until recently. But this storm was too big and too awful to worry about race now. Katrina didn’t ask any questions when she ran onshore, everyone got hit equally.
I’ve watched this town work together. I’ve watched them become friends. Nowadays, in Pearlington, when somebody asks if a person is black or white, it’s just for identification purposes, much like I would ask what color shirt someone had on. The local hero is a small and humble man who saved 27 lives that horrible day. James Peters is a hero not because of the color of his skin but because of the content of his character.