Gospel Service at the Macedonian African Methodist Church

Sunday 8th February 2015

I am up at 6 am excited about the Gospel Service and in and out of the shower, knowing that Dickie and Bev will be up soon too. I make tea and slice fruit and get back in my room to give them space. Bev hates mornings and is quiet and withdrawn for some while after waking, and I respect that. By nature, I am an early riser and enjoy the sunrise, the quiet, the birds and the restful peace, its a time I think well, its a time Gerald and I do often do our meditative practice together, a time for tea, books, or even catching up with friends on Facebook. My energy levels drop during the day, and by 8 pm, after dinner is cleared away, and I am sitting with my Beloved and a glass of wine and watching TV, I am anticipating a 9.30 to 10 pm sleep time, preceded by a half hour of reading. Bev's time clock is the opposite, as I am climbing into bed, which is preparing for a few hours of television, or sitting down to dinner, or taking a long soaking bath in the tub. Mornings are definitely not for socialising or reading, they are for sleeping. That we have managed to exist here for this week or so is testimony to our friendship.

Last night, Dickie was preparing his suit, his shirt, his tie, polishing his shoes, folding his hanky, getting all his clothing "just so" for the service this morning. So like my Dad. And after I went to bed, Bev enjoyed a long bath, she had washed and set her hair earlier, and unknown to her, got it all wet in the tub. So when she woke up this morning, its damp. She hauls out a big old fashioned salon style hair dryer and sets it up on the dining room table, and sits under it in her nighty. Its after eight, and the Smiths will be here at 8.45 am, Dickie is looking nervous about the time, and I am already dressed and ready to go. I retire to the room and busy myself, as a few husband and wife sharp words are exchanged. I have my new coat and several layers of leggings, woollen cami, wool jumper, wool cardigan, hat, gloves, two pairs of socks, Sue's boots, and a huge scarf, the final layers ready to put on at the front door. Bev is getting ready now and wearing a smart skirt and jacket, silk stockings, high heels, matching accessories and a long fur coat and looks a million dollars. I, on the other hand, look like a refugee. She says to me, "Are you wearing that?" - I demur yes, I am dressing for the cold. Somewhat dubiously, she asks "Do you have a skirt to wear?" - no, I don't. I have forgotten how beautifully the congregation dresses for these services, but this is the best I can do with my clothing and the weather.

The Smiths are on time and we leave just a few minutes later, Bev can get a wriggle on when need be, and we 'robe up', a lengthy procedure. The snow is thick, it is absolutely freezing, the road is icy, and the men have a running commentary on the bad drivers on the road. Dickie purports that New York is full of people who have never seen snow and don't know how to drive in it, and are a menace. I stare gobsmacked as people do insane things, and agree. I don't think I would drive in the snow either. We have chains on our tyres for that in Australia!

The Mission Statement of this Church:

The mission of the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church is to create a Christian community that is equipped, empowered, and committed to the building of the Kingdom of God, through the proclamation of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Macedonia will prepare people to become disciples through life transforming worship, Bible based teaching, and the cultivation of disciplined prayer and devotional life. Macedonia is called to serve the people of God by developing ministries that speak to the social, political, economic,and spiritual needs of our community.

The church is not far, in Union Street, Flushing, and old, about 130 years I believe - and there is a plan to demolish it and build something modern. At Christmas apparently, Nath was one of those serving a meal to the underprivileged, and the rain was severe, and they spent hours bucketing up water off the floor which poured through all over the place. I met a man whose father's father had helped build this church, and he said that then all they could afford was third grade bricks, and its a miracle it lasted this long. They recently completed an apartment block next to it, also for the underprivileged, a project they are justifiably proud of. We enter a nondescript building and up some stairs, the lights are low, and it has a warmth, both physical and non physical. The people are beaming, coming at me, arms outstretched, "Howyadoin'?" and "Welcome to our Church!" - I meet a dozen or more people, many of whom seem to know of me, and once more I am struck by the connectedness of this community.

February is African American History Month, which began in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. By the late 1960's,  thanks in part to the Civil Rights Movement and a growing awareness of black identity, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. The celebration was expanded to a month in 1976, the nation's bicentennial. President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to 'seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.'

We enter a large room at the end of the corridor, which is The Church, where a prayer is just finishing, I see Tony, Nath and Yvonne's son, working sound equipment at the back, and rows of pews, many empty. Everyone is immaculately dressed, the women sporting hats, heels, and jewellery, sumptuous floor length coats of leather and fur, the men all in suits, gleaming shoes. Most carry their bibles, clearly well used, some a bit battered and well loved. We take our seats right up the front, where I have a good view of all the proceedings. Lots of glowing wood pews to the left and right of the altar, for two choirs I imagine, the altar simple and elegant. The family is there - Fred and Deborah, Tony, Annette their friend, Yvonne takes her seat on the opposite side of the aisle with the 'officials' - she too, dressed to nines, with a huge red hat I would love to wear to a wedding.

There is a woman leading the music, and as it starts to soar, a procession of women walk solemnly and reverently down the centre aisle, all wearing floor length robes, with a golden scarf around their necks. They take their seats to the left of the altar - none of the Catholic Church stuff where the choir is sidelined, this choir is the Top Gig, and gets the appropriate billing. Officials follow, the music is simply sublime, and I feel the first prick of tears - the music touches something deep inside of me, an unknown place which aches and wants to laugh, all at once. The pastor makes his entrance, a tall, impressive man, dressed in robes, and an open, friendly face. He welcomes us, and blesses us, leads us in a simple, loving prayer for us and the world - and we are privvy to more music, the congregation join in singing, they know all the words to all the songs, swaying, clapping, and clearly loving the process. Every now and again, someone will call out over the top of the music, and repeat a phrase, - 'Praise God!' - or 'Jesssssssus!'. A small woman steps up to the mike, she is elderly, possibly even 80 or more, someone who clearly once had the most thrilling voice, which now quavers a little, but she can hit the notes, and she gives it her all. Her mike is not working, and the choir master comes and replaces it for her, and her voice suddenly fills the church. She is not perfect, yet this community understand her place as an elder, as a singer, and she is given a rousing applause. I like it that we can clap in a church!   I am so touched by this gesture, in our community we seldom give 'space' to the elderly, allowing the young to take centre stage, there is a deep respect here that I love.

An elegant woman, straight from a Vogue magazine, dressed in the style of Jackie Kennedy, with a tailored knee length slim skirt and matching jacket, goes to the pulpit. I learn later this lady is one of the people who donated $25 - or was it $50 - to Zac's Ceremony for Joshua and his team. She welcomes the community, and then says, "Today we have a special visitor all the way from AUSTRALIA! Sandra Groom, friends of Nath and Yvonne Smith and Bev and Dickie Riley. Welcome Ms. Sandra! We are so grateful to have you here. We are grateful that today you didn't go to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, nor Fifth Avenue! We are so grateful you chose to worship the Lord with us here on this blessed day and we thank your friends for bringing you to us!" She asks me to stand and people clap and smile and wave, which is just the introductioin to another part of the service similar to ours. "Give each other the sign of Peace" - people come from all over the church, not just those in the pews to the back and front of each other. There is a considerable stampede of people to shake my hand and welcome me to church, dignified elderly gentleman with white hair and knife creased trousers, elegantly dressed women with coiffed hair and manicured nails, I find their genuine smiles and simple, old fashioned language, deeply touching.

There are more prayers, and I am surprised to see that several are almost identical to our Catholic mass, bar one or two words. The 'I Believe in One God" for example. The pastor gives his sermon, its about love and being the best we can be, more like an evening at the Landmark Forum than the church, I can relate to this, all of it, and I feel so grateful to be here. More songs, I could stay here all day - and then Preacher Cookie, her pet name, walks to the altar. A short round woman, she speaks with passion and her words land on me with meaning. The choir finish a song that makes my heart ache.  Preacher Cookie says she loves that hymn, she says, "Give me Jesus" - those words touch her deeply, her parents used to say it, but the words "My Mother said, 'Give me Jesus'" - are so emotive. I think of my Mother and her special brand of Catholicism, and the times she called out to Jesus. Perhaps not quite in the reverent sense this woman is speaking, and I feel a giggle rise. My mother, when pushed to the limits by her kids, more especially my younger brother, would on occasion remove her shoes, pull out a chair, and climb on to the kitchen table, where she would grip her hair and yell "Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Give me STRENGTH!"

Pastor Cookie is speaking of the 'outsiders' in our community, who are we for them? - are we kind and inclusive, are we generous, do we only keep to ourselves and 'those like us'. She tells us a story of the lepers during biblical times, who were deemed unclean - any kind of skin disease was considered leprosy - acne, rashes, eczema - my vitiligo would certainly have classified me as a leper - and she intones "If you had leprosy you had to live OUTSIDE THE CITY WALLS. If you were sick you had to live OUTSIDE THE CITY WALLS, if you were destitute you had to live OUTSIDE THE CITY WALLS."  I am thinking what it must be like to live outside the city walls, metaphorically or physically. Louise Hay tells me that vitiligo is symptomatic of a feeling of 'not belonging'. Am I outside the city walls? I remember feeling 'left out of the inner circle' a couple of times as a child at school, I felt that when I failed at breastfeeding and shamefully bottle fed my baby son whilst all the other Mums proffered their bountiful breasts, I feel that from time to time in conversations about computers and technology where I know I am DEFINITELY OUTSIDE THE CITY WALLS. But to live that way in life must be a terrible hardship, such a lonely life. These dear people my friends, and here in this church, have gone out of their way to place me firmly inside the city walls. My life is definitely lived inside the city walls and I am so grateful.

Songs of praise with enthusiastic responses from the congregation, and then Pastor Cookie asks "Do you want to be prayed for?" Bev looks at me and raises an eyebrow. I say,  "I'm not sure what that means?" and she whispers, "Do you want a special prayer for someone?" Oh, I do. "Sheela, our daughter in Nepal", and there is a catch in my throat. She takes me firmly by the hand and leads me to the altar, where people are lining up and kneeling - Pastor Cookie moves along the assembled throng, grasping our hands and lowering her ear as we quietly tell her who we want special prayers for. "We have an adopted daughter in Nepal, Sheela, who recently had brain surgery and has lost her vision - she lives in poverty - can we pray for her recovery?" unplanned, the words tumble out my mouth, and I realise that there are tears pouring down my face. I am kneeling, and feel the warmth of bodies around me, strong hands on my shoulders and in the curve of my back, and a snowy white linen hanky is passed from Dickie to Bev to me. This makes me cry even more. When she has heard the requests of perhaps twenty or more people, she stands centre of the altar, and gazes upwards, pleading with Almighty God to help these people, those suffering mental issues, families torn by grief and drugs, those dealing with alcoholism and violence, ill health and separated families, divorce and financial issues. Then she looks back at me and says "And for our sister from Australia, who adopted a child not her kith and kin, a child who recently had brain surgery in Nepal" (she looks at me quizzically again, as if to check the facts) - "God bless and heal this little girl, in the name of mercy and love, Lord Jesus, Amen!" She throws her hands heavenwards, and people respond with "Thank you Lord" and "Praise the Lord" and "Hallelujah!" and stand to return to their seats. I stand and am surrounded by people, not only my'family' but a dozen others whose faces are wet with tears too, who ask if its OK to hug me, they shake my hand, some kiss me on the cheek, I am blessed and praised and thanked - what have I done? - my heart is overflowing with love and support, of being inside the city walls.

Oh I love this service. Around noon, it ends, and I am disappointed, I could have been here all day. The smell of delicious food is wafting through the building, and I assume this is where we are having brunch, but no, this meal is for the underprivileged, a meal they share each Sunday, served by the congregation. This is the true meaning of God I think. I am introduced to lots more people, people who say "Australia?" with a touch of disbelief and admiration. I meet a couple in their nineties, the woman tiny and vibrant, is introduced as "The Crazy Lady" - and Bev says, referring to me, "I want you to meet your soul mate, another Crazy Lady!" - we both laugh and hug each other closely, her face is radiant. Her husband's Grandad was one of the men who built this church, and they have living memory of slavery in their lives. Oh My Goodness. A living memory of slavery.   I meet the elegant woman who welcomed me so beautifully, and I thank her for her support of our son and his team and the Australian Film Industry, she is gracious and so beautiful, I tell her she belongs in Vogue magazine. "Darling, you can come here every week with a story like that!"

I meet the Reverend, Dr. Richard O. McEachern, Pastor - who tells me what a privilege it was to have me there, and listens politely as Bev tells him the story of her surprise party, and me coming down the stairs in my Tasmanian Mask. I love it that she has called it this, I do not know why - and ask her later, she too is non plussed, but I like it! There are many long farewells and more hugging, as I am leaving tomorrow, Tony is on the music and we promise to connect on Face Book. Finally, we depart, gathering armfuls of clothing and layering jumpers and scarves and hats and gloves and coats and head out into the snowy street. I still think I am starring in a movie when I see the brownstone houses, the yellow cabs, and hear the sirens, yes, even on a Sunday as we leave a church. New York never sleeps, they say.

Slipping and sliding, laughing, held up by the strong arms of Dickie we make slow progress to Nath in the car he has brought as close as he can. Bless these men.