I went to a Pentecostal church service last night. I am not a churchgoer by nature (having gotten my fill and more in childhood), but my friend in seminary was attending the Pentecostal service for a class she’s taking, and I volunteered to go along.
I will admit I was a little trepidatious. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church, but we were not Pentecostal (though my church was on friendly terms with the Pentecostal church). I am somewhat familiar with Pentecostal beliefs—particularly exuberance and speaking in tongues. I tried to speak in tongues once. The Pentecostals did a special service at our church, and they had a van where people could go to get prayed over and they would speak in tongues. I must have been in junior high. They prayed over me a long time and I tried really really hard, but all I could do was a kind of grunt-moan. It was excruciating; all I wanted to do was escape. I’m sure the van wasn’t locked, but it may as well have been.
So I kind of thought that going to a Pentecostal church would be a good idea. It would reset the bar and update this lifelong impression I’ve had based on a childhood experience.
We arrived a few minutes before the service started. We were not bombarded by people welcoming us, though many people smiled and nodded and one gentleman shook our hands and welcomed us and gave us bulletins. The congregation was extremely diverse. Before the service started a woman from Brazil stopped by to welcome us, and then an African American man who was the youth director stopped to say hello. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a diverse group in a church, or anywhere for that matter. Latinos, Asians, Africans, African Americans, whites. I couldn’t even tell you which group predominated.
There was an African American woman two rows ahead of us with the most beautiful white hat. Almost all the men were wearing suits. I found myself severely underdressed. I wore black pants and a modest blouse. I believe I was the only woman there in pants. I was also one of the few women who did not have her hair in a bun. With possibly one exception (excepting us), every single woman in that church had long hair. Usually in a bun (but at least one in dreds).
When the service started they called everyone up to the front to sing. Most people went. We didn’t and a few others didn’t, but most did. And there was a lot of singing. Good, joyful, fun singing. And the main singer (on stage) had a beautiful and happy voice. The congregation was quite exuberant, with jumping and arm waving, yelling and clapping. And then I noticed that all the men were on the left side and all the women were on the right side. Huh. Later, when people went back to their seats, seating was integrated. But when they went down front again at the end of the service, again, men to the left, women to the right.
New frames to add to my Pentecostal image: hair buns, segregated ecstasy.
Throughout this whole first part of the service, there had been a very diverse set of people on the stage—mostly women and men of color. But when the music team left and it was just the ministers, it was all oldish white men. I found that completely jarring. Four of them, in their black suits and red ties.
And just when I had decided that Pentecostals were more focused on joy than I had realized, and started to look forward to the rest of the service, the sermon began.
It started out on a good note, with references to Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks, a bit of humor, some attempts to quantify the vastness of eternity, and a sentence that I absolutely loved:
“The longest thing you will ever do is live.”
Not bad, huh? I thought that was a really good message to leave the church with.
But then the sermon turned south. All hellfire and brimstone. Seriously. “Let me tell you about hell.” “Everlasting torment.” “Lake of Fire.” “Weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “A consuming fire and it will be dark.” “Tormented day and night.” And, truly, “fire and brimstone.”
I completely deflated. I have heard this sermon so many times before. (See above: fundamentalist upbringing.) There is nothing inspiring in this sermon, nothing joyful, nothing hopeful; the whole you-should-be-a-Christian-out-of-fear approach. I loathe this. There are so many beautiful things in Christianity. Why would you focus on fear rather than love?
And then I get annoyed, and I start to quibble with specific wording. Here is one example:
THERE IS NO GOD IN HELL. (Umm, but god is omnipresent. If hell exists, god has to be in hell. Unless god is not omnipresent? But then is god really god?)
You see how I can get.
After the sermon, there was a bit more music and then some praying, and (again at the front of the church, men on the left, women on the right) a lot of people on their knees, some wailing, a lot of crying, and it seemed to me very like weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We left at this point. (Almost at the end of the service.) We talked about it a bit on the way home, but I declined an offer of coffee, wanting to sink into it and process (here is where my introvert side comes out in a big way).
Writing is a good way of processing. I have also realized that churches tend not to be places where I feel god (though I do often admire their architecture).
I most often feel god in nature. I feel more awe and reverence in a forest than in a church. A prairie. The desert. The ocean. Tundra even. I guess this could be called generic god worship—not tied to a specific code or creed—but rather to the earth itself. It’s a small planet, as planets go. But it’s a good one.