Friday, October 6, 2017

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1582: The Invitation

  I received an invitation to attend services at a “White church” (a church whose pastor and members are all White). I wondered about the invitation. This may have been the first time in 46 years of living in Selma and 34 years of serving in the Alabama Senate that I was specifically invited to a “White church” on a particular Sunday. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America.”

  At first I did not know the name of the person inviting me. When my assistant provided the name, I understood the invitation. The person extending the invitation was the guest speaker, not the pastor or a member. He regularly interacts with the Alabama Legislature. I agreed to attend before I learned who had invited me. It was strange to be invited to a White church on Sunday.

  We were unable to obtain directions to the church from Google. My assistant called the speaker. He told her to tell me to turn left off U.S. 80 just after I entered Lowndes County and the Town of Benton, then take the first left and turn left again. It was all lefts. Was that an omen? (Smile!) I followed the directions. There was a church on the left, but I couldn’t see a name. I didn’t want to go in to the wrong church, especially the wrong “White church.” I was early, so I watched as people arrived. Everyone was White.

  At five minutes to eleven, I got out my car just as a man came out the church headed toward to his truck. He assured me that I was at the Benton Baptist Church. When I got close, I could see Benton Baptist Church on a wall plaque. A Black church (a church whose pastor and members are all Black) would have had a big sign in the front yard.

  As I entered the church, I was warmly greeted by a number of members. One woman reminded me that she had taught my children in the Selma school system. The speaker greeted me warmly. The pastor also greeted me warmly. But I was the only Black face in the place.

  Culture is powerful. It manifests itself in all we do, including religion. I noticed the words on the church program, “Lee Tate, Pastor.” There was no “Reverend” before his name. Virtually every Black pastor would have reverend before his name. Ministers play a very different role in the Black community than the White community. The service started right at eleven and ended around twelve. Few services in Black churches end in an hour. Proportionately, there were more men than I would see in a Black church even though more women were in attendance at this church.

  The speaker was Dr. Joe Godfrey, executive director of ALCAP (Alabama Citizens Action Program). He regularly comes to the Alabama Legislature, most often lobbying against gambling. We are usually on opposite sides of that issue but still respect each other. He also facilitates the weekly Legislative Prayer Breakfast when the legislature is in session. Dr. Godfrey called me to the front of the church so he could pray for me. I went because I need all the prayers I can get. He asked me if I wanted to make any remarks. I declined. He prayed for me. I thanked him for the prayer and thanked the church members for allowing me to share the service.

  The sermon was very good. Before Dr. Godfrey commenced his sermon, he teased me by saying that he should preach about the sins of gambling since I was in attendance. However, he did not mention gambling. He also said that he had previously invited me to this church, but I do not recall the invitation. He took the text for his sermon from the Biblical passages where Jesus was challenged by the Sadducees to name the greatest commandment, and Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls. The second commandment is like unto it: Love your neighbor as yourself. I had observed closely to see if anyone’s body language expressed objection to my presence but had not perceived any. However, I still wondered if all of the members considered me their neighbor in the biblical sense. They were certainly welcoming in the church.

  I left Benton Baptist Church shortly after twelve. The Cutting Edge Church was just a country block or so away. The sign with the name of the church was clearly visible from the road. It was a Black church, so I knew the service would not be over. As I walked in, the preacher was just getting up to preach. The services had started at 11 am. Black churches generally have longer services. Every person present was Black except one man who had been helping the pastor, Rev. Frank Boggan, to renovate this former store building into a church. The pastor had invited me to share the church services anytime I could make it. However, the truth is that I would have felt comfortable going to a Black church without an invitation.

  The female co-pastor preached the sermon. Female preachers are often referred to as “Minister” rather than “Reverend,” another cultural manifestation in the Black church. Co-Pastor Ellen Boggan did not read her sermon as Dr. Godfrey had done. She moved around the front of the church while Dr. Godfrey had remained behind the pulpit podium. She moved her hands, feet and entire body in communicating while Dr. Godfrey held steady his hands, feet and body. Both she and Dr. Godfrey presented very well. However, the presentations were very different. Co-Pastor Boggan’s text for the sermon was “Trust in God.”

  These two churches are little over a country block from each other. However, they are worlds apart in culture. One manifests “White culture” and the other manifests “Black culture.” The good thing is that both worship the same God. Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the week.

Epilogue – We are usually reluctant about the unknown, so we shy away. Few things make us more reluctant than the religion of others because religion is so personal. However, I believe God would have us to not shy away. Maybe that is one reason why eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the week in America.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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