Untitled, Photograph by Valeria ‘Mikki’ Ferrill (1970)
Hold Back The Night
It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, that when they lifted their voices up with the cymbals and instruments and praised the Lord, the house was filled with a cloud. The priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God.”
— 2 Chronicles 5:13–14, KJV, paraphrased
Most us black babies done grown up in church. Most us might as well have been birthed in it, considering probably a week or two after being born, we were there in the Sunday morning service being nursed in it and then there in the pews every Sunday after that into perpetuity. These days, on the sporadic Sundays I do attend, I see kids, teenagers, even, whose mothers’ I saw pregnant with them, all round stomachs and glowing faces, waving that week’s program as a fan because the Word was that damn good, the sanctuary that damn hot. Whether I want it to or not, church’s been baked into me about as long as I had blood and bones. But I’ll tell you now, before you read any further, that this essay isn’t about my reconciliation of my upbringing in the church and my current lived reality. It won’t be about finding the right distance between myself and God, and God and the World, because that’s a longer and different story for another day or maybe for never; there might be echoes of that in here, but don’t be listening for ’em. For all intents and purposes, this essay’s just about The Choir. It’s been more than ten years since our church housed a choir; they were placed on an indefinite hiatus when Pastor fell ill. But when his condition progressed such that he was no longer able to come in and lead rehearsals, all hopes for its revival passed away with him. Pastor and I shook hands a handful of Sundays, he probably said sweet words over me meeting me shortly after birth, but to be honest, I don’t remember him in the same way as those around for the 1970s through the early 90s during our congregation’s gospel music heyday. While I was not plagued with the same grief of the older members, the death of an icon was not lost on me. The Church robbed me of a lot of things, but art certainly was not one of them.
In those days, I was frequently caught between terrible anxiety and stringent religiosity which assured me, “You will be alone, you will be isolated, for this is but a condition of your righteousness, for even Jesus sweat blood in grief when He sought the Lord on the mountaintop!” They attempted to rectify the darkness of reality with even more words — “when you are weak God is strong, set your sights on Heaven not on the earth, you are a new creature, dead to your old life, self, hobbies, passions, people, be not dispirited by this, but only encouraged!”
You might find me back then sitting on my floor, rocking back and forth on prayer knees my mind rebounding between embracing one to reject the other, fruitlessly trying to make sense of the middle. I’d watch the darkness overtake the daylight, feeling the sadness roll into my bedroom as thunderstorm clouds and surrender myself to the floods and the night. Most of the time, my thoughts were like water, comforting, gently shaping the form of my little world but during these storms, they became destructive and uncontrollable, overflowing river beds and spilling onto the shore, cracking the dams and threatening the livelihood of cultivated land. The storm eventually stops, as all storms do and the beginning of recovery is marked by the humming of the Earth when the rains stop and the flood waters settle. This is no act of collective imagination but the realized sound of bugs buzzing, soil soaking and slurping up the what’s left of the water droplets, sighing the excess into puddles and pools when they are too full, all the creatures who hid to avoid the winds and the waters awaken. Mammals and reptiles alike scuffle out of their dens, birds are ruffling leafy beds as they shake their wings dry, the Earth, a limb caught in a careless and loving tangle of bodies, has fallen asleep and as it wakes, everything trembles. The storm had passed but things weren’t yet still.
That’s how the anxiety came, just like that feeling after the rain. It came like a serpent through my window following the faint light cast from the crack in the doorway. It was all-black with red pupils and yellow eyes, slithered up my bedpost, into the bed, beneath the covers, around and up my leg, wrapping my diaphragm, chest, neck, then slowly squeezing in the darkness making it difficult to breathe…
But deliverance was brought by the Choir. Oh, how I wanted to be them. To wear the red and white robe monogrammed with the church name and logo, the shiny earrings and pristine white or shiny black shoes. My idolization was complete by the way I allowed myself to be wrapped in the music, rapt by the melody, and let it envelop me into its ghostly belly. Hell, I wouldn’t even call it was accurate to say idolization– them, I deified. Most Sundays, Pastor and the Praisers would do a performance of a few arrangements during the morning service to supplement the service’s formal portion of praise and worship. While still it was presented as an extension of praise and worship, it really provided an opportunity for them to display their artistry as musicians, vocalists and composers. In spite of the technical intention of the performance, it almost always so happened that midway through, women and men were jumping up and down at their seats, “Glory!”-screaming and boohoo-ing as they took off running a lap or four around the perimeter of the sanctuary, folks fainting and collapsing to the ground in what outsiders might view as voluntary and theatrical displays, but I knew, even at age eight, was an involuntary response to the Spirit wafting through the place and the people like gale winds strong enough to tear the roof off the place.
The best songs were ones that started out with a single soloist and Pastor’s accompaniment on piano, but concluded with the strength of the choir lifting the congregation with voices that barreled out of their chests with such fervor that it powered the legion of angels securing the victory of which they sung. There were two soloists I’ll mention in particular. First was Janise, a high-soprano who stood at barely five-feet with a wafer-thin frame and hair pressed flat in a pixie cut. Her sharp jawline ran tangent to her regal collarbone that stretched from shoulder to shoulder and she had a voice so beautiful it can only be aptly described as ethereal. Her signature solo was “My Redeemer” and each time she sung the first note, the sanctuary got so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then, as she moved through the song, the resultant shifts in the atmosphere caught like shivers in the spine until the Spirit hovered so thick and tangible in the place that with one inharmony He might vacate and His palpable presence promptly evacuated. Then there was Therese, who was tall and brown-skinned, wide-hipped and big-boned with a voice so strong and powerful that when she sang it seemed necessary that we permit her to suck all the oxygen out the room. Her thick, rounded arms had a look of richness that was more indulgence rather than gluttony and I envied the way she embodied this hearty appetite for the music, for Christ, for food. I envied the way she looked and moved and I bet she had never felt that cold-skinned black serpent slithering in her stomach, weaving over and under itself, nauseating his host until it was impossible to eat, seeping venom, squeezing until it was impossible to breathe…
The Choir consistently took my breath away. I’d bend my imagination so that I saw angels perform with them, singing their hearts out from extra rows added on either side of the choir’s stage. I always had a sense of when we were coming to the last song and dreaded it. I didn’t want to hear the forthcoming message about extolling a laborious and bountiful seed-time for an uncertain harvest. I wanted only this present ministry of praise and song, a message of hope I intrinsically believed would save not only me, but all of us from our perilous nights.
My feet didn’t even touch the ground back then, just dangled off the pews’ edge, in patent-leather shoes and white socks with the lace frills on the seams for when you folded them over. I watched the Choir with tears streaming down my little-girl face, making quarter-sized stains on the lap of my faux-satin dress, feeling so embarrassed, I asked myself: Why am I crying like this? I really don’t understand — Why does it mean so much to me that Pastor Clinton and the Choir assure me that Christ will hold back the night?