QWI News & Views The recognition of the Holy Spirit within is the feeling of sufficiency.

-Tom Wolfe, Easter Sunday, 2000

Community Baptist Church First Day Back

by Harold B. Confer

One of the "perks" of my job is being invited to be with a church family when they, at long last, reenter their rebuilt house of worship and lift their voices in song, prayer, the reading of the word, and the preaching of the gospel for the first time.

This is the seventh church that we have served to help rebuild in an interfaith format. I have been privileged to be a part of five of these churches at the time the family of the church enter into their new building; on that first opportunity to worship in the new structure.

No better day in the Christian tradition than Easter Sunday, when we focus on rebirth and renewal. The gleaming white walls, beautifully rebuilt pews donated by the Mormons, and the ample light from the large panel windows that are invisible to those sitting in the pews but providing an incredible wash of God's light onto the choir, baptismal and pastoral area in the front.

The Baptists of all varieties make a joyful noise unto their Lord and this family is solidly in that tradition. An acoustical keyboard, drum set and electric guitar fill the church with sound and add to the voices raised in song. They are located on a false floor over the Baptismal pool to save space. There was a legal condition called "grandfathering" to allow the rebuilding of this burned church on the same property. We were required to follow the exact location of the original foundations when the church was originally built almost a century ago. Much creativity was used by the architects to maximize the use of the original space. Because of that creativity, this is a very different building from the one that was burned.

This is an African American church not just filled with joyful noises but a cultural tradition that goes back to the time of slavery in the early colonies. The people sitting all around me have family memories of ancestors who were slaves. Most of them can name those ancestors and know their exact relationship to them. The history of the Passion of Christ and their historical experiences of suffering the heavy heel of racism down through history, flowing into their own lives mesh together existentially.

As the pastor, Carl Keels, describes the nature of the whip used to scourge Jesus and then acts out with his body the action of the centurion soldier beating him until the blood flowed down his back, the hair rises on my neck. I do not just see the agonized face of the mortal Jesus, experiencing all of that physical pain as a man but I see the agonized face of every black slave who was whipped for a variety of reasons. I see contemporary unarmed blacks shot by police, blacks who die in prison of beatings inflicted by police, I see a black man dragged by a pickup in Wyoming. To me the Passion of Christ has always been a part of my religious history. To these people, that Passion has been internalized. They have suffered and traveled with Jesus before and today are doing it again.

This pastor, though he has a doctorate in theology, has a simple message taught with simple words. Perhaps, because I am a Quaker and one of our testimonies is that of simplicity, I can appreciate his simple and direct words. Describing the resurrection he says simply, "He got up." But repeated over and over again, encouraged by the verbal affirmation of his flock, this becomes the litany that describes the awe of Mary when she encountered the empty tomb. "He got up!" Is an Easter phrase of faith in the ability of God to overcome all evil, even the death that evil people can so easily produce.

Later in the service the church will sing with the pastor a song that will mark the climax of his sermon. Starting out as a hymn it soon reverts to the call and response music that is so dear to these people; the family singing, "What's the matter with Jesus?" and the liturgist responding the affirmation, "He's all right!"
It was an emotional service of thanksgiving of these people who have been given so many gifts this Easter as a result of the burning of their church:

* the gift of the invitation to continue to worship in the Chapel Oaks fire house. An essential gift as many of the 1,128 burned houses of worship in the last 4 years will not rebuild as they have not had an alternative place to worship after the burning.

* the gift of the labor of two hundred and twenty seven volunteers who came to help this building rebuild, giving over 4,388 hours of their time. These volunteers coming from Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Belarus, and Tanzania joining the hundreds who came from Friends Meetings, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches; Mormon, Brethren, and Congregational churches. Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Jews worked hand in hand with these Baptists who have a widened peripheral vision of the strength and the spirit of God, very different than it was two years ago.

* the gift of offering up our lives to be a force of reconciliation this Easter.

At the close of the service, having just welcomed in nine new members, we sang, "The storm is passing over, Hallelujah." As the pastor hastily wiped the tears of gratitude from his eyes, I was left in my Quaker silence feeling the absolute presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of sufficiency in this building and in these people.

Quaker Workcamps International
1225 Geranium St., NW
Washington, DC 20012
(202) 722-1461 Office
(202) 723-5376 Fax
Director: Harold Confer
website maintained by: Larry Clarkberg

last updated 6/30/99