Anatomy of a Sunday

My experiences with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the duality of self when split between Black and white worlds.

Under the Arch

The Anatomy of a Sunday

My experiences with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the duality of self when split between Black and white worlds.

Green and gold crosses on the left and right respectively stand side by side on the roofs of mostly out-of-frame buildings against a clear, blue sky.

Coming to the realization that Christianity is not a monotonous doctrine where everyone is as loving and accepting as they should be is a hard pill to swallow. (Kevin Wu for WSN)

Payton Frances Selby, Contributing Writer | Dec 11, 2022

Boy, they could move.

The gospel of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church had a reputation for rumbling floors, the bellow of soul song, deliverance and agony. My legs always felt the music first. Feet nailed to the ground, but knees trembling with the crescendo of the negro spiritual.

My school taught us that we are to praise the Lord in quiet reverence, but here, I was meant to scream, clap and run. My feet never got the message, though; my palms never had the strength to meet. But when the choir would find themselves absorbed by their euphonious melody, my skin told the story — spotted with goosebumps, illustrating something resembling a map to home.

By Monday morning, any piece of me still bearing reverence to my culture was neatly tucked away. Only 11 years old, I could never discern how much Black I could show without that being the only thing they remembered, so I stifled my Sunday secret. I’m not sure that’s something you grow out of. The disorderly worship of a Black God which occurred on Sundays was a secret my whole family safeguarded. As we reentered a white world we could only ever briefly escape, we sang a forlorn praise to the door of a marble castle which never seemed to open and whose guards could see through paint. I wish someone would have told me then that I’d never find myself on the other side of the stone wall — that I should never take for granted my sweet Sunday shelter from the white crash of waves and the ring of the school bell.

On Sundays, The Mime Ministry came ordained in black suits, ivory gloves, and starch white faces and performed a wild mystical dance they called the “Word of God.” They took to the pews, descending upon the whole of the church. In passing glance, the white-faced clergy looked like my classmates, and I swore I heard the bell ring. At school, faces were a lot like these, though they stood still. White. Like stone, and the Commandments engraved in it.

I could never balance myself on the seesaw of righteousness that equalized the white and the divine. You see, that’s the difference between paint and skin — white paint can crack, and only in time can the skin crease. And still, if not for time, I may never have noticed the beauty in cracked paint: a brittle casing that required the stretch of the Black skin beneath, imprinted with storied scars of suffering and the wrinkles of wisdom.

The Pastor says, “God shaped us in His image, and we lined the church with mirrors to never forget.” I was careful not to look too long; I always preferred stained glass. Mirrors can crack, and I feared its fragments would embed themselves in my reflection and or someone that looked like me — a rare version of me. Who had, for but a brief moment on Sunday, allowed her own paint to crack. Because on Sunday, they move. And I’d bind the pieces of me desperate to move with them, always worrying how many layers I’d need to reapply before school.

At Big Bethel, church was anywhere between two or two and a half hours, something I read as extended brutal indoctrination at the time. Of course, years later, when we lost both my great-grandparents, a delicate line of thread that bound me to my culture, or perhaps myself, snapped under the weight of the Lord’s will. And yet, every day when I sat in church, in a line of seven who were me as much as I them, there was always a better place to be. I forget if I ever decided that for myself.

“Oh, Lord! I feel like preachin’ today.”

The thunder in The Pastor’s voice did not simply echo the word of God, fickle as it can be; no, it echoed the slave song engrained in the hot Georgia soil beneath us. Today he told the story of when Elijah asked the Lord to take his life. The Pastor starts, and the organist slams down his keys.

The Preacher said, “Sometimes the Lord gon’ sit on ya.”

In the middle of living your life, he explained, you’ll hit a roadblock. Something that feels like the light is gone, that His promise is broken. Like the Lord took a seat, and He’s nowhere to be found.

Louder this time, he said, “Now, right in the middle of your praise, sometimes He’s gon’ sit on ya.”

The congregation became a sea of cascaded figures, some down at their knees in praise, some with hands raised to the heavens. My family and I sit still, never to lose composure. No one gave me permission to yell yet, or maybe it’s just that I had never tried. Not in school, like I said; white feels like stone.

Faster this time, he says, “Right in the middle of ‘Halle-’ and ‘-luja’h,’ sometimes the Lord gon’ sit on ya.”

Sister Mary got up — the Lord took her spirit, as they say — and she ran about the sanctuary proclaiming, “Lord Jesus, Help Me!” My sister and I sank in our seats, muffling our laughs behind my grandma’s church hat. She was already on her feet, never mind if she was standing alone. The Pastor spoke faster, the organist got louder and with every pause for breath, the crowd roared with “Amens”’ and “Hallelujahs.” At this point, we’d all lost the composure we thought was ingrained in stone. And I, stitched to the same worn pew, tried to hide the goosebumps on my skin. My skin told the story of my ancestors even if my legs refused to extend in their praise. Was this God at work? Or had He sat down, as I always did?

Slower this time, The Preacher said, “Yes, He will sit down on ya, but you’re always gon’ get up!”

• • •

Now, if I went up King Street, took the U.S. Highway 285 to Cascade Road, then turned right on Winfield Way, my great-grandma would have already finished the cranberry salad, collard greens and her Jamye’s Famous Chicken. Before that, however, she dressed the table with her scribblings from today’s sermon: her recommendations for how The Pastor might improve next Sunday, and a list of the church’s sick and shut-in to include in her morning prayer. She was a pastor’s daughter, a sister and a council member of the church herself. In short, there was no arguing with her.

Still, our Sunday dinner rituals ensued: first, the battle of the two Jamyes. Big Jamye was my great-grandmother, and if not for her intellect, her seniority was reason enough to dissuade the average individual from quarrel and certainly from issuing a single word of displeasure about The Pastor. Yet, her usual Sunday competitor entered the ring, perhaps with courage only a namesake could have. Little Jamye, my older sister, could never remedy the scientific inaccuracies of the Bible with whatever hidden message of communal empowerment lay beneath. And I, the littlest, barely knew any better.

“You know Catholic Church is only an hour…” Little Jayme began.

“Oh God, Jamye, you don’t wanna be going to a damn Catholic Church!” my grandmother, known to us as Ta, shouted playfully.

I guess she hated stone too; she never liked Catholics.

“Jamye, it wouldn’t last nearly as long if you were paying attention,” Big Jamye gently

Our church never had quite the same level of genuflection as the Catholic Church did. I could claim I was simply not God-fearing enough to envy their prestigious rituals. Though I’d be lying — the marble was enough to procure my envy. The only time we’ve ever attended a Catholic mass, I ignorantly extended only one palm during Holy Communion rather than two. The priest performed the sign of the cross and sent me away, my hands not yet sacred enough to receive the Eucharist. The particularity of the church, which sent me back to the pew with my head hung in confusion, forced me into a familiar reverence. A desire to become deserving of inclusion in their communal practice. Nothing I had ever been a part of had accepted me easily except my own church, and that made it all the more unremarkable.

“Jamye, you oughta just join the choir,” Ta said, as she and I laughed, bumped hips, and “dropped it low” to the ground.

My father scorned.

When Little Jayme finished setting the table and I finished filing the glasses with Big Jamye’s Arnold Palmer, we nestled around the table as we did every Sunday. Today, Father wanted to rush the prayer. It was now inching toward 6:30 p.m, and we were a half-hour past when Poppy, my diabetic 99-year-old great-grandfather, needed to eat. My sister and I looked at each other, lingering in my father’s deliberation.

“Payton. Go,” he said.

I’m up, but not entirely disappointed; I knew I’d have it over with the fastest. I wrestle between my Uncle Richard’s prayer — “Good food. Good meat. Good Lord. Let’s eat,” — or the traditional Sunday prayer. But I wanted dessert, so I opted for the latter.

“Gracious lord, thank you for the food we are about to receive, and the nourishment of our bodies in JesusnameAmen,” I said as fast as I could.

Despite our faithful traditions, dinner was never anything short of a searing intellectual examination of the sermon, the news of the day, or various discussion topics my parents might offer up. However, we could never talk about church for too long, or we’d upset Big Jamye. She would spring up, raise her manicured pointer finger and say, “Now, everyone, be quiet. Listen to me! The Pastor listens to me, so do the ministers, and so will you!”

Depending on the day, this reprimand was met with either joyous laughter or contemplative silence. We foolishly always tempted fate. My sister and I could never make sense of this authority; we hardly remembered the ministers’ names. But we could quote Shakespeare and any of the other white words written in stone. Yet, what she says goes — that we knew before anything else.

“If we are going to be there for two hours, you think The Pastor would at least speak in proper English,” Little Jayme says, planting her foot firmly in the ring.

Today it didn’t look like we’d end in laughter. The Pastor was a Stanford University graduate, and my sister could never remedy the two. We’d never be understood if we spoke like that in school — we all knew that. When I made my first friends at school, I learned that fast. Myself and two other Black girls in the 6th grade were each other’s only friends for a while, and we were seen together so much they started to call us “the Black Girls Carpool.” Hearing our nickname for the first time, I began to acquaint myself with shame.

We stuck together, though, as you do. Every day we would tuck ourselves into the school reverend’s office during snack time so the decibel of our voices could temporarily go undetected — or better, maybe they’d even forget we were there. But by the end of the year the reverend told us we had to find another place to hang out. Some of the other girls said we were too “intimidating” and they felt uncomfortable to come in at the same time. What were we thinking? We were so obvious, grouped together that way.

For the rest of the year, we moved our hangout to the benches in the hallway by the bathroom. This was before I learned to paint. I was finally getting the message: being Black, loud and in a group is a threat — unless it was Sunday.

But my family prepared us for this, they knew our world looked nothing like the sanctuary. The goal was to be so well-spoken they forgot the paint on our skin. My great-grandparents, both with Ph.D.s in English, were meticulous when it came to grammar. I could never get away with mistaking a “who” for a “whom,” or “mommy and me” when it should have been “mommy and I.” We’d have to restart our sentence, go back, wrangle our instinctual tongues and correct our mistakes.

And yet, The Pastor never bothered them. In fact, he had been communicating far more in his soothing Southern slang than he ever would have clinging to orthodox. But the cool shade of naivete, and the more chilling darkness of shame, prevented my sister and I from feeling the warmth of his familiar deep hum. This part of our culture was always amiss to us; a failure in language we were ritually forced to correct. But the word of God never came in perfect English, and maybe that’s why it never made sense.

Big Jamye responded, “Whatever he says, it’s just God talking.”

We were silenced, of course. There was no arguing with God or Big Jamye. Everything she said seemed to be written in unflinching marble authority. Her all-knowing glance eclipsed the white glare of punishing prestige we would return to on Monday. And when I would hear the beckon of the school bell, I would once again paint my face white, guilty with my Sunday secret. Something I knew I could never tell and could barely believe myself: The voice of God is Black, broken and loud. And, maybe, so is mine, even if it is muffled by stone.