do justly, walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8)
The high notes were so sweetly high, the bass so richly grounded and the Spirit so much alive that it was easy to believe that the music at First Tabernacle this past Saturday surely made the gates of heaven swing open for saints and sinners alike. And if God was listening, perhaps Jerusalem was too. Could anyone hearing these songs that paid homage to that holy city not feel the folly of so much war over a city so steeped in teachings of peace and love? What a privilege it was to be present for the Sabbath worship service at First Tabernacle in North West Washington DC. The preacher was Elder Charles Watson. The music was entirely home-grown: composed, arranged and delivered by members of the small but powerfully moving congregation at this modest temple of African-American Judaism.
The message was love—the kind that, as Elder Watson said, “puts a pep in your step and a glide in your stride.” It was a lesson, he said, in “anatomy”—the anatomy of love. How readily we recite the Biblical injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves. But judging by the way we treat our neighbor, the preacher pointed out, we can only conclude that we do not love ourselves very much. (Listening, it was impossible not to think immediately of Congress: not much love for itself in that body, judging by how readily they have cut nutritional assistance to the poor, including severe cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program where nearly half the people served are children. How much does Congress love itself if it is willing to starve government services most oriented to ensuring that its “neighbors,” people struggling to make ends meet, have some help meeting their most basic need for food? But these are my wanderings, not the preacher’s.)
“We move close to God when we move closer to each other.” Elder Watson
There were no announcements, no call to rise. Without any apparent signal, as if by spontaneous combustion, the choir broke into song, their voices the only instruments making the music of praise and worship that all but brought the roof of the small church down. The young man serving as the cantor led effortlessly, moving like the wind itself, gathering voices, marching at times to the music so that the wooden floor reverberated with the rhythm of a people giving themselves over entirely to prayer. There were no pauses, no books or song sheets for the choir. No ostentatious conducting. Yet every segue in the ceremony was heralded by song seamlessly, not a beat missed. Why wasn’t all of Washington there? This was full-throated music, springing from the heart, diving deep into the soul and reaching up to touch the Divine.
No pictures inside the church, please, said Sister Rhonell Stewart, who sat by us and made sure we understood what was happening. No pictures needed. The vision of the choir in their summer whites, singing their hearts and souls out for three hours is a picture that is deeply etched in memory. The women in white pleated skirts and blue ribbons around their waists, sporting matching pastel blue bows in their hair, big fat rosettes on their bosoms, tapping the floor in their white pumps–prancing, I was told it was called; the men a vision in white suits and shoes, prayer shawls draped around their shoulders, yarmulkes on their heads, perspiration framing their brows, all singing as if this was exactly what they were called to do. This was prayer.