Column: Sunday Worship in Alabama
‘Do you go to church?’
‘No, I am Muslim. Muslims go to the mosque. But there are no mosques in Florence.’
‘You can come to my church! It’s nearby, across Tennessee Bridge. Somebody from my church can come and pick you up. I just have to let them know beforehand. Where do you live?’
‘In Rice Hall’
‘I play with my church group on Sundays. You should come!’
I flashed on last spring’s gospel night, when Chris accompanied his mother on the keyboard at an open mic night in the university cafeteria.
‘Is your mother going to be singing next Sunday?’
‘Yes. My brother and my girlfriend too!’
Chris Piggs and I were classmates. We worked on a few composition projects together for the Song Writing and Analysis summer course.
‘That’s awesome. Let’s plan on next Sunday. My Moroccan friend Zuhra might come along. Is it O.K.?’
‘Sure! Everybody’s welcome in my church.’
Zuhra and I woke up early on Sunday morning and waited for the church van outside the dormitory building. We had been discussing the dress code for church services in Florence. The window displays with glitzy ladies church hats of all shapes and colors at the Florence Clothing Company retail store intrigued us. But Zuhra and I went off-key, with no hats on.
A white SUV stopped in the driveway a few minutes later. ‘Good morning! Are you Amm…?’ The driver mumbled.
‘Amal. Yes! And this is my friend Zuhra.’
‘Robert Piggs. I am Chris’ uncle.’
‘Nice to meet you, Mr. Piggs!’
‘You too ma’am. Please come on in.’
Chris’ uncle was a lovable, chatty old man. He would turn slightly in his seat to ask a quick question and then focus on the road again. He spoke fondly of Florence and the South. ‘I’ve always liked Florence the way it is,’ he said. He listened with interest as we told him about our home countries and the educational exchange program. He turned towards us for the last time when we arrived at the churchyard and said with a gentle smile, ‘Here we are!’
The church building was old and quite small. It must have been a family home some time ago. We exchanged morning greetings with members of the congregation as we followed Chris’ uncle down a dark hallway and up a few steps to the worship space. Zuhra and I sat quietly in the second row. And not before long, Chris approached us and introduced his parents and younger brother. ‘Thanks for coming. I hope you enjoy it,’ said his mother.
Two armchairs and a wall mirror sat next to an empty, bare altar. There were two glass bowls—one filled with water, the other empty—on the right side of the podium. An electronic keyboard and a drum set took up most of the space. I looked for a Bible and a service program but found neither. I turned to Zuhra and said, ‘We are the only white people here…’ She was quiet for a while. I wondered if the worship room reminded her of the public baths in Rabat—the dim light, the mirrors, and the water bowls.
When the Reverend and his wife entered the room, the crowd hailed them. Chris’ father took the water bowl in his hands and mumbled vague words under his breath after the Reverend. The congregation swayed in rhythm, an overwhelming force dragging their bodies inwards and outwards. Shrill cries of joy and pain soon filled the room. But the water bowl spell had no effect on me and Zuhra.
And suddenly there was silence. Chris’ father put the bowl back and walked to his seat in the first row, his body slightly bent forward. I could not comprehend the water bowl ritual. But it was my first time at a Baptist church.
The Reverend welcomed the congregation and blessed them in the name of the Lord. He called upon those who had announcements to make. A young lady walked up to the podium and told us how her mother survived a car accident the week before. She expressed her gratitude to Jesus and to the Reverend. Meanwhile, the Reverend and his wife surveyed the room. They nodded at me and Zuhra and cracked a smile.
After delivering the sermon, the Reverend invited the crowd to Praise and Magnify Jesus. The Piggs took their places on the podium. It was time to Lift Jesus – one of Chris’ summer composition projects.
We‘ve come to praise and magnify Jesus
Praise His holy name
We’ve come to bless and glorify Jesus
Bless His holy name
Chris’ mother chanted, a fluid sense of rhythm and grace in her voice and body movement.
Help me Lift Jesus
Help me Lift Jesus higher
We’ve come to lift you up
The congregation sang back to her.
The hall echoed with drumming and chanting. Zuhra and I stood up, clapping hands and tapping along in rhythm. The Reverend then congratulated Chris and his mother for winning first place in a gospel music convention held in Los Angeles a week ago. This was exciting news, and the Piggs were a source of pride for the church community.
People passed by the Reverend’s wife on their way out to hand in their donations. They seemed ashamed of their few dollars; the church meant more to them. Some dropped their few dimes in the empty glass bowl.
Zuhra and I filled out contact information and prayer request forms on our way out. We were leaving town in less than two weeks. I shook hands with Chris and his family. I waved to the Reverend and his wife from a distance. And along the ride back to campus, Chris’ gospel songs were still playing in the back of my mind.
Amani Maihoub is geboren in Tartous, Syrië. Ze studeerde musicologie en Engels in de Verenigde Staten, Social Anthropology (University of Edinburgh) en International Performance Research binnen het Erasmus Mundus programma aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam en de University of Arts in Belgrado. Ze woont en werkt in Amsterdam.