Sometimes it seems that the church in America is an easy target for the media. With all the scandals that occur and abhorrent doctrines that are preached in some places, the church is not always functioning as the bride of Christ that it is intended to be. This week I even heard that more Americans played the lottery than regularly attended church in 2011.
With that backdrop in mind, I had the joy of seeing a church in action this week that reminded me once again why I love the church and what it can be like when people truly love God and each other. This week I worked with a dedicated team of volunteers at Sharon Baptist Church to host a CD release concert for Marvin Sapp. CLC has been working in a unique partnership with Sharon Baptist for over year to provide the logistical and product support for their church bookstore. Given that I love gospel music, have enjoyed Marvin Sapp’s music since he was with the group Commissioned and that I was going to be serving people directly, I had really been looking forward to the event.
What I had not prepared myself for was the dedication and joy that the Sharon Baptist volunteers exuded that night. Under the guidance of store manager, Janice Hipps (who is a volunteer herself), they arrived early, got things ready and served with excellence. As the event got underway, I noticed that several of them had plates of food and one of them asked me if I wanted something to eat. At that point, I had been working at a table outside of the bookstore and was not sure where the food had come from. I peeked into the store and saw that one of the volunteers has prepared quite a spread and that it was a delicious chicken salad that I was being offered. While this fact alone was surprising, I was stunned to learn that this same volunteer prepared food for many of the “extra” events that the store had to be open for during the year and that I should really get to try her fried chicken some time in the future.
While we were setting up the table and getting ready to serve the many concert goers that were anticipated, I noticed a man named Mark who was a part of the volunteer team. I am not sure if he regularly worked in the store or just on the church’s staff, but he certainly wanted to be sure that we had all the help that we needed. He was soft spoken, had a limp and looked like he might have struggled with other disabilities in the past. While I was waiting to talk with someone else, he came right up to me, shook my hand and welcomed me. We got to talking and he shared about how he was involved with a prison ministry and was never happy unless someone got saved when he went into the prisons with his team. As I listened to him (which was hard to do because he spoke so softly) I was struck the fact that he was so much a part of the family at Sharon Baptist, despite any outward infirmities that he might have.
Later in the evening, things got hectic at the CD table when a women that I did not recognize came up to me and insisted that she give me a hug. She then proceeded to hug several other people around me that did not know her either. These kinds of public gestures of affection are quite normal at the many African American churches that I have attended and made me feel even more welcome. What was unusual was that this same women decided to break into song in the middle of the crowd waiting to get into the sanctuary and seemed to be creating quite a stir. This kind of awkward moment might have been pretty challenging in other settings, but not at Sharon Baptist. No one tried to make her stop or looked at her strangely, instead several joined her in song and turned the waiting period into a joyful time of anticipation.
As the concert got underway, I watched in on a remote TV in the bookstore with most of the volunteers who were there and felt very much a part of their family. They were laughing, chatting, eating and catching up on life. None of them were complaining about having to be at the church on a work night or about having to wait an extra our for Marvin’s concert to get started. This was the church as it should be, not a country club for the elite, but a family reunion for everyone to enjoy. Somehow, we all were made to feel special; black and white, old and young, men and women, healthy and infirm. It just seemed like a church that Jesus would have enjoyed attending and at that moment I realized this was because He had been there all along and I was just experiencing his love though the people he had called to be a part of Sharon Baptist Church.