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Black Church Fuses Christianity, Folk Traditions with Spiritism

by Joshua Hennen

NEW ORLEANS Louisiana -  One of the many traditions of Louisiana is the “spiritual churches” of New Orleans.  While I’ve heard of these folks worshipping in their own way I have never actually seen them in action until recently.  I soon discovered that their worship consisted of a mixture of Protestantism, Catholicism, African folk traditions, and Spiritism.  In other words, it is truly unique.

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As I stood at my pew in anxious confusion, I wondered whether I would be expected to take part in the odd ceremony unfolding before me.  The parishioners had proceeded to crowd into the center aisle of the small church, forming a disorderly line from the lectern at the front all the way to the exit doors in the back.

Only moments before, the participants had taken turns standing up and giving thanks to God while expressing their needs for physical or spiritual healing before the congregation.  When the last believer had taken her turn at confession, an old, hunched woman who was seated at the front began excitedly shaking a tambourine.  That cued the organ player  to  fill the hall with an entrancing beat.  It was time for the “healin’.”

The well-timed rhythm was an opiate that whipped the followers into an emotional frenzy.  Throughout the church their excited shouts peppered the music.  “Have mercy!” “Halleluiah!” “Thank you, Jesus!”  “Right now, Lord!  Right now!”

And so the pastor, a short, bald man dressed in white robes whom I had seen earlier in the service and knew to be as animated as any cartoon, began preparing the people for the healing with a fiery barrage of assurances. “Ohhhh, Lord have mercy!  You don’t know which way ta go?  Lord, have mercy!  I want ya ta know that God is gonna work it out for ya.  God is gonna wipe out the tears from your eyes.”  Completely arriving “in the spirit,” he screamed with a voice of shrill conviction, “The Loooooord will be your power!  Ha ha!”  (He laughed that way often, not from humor but to punctuate a self assured belief.)

There ensued a short verbal intermission while the pastor milled about the stage with other robed men and women who had previously been sitting on thrones.  Undeterred, the organ player ratcheted up the volume and intensity of the music as the tambourines and maracas added the clanking and shushing of their voices.

Once again the leader of the church stepped up to the microphone with  boisterous enthusiasm.  “When  God shows up, he’s gonna make everything alright!” He then shouted with a thunderous might that caused the veins to pop from his forehead.  “POWER, POWER, POWER, in the name of the Lord!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  POWER in the name of Jesus!”

As the organ looped it’s coils around the collective neck of the audience, they whooped, wailed, broke into shouts, and clapped.  Not a man or woman was seated but one and all danced in place or moved freely about the church.  After a few minutes more, the organ lowered its cries to a steady hum as background to the pastor’s next proclamations.

He advanced to the lectern once again to say in a more hushed, secretive tone, “I’ve got ta tell ya this, the Spirit of Healin’ is in the house.  Lord, have mercy.  Does somebody need a healin’ in their body?  The Spirit of Healin’ is in the house!  He’ll heal ya in the mind.  He’ll heal ya in the body.  God, have mercy.  If you’re here this mornin’ and ya need a healin’, Lord, it’s in the center aisle.  If ya believe … it’s in the center aisle.”

And so we arrive where this account first began.  The people were already filtering through the pews to the center of the church, which allowed the pastor to look down upon all of them at once as he stood at the pulpit.  Since I felt no need to be healed, I was the only one that didn’t gather there.

Before continuing, I’ll say a few words about their services and the church in general.  In many respects, it was a typical black Baptist service with a strong evangelistic bent.  In other ways, it showed traces of Catholic ceremonies and imagery.  For instance, the robes that the clergy wore resembled catholic vestments.  And in every corner of the church and on the stage were statues of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus.  But in front of the central statue of Jesus on the main altar sat a statue of an American Indian. 

Apparently a Wisconsin-born African American woman by the name of Leafy Anderson (1887-1927) claimed to have a vision from a Native American warrior named Blackhawk and to be able to channel his spirit.  She moved to New Orleans in the 1920s from Wisconsin and started the current spiritual church movement where the channeling of not only his spirit but of other “Spirit Guides” is sometimes practiced.  But during my visit Blackhawk’s name was not directly invoked.  Nevertheless, the healing and what followed were clearly spiritistic in nature. 

Returning to the account, the worshippers were gathered and chanting in the aisle as the church’s pastor stood at the pulpit.  He said with fervency, “Receive your healing!  Receive your blessing!”

And now his eyes were wide open and fixated on the people, as he repeatedly cast his right arm as though he were beating them with an imaginary stick.  All the while he chanted, “Lord, have mercy” over and over in precisely the same tone of voice.  After a few minutes or so he shortened the expression to “have mercy” and finally “mercy.”

He appeared to be so engrossed in the ceremony as to no longer be able to complete his sentences.

Needless to say, the crowd that swelled the center aisle was “taken up” in the spirit and many would cry out with jubilation, “Thank you, Jesus!” and “Now, Lord!”

Finally, the pastor called one of his associates to “pray the prayer of faith” on behalf of those gathered.  That man’s earnest expressions went something like this: “God, we know that you’re healin’ right now today.  Please touch right now, Almighty.  Somebody’s mind needs to be touched right now Almighty Father.  Somebody’s body is rackin’ with pain.  We ask that ya look down from heaven and have mercy right now Lord.  Do it right now… right now… now Lord….  In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son… we claim the victory in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name, Jesus’ name.”  Each time he said “Jesus’ name” his voice became softer until by the third recitation it was a mere whisper.  This prayer was greeted by clapping and exultant shouts.

No sooner was the entreaty finished then the pastor, who had threaded his way down to where his flock had gathered, was percolating through the crowd.  He placed his palm on each person’s chest one at a time and said, “Right now, Lord.  Right now, Lord.  Right now, Lord.”

After having made his way to the back of the line, he returned to the lectern to address his now swooning parishioners with a softer tone.  “If ya received your healing, go back to your seats.”  The organist also softened the music to an almost comforting lullaby.

He continued with a reassuring tone, “All ya got ta do is believe.  All ya got ta do is believe.”  And then with a sudden burst of fire he shouted the following sentences:  “All things are possible if you … if you only believe.”

A few minutes of slow organ droning and the people coming down from their spiritual high were enough for the now gentle preacher to start up once again.  “ All ya got to do is see it, see it for yourself. Ha ha ha!”  He now summoned the mostly seated believers by saying, “Give God some praise for me.  Praise for the miracle that ya believe that he’s gonna do it for ya!”  A hearty applause followed, punctuated by shouts of “Lord, have mercy!”

The organ music, oddly enough, had been slowing and becoming quite erratic until it finally fell silent.  At about the same time, someone (I don’t remember whom) started steadily shaking his tambourine.  The sound vibrations resembled a viper’s rattle.  It was a fitting introduction to what happened next.

The organist, a large man wearing all black clothing, had quit playing, stood up, and started shrieking, “Thank ya, Jesus!  Thank ya, Jesus! Thank ya, Jesus!”

Our musically inclined friend was “slain in the spirit.”  That expression refers to when a believer receives a special working of the Holy Spirit.  To outsiders, it appears as a trance or possession.

The pastor looked to his left (where the organ was located) and responded to  the “stricken” man’s proclamations with his own.  As often as the organist screamed, the pastor responded with an approving, “Thank ya, Lord.”  Occasionally he would throw in the obligatory “Ha ha ha.”

Since the organ music was now gone all of the clashing voices, halleluiahs, clapping, and shuffling of the parishioners served as the background music.   The congregation clearly felt that their brother’s state of possession was a sign of God’s approval.  That is why the preacher said to the audience, “Don’t ya know that God is worthy to be praised?  Ha ha ha!”  One and all clapped with joy.

Of course, when under such a trancelike state, it isn’t safe to allow that person to stand without supervision.  So without hesitation, a few of the church’s female members came to stand by and assist if needed.

He seemed to be OK as he stood and faced the cinder block wall with his arms stretched over his head and palms on the wall.  His cries eventually ebbed to a whimper.

And then all of the sudden, the congregation broke out into a spontaneous rendition of the gospel hymn “Halleluiah.”  What made that display so shocking, was that until then, everyone was reacting to the service in his or her own way.  Now they were in complete unison.  It seemed to add greater weight to the previous  demonstration of God’s power.

The service eventually returned to a normal script as did the organist.  Normal for these folks meant more unusual ceremonies and charismatic preaching.

Unfortunately, because of editorial restraints I can’t go into much more detail about my visit to this New Orleans church other than to add one more experience.

At the base of the altar that I have already described sat a row of about twenty multicolored candles.  They were tall and housed in cylindrical jars.  The candles were mainly white with a few orange, blue, green, red, and yellow ones.

The pastor said to the church, “We’re getting ready to light our lights.  For those of you who desire to light a light, the donation is seven dollars, for the lights are only an act of faith.  We know that Jesus is the light of the world.”

Burning candles of certain colors in this context stems from ancient African folk magic and signifies certain desires or things that the lighter wants.  White candles represent faith and goodness; red, good health and vitality; green, money and luck; orange, encouragement and stimulation; blue, spiritual strength; yellow, attraction and clarity.

In closing, I would like to say that the people were very friendly and accepted me into their presence with open arms.  It was an experience that I won’t soon forget.

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