GREATEST HITS: Today I Saw Revisited


[Artwork by ALEX FINE]
deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY This installment of Today I Saw Revisited presents two scenes from African Methodist Episcopal churches in North Philadelphia. My experience with the black church community in Philly is that it is totally vital to the function of social services at the grassroots level, and forms the backbone of community support for thousands of families around the city. However, there is a strong conservative streak that runs through many of Philadelphia’s black churches that some white liberal social workers find vexing. The Biblical literalist positions of some churches put them at odds with progressives on issues like gay marriage and it’s not uncommon for mental health professionals to discover that their clients have been encouraged by their fellowship friends to discontinue psychiatric medication and rely more on prayer, just to cite a few examples. By the same token, the faith community is sometimes the only reliable resource when working in the trenches of urban poverty, often stepping in to fill the gap in essential services like providing food, clothing and shelter when city agencies come up short. Falling back on the church network is sometimes a necessary fix when working within an imperfect system of threadbare public safety nets.

TODAY I SAW the Reverend. She she was working at the computer on her desk in the basement of the old AME church on North 7th Street. The Reverend is a little woman with a big presence; her eyes are fiercely bright and clear, and her voice is still strong enough to fill the sanctuary to the rafters with the The Word during services despite her advanced age. She has a wide smile that brims with sincerity and silver hair that shines like freshly polished metal and falls about her shoulders in soft waves. Its the unrepentantly natural colored hair of an older woman who is completely comfortable with who she is and this self-assurance radiates from the Reverend like summer heat shimmering over the sidewalk. She has unblemished brown skin without a wrinkle, even around the eyes. She’s gorgeous, really; its hard to not be mesmerized by her when you’re standing so close; she holds your hand firmly while welcoming you to the church and asking you how you are feeling today.

There are always women around the Reverend, attending to her needs and hanging on her every word. She’s typically surrounded by ex-convicts, former prostitutes, recovering addicts; they gravitate towards her, pulled by her aura of strong faith that conveys a sense of safe harbor and the hope for change and grace. There are also the working mothers dropping by on their lunch breaks and the neighborhood men, those hulking pillars of community stability, who come to get that little midday boost of strength that keeps their days full of lightness and their spirits high.

When you talk to the Reverend, God is always the third person in the room. To the Reverend God is tangible, his presence palpable and she speaks of him with the matter of fact tone most people reserve for material objects like tables and chairs. When speaking about her recently-ill husband, who also leads Sunday sermons at the church, God is at the center of his miraculous recovery. Her husband suffered kidney failure that was complicated by his overall frailty and he somehow pulled through despite doctors deeming recovery improbable.

“You know I didn’t worry even a little bit,” the Reverend says. “Because you know that I know God,” she continues, like God is right there next to her.

“That’s right,” chimes one of the women in the room, call-and-response style.philadelphia_church.jpg

“God wasn’t about to let his good brother go,” the Reverend continues, “Not yet, not while there’s so much work to be done around here. God told me not to trouble myself; he said that there are many days left for my husband in this world.”

Whenever someone leaves the Reverend’s presence she gives them a blessing and they bless her back. As I turn to leave she looks me in the eye and says, Bless you, and I find myself saying it back to her despite the fact that Idon’t even go to church.


TODAY I SAW the sanctuary of an African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was set up for bingo, with picnic tables lined up side by side and ringed with chairs, with a colorful carnival-style concession stand off in a corner at the rear of the room. The sanctuary walls were fiberboard patterned to look like wood and the table tops were chipped at the corners. There was a stage at the front of the room and tall, rectangular mirrors attached to the wall that would reflect parishioners’ faces back at them during a sermon. There was a movable pulpit placed at center stage and an ornate, throne-like wooden chair set behind it.

On one side of the stage was an electric organ with a picture of Jesus over it. He was portrayed with skin the color of milk chocolate and a well-trimmed black beard. He wore a white robe with a hood that covered his head and smiled serenely from under its folds, holding his hands out palm up.

On the other side of the stage there was a piano and another electric organ side by side. Next to them, against the facing wall, was a small Marshall guitar amplifier. At the rear of the room there was a desk like they have in banks, where deposit and withdrawal slips are kept in little compartments under glass. In the little compartments were gospel tracts with titles like, “The Messiah …Who is He?” Next to that were two vending machines, one with sodas for .50; the other was out of order, covered over a tarp made from slit-open trash bags taped together.

On the wall directly above the glass desk was a collage of photos showing smiling black faces beneath church crowns and feathered fedoras; the faithful making their way to Sunday worship. There were narrow slips of paper reading MIGHTY GOD and AWESOME GOD and HALLELUJAH taped over the spaces between the pictures.

When I left the church there were two men in the parking lot wearing wool hats and heavy coats. There was a brown bagged bottle on the ground between them. They had torn a piece off the brown bag and one of them was holding it bent in a U-shape while the other sprinkled something into it. They were looking at this very intently. When they noticed me passing they stared at me angrily, challenging me to say something to them.

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