Jesus and His Friends

5 11 2010

On Sunday morning, I attended the Greater Light Christian Center with my friend Jahlysa.  I felt a little bit like Ben Cohen, author of My Jesus Year, when he visited churches around the country.  What types of things could I learn from this community to bring back to my own?  Would anybody know that I’m Jewish?  Would I stick out like a sore thumb?

Well, I did stick out as one of a handful of white people in a black church.  But I didn’t feel out of place, as everyone was so welcoming.  An usher gave us programs, brought us to our seats and it didn’t matter that the service was held in an older and somewhat run-down building because the participants’ ruach (spirit) brought the whole room to life.  It was my first time attending a church service and it felt more like a rousing concert, similar to the Martin Luther King Day program that the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale runs with Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir.  There was no cantor telling people when to sit or stand.  Just about everyone – young and old – was out of their seats, clapping and singing.  A rousing choir was leading the group and the words to the songs were displayed in big letters on two projection screens at the front.

Funny enough, I actually felt a tinge of pride when they started singing about how great Jesus was.  (Like, hey yichus!  He was Jewish, you know…)  About an hour into the service, they asked all new people to stand up.  I didn’t budge from my seat and promptly received an elbow from Jahlysa along with a stern look, so I jumped up.  We were welcomed so warmly and asked to come down to the front of the church where we were greeted and hugged by the pastor and his wife (who actually looked a bit like Toby Weiss, the rebbetzin in our community back home!).

Moments later, we left the sanctuary to attend the Youth Ministry.  This was the reason why I joined Jahlysa because she was going to be teaching the teenagers and I wanted to see her in action.  Little did she know that the schedule was moved around and she was assigned the 9-12 year olds.  Now J’s teaching approach with the teens was to talk with them about what’s going on in their lives and see where the conversation went.  But you can’t exactly ask that of a bunch of nine year olds and expect them to open up.  After 20 minutes of trying and failing to get a response out of them, I decided to jump in with my 10+ years of experience with Shabbat youth groups and see if I could mix it up.  I got them up on their feet playing an acting game called “Freeze It Up” (a ghetto-ish name I made up so that they would think it was cool… and they did), where groups create a skit and learn about the concept of Dan LiKaf Zechut, judging favorably or giving others the benefit of the doubt.  It was so much fun, the kids loved it and I got a kick out of the fact that I was a star youth minister for the morning.

The pastor made a few announcements including one about an event later that day called “Uncovering Halloween” that explored the pagan roots of the holiday.  The children were encouraged not to trick or treat, but instead to attend the event where they would get free candy goodie bags and the adults would be served hotdogs.  (I didn’t go trick or treating either, but I did go out with some friends and Yair to two costume dance parties, which were so much fun.  One Saturday night I dressed up as Tinkerbell.  I had received the costume for free as a Burning Man gift. The following Saturday night I was a gypsy belly dancer.)

Ayo As a Belly Dancing Gypsy

Ayo As a Belly Dancing Gypsy

Anyway, here are some of my lessons learned for why GLCC is so popular and effective:

1.  Church starts at 11 am, not 9 am!

2.  There was a large choir accompanied by drums, guitar and piano.  The service was a rockin concert with singing and dancing!

3.  Alms were collected in church.  Verses from the New Testament commanding congregants to support the clergy were displayed on the screens and then everyone able was asked to stand up.  Row by row, everyone walked to the front before the leadership to deposit their money and be blessed.  What an effective method of campaigning!

4.  There were tons of activities going on just like a community center: fundraising dinners, baskets for auction and lots of ministries including the performing arts ministry, singles ministry, two becoming one (couples) ministry and even a jail ministry.

5.  Newcomers were made to feel so welcome!  After being greeted and hugged during the service, an usher handed me a welcome packet with a complimentary pen to keep and a “Keep in Touch” form to write down my contact information.  All newcomers were then invited to a reception with the pastor and church leadership in a side room so that they could get acquainted.  A brilliant way of making new folks feel at home.

I’ll be dancing up in Truckee this Sunday morning, so no return trip for me but I would totally bring Yair there next week for the experience.  (Don’t worry Mom, I’m not converting.)

posted by ayo




4 responses

5 11 2010

Hey guys,

I just wanted to chime in and let you know that I really enjoy reading your blog. I’m definitely living vicariously through some of your adventures (some are a little too out there for me but glad you’re having fun).

This church sounds awesome and very welcoming but do you really agree with their fundraising tactics? Guilting people with bible verses and then making them publicly give money on the spot? Sounds like many people would give out of peer pressure or fear of public humiliation and not because they really want to give. If their congregation doesn’t mind I guess it’s not a big deal but I wouldn’t be happy if my synagogue did anything close to this.


5 11 2010

Hi Ely,

Glad that you’re enjoying the blog and we’d love to have you non-vicariously join us on a leg of our trip if you’re up for it. Though I’d love to hear which adventures make it to the ‘too out there’ category… 🙂

I agree with your feelings about the church’s fundraising tactics. While the individuals who did not give and remained in their seats were not chastised or treated any differently following the alms portion of the service, this method of public giving can be alienating and rely too much on public image and peer pressure. I believe that GLCC pulls in a substantial amount of funds through in this way – still making it a potentially effective means of campaigning – but perhaps not an effective way of keeping the congregation a safe and pressure-free place for all who attend.

6 11 2010

You call that fund raising? You should go to sphardi synagogue in Europe some time. All of the honors are publicly auctioned off.

8 11 2010

Yep, I’ve seen that before. But by ‘all the honors’, do you even mean an aliyah on a regular Shabbat or just special occasions?

Regardless, a key difference remains that individuals can choose to contribute rather than being singled out and staying in their seats while everyone else at once moves to the front of the congregation to give.

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