Shedding a few tears during a particularly emotional moment can certainly help ease your body’s tension, but if you haven’t cried so hard that you felt cleansed and even rejuvenated, the folks at Peace, Mercy and Charity Church say they have a sermon for you. Every Sunday parishioners are led through a roller coaster of physical and spiritual exercises that can leave them feeling exhausted and replenished at the same time.
During one recent service, it all started with Choir Director Cynthia Hands. Backed up by two women, two youths on drums and a young man on piano, Hands had the 40 people in the pews stomping their feet and clapping their hands in time with a rocking gospel. Newcomers don’t need to bother looking for a hymnbook. This is an oral culture. By singing “say yes” over and over the back up duo along with the musicians laid down a groove in which Hands got everyone in the church involved, often by naming one of them in an improvised musical phrase, to which the person would often respond by singing the phrase right back at Hands.
Twenty minutes into the service, Rev. Pearley Champion made her entrance. Wearing an elegant long white dress, the congregation’s pastor processed down the aisle with two of the church’s ministers. She was also joined by one of the nurses, who was dressed in purple scrubs.
The congregation has nurses, because like all churches in the Pentecostal tradition, members sometimes “lose control” when they are “in the Spirit.” Being in the Spirit is a kind of ecstatic religious experiences that transcends rational explanation. It often involves dancing or other vigorous physical movements. The nurses are there to make sure those caught up in the Holy Spirit don’t hurt themselves. After members have been in the Spirit, they often feel physically exhausted but spiritually cleansed.
Nurses often are left fanning the church’s parishioners or fetching a towel and a bottle of water.
As Pastor Champion mounted the stage, the congregation broke into the old gospel song, “He Woke Me up this Morning.” Hands shouted, “Is God worthy of a dance?” The congregation responded with a resounding yes. The ministers on the stage began dancing, babies bounced on their mother’s hips as the moms waved their hands in the air and children banged away on tambourines.
According to Champion, the members of her church come from Bartlett, Addison, Carol Stream, Schaumberg, Plainfield, Westchester, Chicago, Hazelcrest, Gary and Maywood. Many are her relatives or friends of the family.
As the singing and dancing comes to an end, Sheri Shepherd, one of the congregation’s ministers, rises to read the Scripture lesson. The music from the band gets softer but keeps right on going. At the end of the reading, two other pastors from other churches, Daniel Lee wearing a full length black and white robe and Daniel Garret dressed in a black suit, entered the church and processed toward the stage.
A little while later two other pastors, Henry Holloway and Larry TaBron, joined the team of spiritual leaders on the stage. The choir-half the congregation as it turns out-got up in front to sing “thank you” over and over as Hands improvised her musical message. The whole congregation was singing, moving, grinning. The volume on the speakers was cranked up to just short of painful. The church was rocking.
It was, as Pastor Champion would say, in the Spirit.
When the choir finished, Rev. Holloway rose, took the microphone and shouted, “Neighbor, it’s preachin’ time. Are you ready for preachin’ time? Preacher, is there a word from the Lord?”
As the congregation roared its approval and anticipation, Rev. Lee stood behind the podium. Although he said he was going to try to remain calm during his sermon, it wasn’t long before Lee, too, was in the Spirit.
“You’ve been going through hell far too long,” he shouted to the congregation as the band picked up the pace and worshipers responded with hallelujahs and amens, “but today is a new day, a new season. It’s the day of atonement.”
As if he couldn’t contain himself anymore, Lee came out from behind the podium and paced back and forth in front of the congregation, touching heads as he moved. Inspired, he got the whole congregation to stand up and walk around the outside of the church as his preaching became more and more emotional.
Pastor Champion began speaking in tongues. One member fell to the floor.
The worshipers kept walking around the church and responding to Lee as if nothing unusual was happening. It wasn’t. This was normal at Peace, Mercy and Charity Church. The members come every Sunday at 5 p.m. not to think about God as much as to actually feel God’s presence.
After the preaching Rev. Garret grabbed the microphone and asked, “Anyone feeling better?” And with smiles on their faces, 40 somewhat sweaty people shouted, “yes.”
The prayers that followed were very emotional, fervent and long. Because these prayers seemed to be physically taxing for the pastors, they took turns praying in a kind of spiritual tag team ministry. One by one they would approach individuals, lay their hands on them and pray for them.
One young man was asked to come forward. Rev. TaBron could be heard telling him, “You are not going to jail. You are not going to die. God wants you to surrender to him.”
Lee took the mic from TaBron and said, “You’ve been hurt. You’re holding a lot of stuff in. God wants to make you free.”
At that point TaBron blew on the young man, asked the Lord to release him and pushed him backward. Two ministers caught the young man and eased him to the floor.
Champion explained that this experience, which was repeated several times for at least 10 people during the service, is called “anointing” and “falling out.” What happens, she said, is that people are released from whatever is tormenting them when they fall out.
Three and a half hours after Cynthia Hands began the service, members of the Peace, Mercy and Charity Church filed out of the church building at 848 Ferdinand Ave. They seemed tired. It had been a long, physically active, emotional time of worship.
Minister Sheri Shepherd smiled.
“I told you we get crazy around here sometimes,” she said, laughing.