Ok, that alone is probably not weird enough. I mean, I've been to church countless times over the years -- for educational purposes, for weddings, for christenings, for ordinations of friends (yup, several times) and, more often, to be part of a group singing shapenote music. I hate attending services at most churches, as for me the phrase "deadly tedious" is but a pale shadow of the suicide-inducing boredom I feel when circumstances require me to sit through most sermons (it's like fourth grade math all over again, when jabbing my hand hard with a sharpened pencil was the only way to avoid slipping into a coma of terminal boredom; for an atheist, a standard church sermon provides about as much intellectual engagement as doo-wop syllables, or perhaps less). I usually hate singing shapenote music at church as well, since this usually feels like a performance (by a group that by definition does not "perform") under difficult acoustic circumstances for an audience that isn't quite sure what to make of us ("Well, you're certainly enthusiastic..."). But many's the time when singing for a service was a form of payment to a church for allowing my group to hold singings in their facilities, and sometimes it is important to a friend for some reason to bring this music in to their congregation. Obligation is obligation and friendship is the greatest joy of all. It works to my great advantage in the long run when my personal degree of immediate pleasure or even comfort is not always my primary concern.
On Sunday morning I attended worship at the Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Patterson Georgia, about twenty miles outside of Blackshear.
Ok, that crosses over to the weird terrain, or at least the "How did I get here?" category. On the Sunday following the annual all-day singing in Hoboken, the singing's organizers used to arrange for a gathering at a home, to sing some more. But that became too much, for various reasons, so now they invite all who will to attend Sunday services at one of two small local Primitive Baptist churches that the organizers attend, with the promise that there will be lots of congregational singing. And sure enough, there is. For a full hour there is freeform singing from Lloyd's, a "word book" of hymns which they sing unaccompanied, by request, to whatever tune the song leader raises, slowly and gently and harmoniously. Yum. My good friend Clarke is the primary song leader wherever he goes, and he made my travel companion Eleanor move over after we arrived so that he could sit next to me for a while. He would lean over right close against me and sing out for a verse or two until he felt that I had picked up the melody, and then he would switch over to some astounding ringing glorious harmony, leaving me to double my volume on melody and take over that form of the song-leading -- or so it seemed, or in any case so I did. I suppose to say that I helped some with the hymn-leading at the Big Creek Primitive Baptist church on Sunday also qualifies as weird, certainly unexpected. I think this is a fair description of what was going on for a while, and not just a Steven-centric perspective.
On Sunday morning I attended worship at the Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Patterson Georgia, about twenty miles outside of Blackshear, where I listened to four different preachers speak in turn and I (mostly) did not get bored.
Not getting bored is maybe the weirdest thing of all. The tradition seems to be that any Primitive Baptist preacher in the room gets to talk, so it's like a folk festival in the sense that if you don't really enjoy the current performer you can wait a bit and another one will come along. It's also true that, in deference to the 15 or so guests who were in the area for the singing, each preacher integrated some singing into his sermon, so before you had a chance to float off into a daze there was some fun to be had back here in reality. The first preacher was Clarke Lee himself, who preaches in an archaic 19th-century country style that is pretty much sung, with psalm-like meter and repetition. It's a style we sometimes associate with African American worship, but if there is an actual connection it would be hard to prove. Listening to Clarke's magnificent voice is plenty compelling. Then Mr. Johnny Lee got up, my friend David's father. He also has a lyrical preaching style, but more significant to me was the actual content of his preaching, which I thought must be bordering on sacrilege to the locals. He made a point to note that the guests in attendance came from different backgrounds and worldviews and beliefs and religions. He spoke about his lack of patience with people who will argue with him about specific word choice in interpreting the Bible, as so often happens, since synonyms are synonyms and the Bible was originally written in different languages anyway. Yes, he specified languages (plural) to a congregation that was raised to believe that the Lord Himself dictated the King James in English as the Unerring Inarguable Truth. I thought the congregants might rise up and push him off the altar, which come to think of it is sort of what happened at his previous church but that's another story and how I came to meet him in the first place. Then two other preachers spoke in a more modern style. That's when I got a touch bored, but not terribly and there was the occasional engaging point and, of course, the singing.
After church: To the social hall for quantities of rich food (mmmm...coconut cake) and passionate gospel singing from the seven-shape tradition, until Eleanor and I had to leave for the airport.
On Saturday night, at the end of the evening hymn-sing that's now part of the Hoboken weekend, some people made a point of asking me whether they'd see me the next day, and I would reply, "I don't know, but I'm going to be at Big Creek". At which point there would be a sort of "woop!" of joyous response. Come to think of it, it was the teenagers who were asking this -- teenagers I've known since they were kids -- so the woop made some sense. But then Clarke asked me the same question and gave the identical woop! in response which prompted me to say, "Boy, for a denomination that doesn't proselytize you're certainly excited to get us in your clutches."
But you know what? It was fun. Isn't that weird?