That old-time religion Down-home: A Baltimore County church turns off the air conditioning, unplugs the organ and has a day of worship that recalls 1940s services.

August 17, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Maurice Moody can clearly picture his boyhood church, a little building dwarfed by great trees on the flatlands of Indiana, can remember the whitewashed cinder blocks, can still feel that sense of family among the worshipers who gathered to sing and to pray and to hug each other after the last amen.

"I thought, 'It would be great to go back to that time,' " he said yesterday of his knee-high days in the Midwest at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. "It was so down-home, and everybody was so close, and that's what this is about."

"This" was a 1940s-style church service held yesterday at Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Baltimore County, an idea Moody presented to church elders as a way to acknowledge the past, give thanks for the present and pray for the days to come.

Members of the Woodmoor congregation, looking for some old-time religion, cut off the church's air conditioning, opened the windows and flapped paper fans under their chins for a breeze.

They unplugged the organ and rolled out a piano for their songs. They left their new Sunday best in the closets and pulled out their old Sunday best, the men arriving in freshly scrubbed overalls, the women with enough flowers on their hats to fill a cemetery. Earnestine Hayes wore a bonnet fashioned after the one her great-grandmother wore as a slave in South Carolina.

"I'm not saying it reminds me of the old days, because I'm not that old," said Moody, who is 46 and moved to Baltimore in 1987. "But this reminds me of my days coming up."

Much of the congregation came to Baltimore as children from places where they, being black, were segregated from whites and where the church, more than anything, allowed them to dream and to hope. They came from the dusty small towns of Texas, from the swamplands and sea islands of South Carolina and, mostly, from all over North Carolina, from the mountains and the Piedmont, from the upper coastline and "Down East."

The churches were simple, usually made of cinder block or wood, almost always painted white, and in the summer they seemed nearly as hot as the hell the congregations were praying to avoid come Judgment Day. The heat didn't matter much to the faithful.

"On Sunday, we were in church mostly all day," recalled Curtis Crawley, remembering the hot days in Hyco Zion Baptist Church in Concord, N.C. "We worshiped in the old manner. We worshiped together and then we'd eat together, like a family."

Feast on the lawn

So it was yesterday. While the congregation sang "Shine on Me" with a piano as accompaniment, Judith McDougall, Vernal Pulliam and other volunteers were on the church lawn, slapping vinegar and herbs on a sprawled whole pig and a cut-up goat. They fried chicken and seasoned the collard greens, okra and stewed corn for an old-fashioned feast after the services.

"It's back to basics," explained Pulliam, 60, who grew up in Burlington, N.C. "This whole day is something we were accustomed to. Our churches didn't have all the bells and whistles, so we made do with what we had. A big meal in the churchyard was always part of it."

So, apparently, was laughter, if yesterday was an indication.

Peggy Jones Byrd could do little more than laugh at the remarks she heard when she arrived stylin' -- decked out in a straw hat she had dyed gold, with the flower arrangement atop it, a shawl pulled over her shoulders, an old-fashioned dress with hems below her knees, and gold shoes.

'You had to wear a shawl'

"Well, what can I say?" she said with a jerking turn of her shoulders, feigning snootiness but unable to stifle a giggle.

"I talked to a lot of elderly people," she explained later. "I had a conversation with the woman I call my second mother, and she said, 'Oh, yeah, girl, if you wore something sleeveless, you had to wear a shawl.' So I got me a shawl. It's my mother's."

'So we don't forget'

She, like the others, though having fun with the accouterments of the day, paid most attention to what the gathering meant spiritually.

"This is so we don't forget where we came from," she said. "We came from good, sturdy stock, and they were proud. It was in church that people could really be free. They didn't have to worry about prejudice or oppression, not in church."

Adrienne Hawkins and Jessica Wills are both 10 and do not remember such blatant segregation, so their day, spent as ushers in the church, was a bit more focused on the present.

A younger view

Would they have come so faithfully to church in the old days, without air conditioning, on a day like yesterday, which had the congregants perspiring as they sang?

"Oh, I wouldn't want to do this all the time," said Jessica, fanning herself, "but I would if that was the only way to go to church."

"We're servers of God," added Adrienne. "No matter how hot it is, you should always go to the house of the Lord."

"But," said Jessica, "that doesn't mean I'm eating that goat."

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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