Covenant Community Church, Cleveland, USA
Covenant Community Church
3342 East 119th St.
by T.N. Toost
The morning started badly. I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep and, in my grogginess, I had trouble choosing clothes. On the one hand, I wanted to show respect and not under-dress, but on the other I wanted to be comfortable. What if I was in jeans and a t-shirt? Would they turn me away? I half wanted to tempt them to do so, to then ask, What Would Jesus Wear?
When I did get there, my clothes didn’t really matter; it was my skin above the collar and below the cuffs that stood out. As I’d suspected, the congregation was entirely black. Well, aside from two middle-aged white women sitting in the front. I immediately thought of Fight Club, of Jack branding Marla a “tourist.” These women weren’t there for the right reasons. They were there to observe, then go back to their middle-class white suburb feeling like they’d been adventurous, intercultural; like they’d gotten something out of it. My motives, of course, were pure.
We were called to breakfast, where women served small portions of eggs, grits, hash browns, bacon, sausage and a half-Danish. I took my plate, got some orange juice and suddenly realized that women surrounded me. One carried my juice three steps to a table and introduced me around to the women already eating, telling everyone my name and saying that we were family. They referred to me as “brother,” and I thought of a third way, one Derek Zoolander had not anticipated: not as an actual brother, or the way that black people mean it, but as siblings to Jesus, and God’s children. I’m not sure which is more meaningful.
The eggs were astounding – rich, buttery, creamy. A woman found me to put a slice of American cheese on my grits, which was something not everyone got, apparently. The cheese was rubbery and gave some resistance to my teeth, in contrast to the otherwise mushy grits. The Danish was average, the sausage small and dry, the bacon gristly and the orange juice reconstituted.
It was good that there wasn’t much food, as there wasn’t much time to eat before we were called to the central hall. We flooded in, almost choreographed, and I was seated by the organizer in the front. The row of girls across from me started dabbing their eyes daintily just as the program started. It was as if they were pretending to be so moved by what was happening and what was said that they had to make a big deal of it. I thought back to Mark Twain’s descriptions of congregations and imagined them at a tent revival, feeding on the spirit – that is, if the white folk would have let them join in.
The talk was abbreviated. Aaron Hopson, the speaker, only quoted a few verses: Genesis 3:8-9, Peter 5:8, 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23. He mostly talked about drinking, doing drugs and chasing tail. Then, when he was in Daytona Beach, Florida for spring break, drunk and stoned, a man walking down the beach stopped and prayed for him. Hopson started hearing sounds and voices, and had visions of angels and demons. Even in my fatigue it sounded ludicrous.
At first, every time I saw someone stand up to applaud, I did the same, assuming the whole church would join us. That’s what would happen in a white churchgoing audience – like sheep, a critical mass would force everyone to stand and applaud. At this church, though, one person standing meant nothing, nor did fifteen. Some people didn’t even applaud when others wept in jubilation. My girlfriend later told me she always assumed that when a black audience didn’t applaud, they were being rude; I thought they were being honest. Standing ovations are a dime a dozen – I read an op-ed once that called for fewer standing ovations at symphonies, saying they were too cheaply granted. Here, applause had to be earned.
Hopson went through some of the common sins to be guarded against – sins on television, pornography on the internet, smoking, drinking, drugs. Then he said, “Some of you are sleeping with other peoples’ husbands. Some are sleeping with other peoples’ wives." “What?” I thought, glancing around. Some people were nodding, while some had blank looks, as if trying to avoid detection. I was in a den of sinners, and, really, I was far from innocent myself. Suddenly I realised that the problems in my life were not based in the outside world – they were part of me, the result of my own actions and weaknesses. And suddenly, salvation was within reach, provided that I changed my ways. When, normally do we recognize our own faults? It’s human, I think, to believe that we’re perfect and others are full of flaws; isn’t that what Jesus was talking about, with the beam and motes in eyes?
Is this why people go to church?
The organizer said that the breakfast was “not about eggs and grits; it’s about souls.” The food, certainly, was not worth $10; the servings were tiny and, except for the eggs, mediocre. However, I was shaken. The experiences of others were my own. They had their own secrets and shortcomings, and I had mine – shortcomings which, no matter how prominent, I always manage to overlook or excuse. For a brief moment, I had to face them, to realize that we’re all guilty, all tainted, all fallible.
At the end, Hopson held up two copies of his books to show the audience that they were for sale, then came down off the pedestal, handing one to the organizer and one to me. I thought they were to be passed around, so I handed it to the woman behind me and headed off, shaking hands, patting backs and praising my way out.
I was halfway down the block when a man’s voice called out. “Hey! You left your book!” I ran back to him and took it. As he stretched out his hand, I thought of the Sistine Chapel.
Then I thanked him, turned around and was gone.