Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Al Green delivers that old time religion

Two miles South of Graceland, just West of Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, sits a modestly-sized church, just past a stretch of rural homes. It's here you'll find the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. And though they operate a prayer line and food bank, you'll be hard pressed to get someone on the phone there- no doubt they're weary of inquiries about their famous minister. Like the gospel says, you must seek them and him out.

And so the Sunday just after Christmas and two days before the new year, I took a chance and drove out there in the morning in the hope that services would indeed be presided over by none other than soul legend Al Green. Supposedly, he does run the services there unless he's on tour. And though he lives in the area, he rarely makes it out to Memphis for any shows or celebrations though he's often asked to. Instead, he keeps his routine duties at the church, going back to December 1976 when it was founded, not long after he swore off his pop life for a while (brought on by the violent end of a relationship).

Thirty years is a long time to be leading a church so there's no questioning his commitment though with me being Jewish and my girlfriend being Episcopalian who couldn't remember the last time she'd been to a service, there was plenty of reason to question our own commitment. I had rarely been to a church myself (much less a synagogue). One of the last times I went was about 20 years ago and even then I embarrassed myself and the minister at a Bible study (long story) and on my Facebook profile, I list myself as an "orthodox agnostic." But when we're talking about one of the 20th century's greatest singers and a living legend, I'll gladly make an exception.

As we drove along looking for the church, it wasn't obvious where it was as not only where there a number of other churches along the way but also the Tabernacle itself isn't much to see from the outside. It was a modest sized place that couldn't have held more than 100 people inside (if that). The only thing that makes it stand out is a small sign outside that proclaims "Rev. Al Green" in small letters, not far from a sign post that reads "Al Green Road." As we walked into the church, I noticed that there was another office outside for his publishing company. It wouldn't be the last time that day where the sacred and profane would mix.

When we entered, we were still wondering and hoping that Green himself would be there for Sunday services. Sure enough, there he was in front, leading a Sunday school sermon, dressed in white robes and occasionally flashing that winning smile and with no gray hair in sight. Those last two items were about the only thing that visually connected him with the image I saw at the Rock and Soul Museum in downtown Memphis a few days later. In an early '70's clip, he sang on stage, wearing a sleeveless purple vest, letting him chest hair and tone body hang out for all to see. As Green himself would explain later, we could be seeing a different side of him today at church.

We caught the tail end of the Sunday school session as Green admonished the whole idea of "science." "That word isn't in the bible!" he exclaimed. "Show me where it is there," he demanded as he called for someone to hand him a copy of the good book. "Faith, is what's in there..." he assured the congregation.

After he finished, a small group cleared out of the church as they prepared for the regular service. The program they handed out included a xeroxed picture of Green, a prayer, a Christian Creed, a prayer list, New Year's greetings, a space for 'sermon notes' and a schedule for the 11:30 AM service. On the inside was a quote about Salvation from Romans 10:9:

"That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shalt believe in thine heart the God hath raised him from dead, thou shalt be saved."

Then there was the schedule for the day:

Morning Worship Service

Processional........Full Gospel Tabernacle Choir
(Please Stand)
Selection...........Full Gospel Tabernacle Choice
Announcements............. Sis. Edith Wilkins
Christian Creed.............Congregation
Welcome...............Sis. Pat Beecher
Selection..................Harmonizer Male Choir
Processional.................Full Gospel Tabernacle Choir
Morning Message.........Bishop. A.L. Green
Call to Discipleship............Bishop. A.L. Green
Benediction................Bishop. A.L. Green

(Note that Green is named as a Bishop here)

It began with a three-piece male choir singing briefly and a reading of some announcements for the church's weekly schedule including a schedule for Sunday School, Bible Study and Choir Rehearsal. While this was going on, the church slowly filled, not just with the regular members near the front but other visitors (mostly white) filing in later. Green sat in a large plush chair near the podium, listening along patiently until it was his turn to address the assembled. He launched into a shaky speech about Benazir Bhutto's murder and how it's part of god's plan but he regained his footing as he insisted that we have to be grateful for everyday we're here and how he's giving us another chance to do good next year. He also called out to the congregation to ask for anyone with a December birthday and wished them well.

As he began to sing "Sweet Jesus," he was joined by a ten-piece choir which sounded great and were probably hand-picked by him, along with a small band combo (guitar/bass/drums/organ). After the beautiful, slow-burning song, he peppered his sermon with references to his old secular life:

"I was at a gas station and the guy there said "You know, since you started singing, a whole lotta babies were made!'" he laughed.

"Some woman came here and said 'I wanted to hear you sing "Let's Stay Together."' I don't have anything against that song but this just isn't the place for that."

"I used to sing "Love and Happiness" and "Tired of Being Alone" and those other songs," he explained as he let out a few notes of each tune. "But the Lord said to me 'that's alright but I have bigger plans for you!'"

Later, he launched into a little speech about his early years. "I came from a poor family. We didn't have much. But the Lord's... been good to me," he said graciously. He repeated those phrases again and again until he launched into a song with them, backed by the choir and the band.

I came from a POOR family!
We DIDN'T have much!
But the LOOOOORD'S...
Been GOOD to MEEEEE!!!

Soon everyone was standing and clapping along joyously as he sang it again and again. Right in front of us, two women (one who sang earlier during the services) went into convulsions, almost slam dancing into each other and fanned by nearby friends when they almost fainted from exhaustion. Still another woman rushed out as she was babbling a mile-a-minute "Oh glory! Oh Jesus!..." Normally, I hate the boring piousness of church services but this was so alive that even a heathen like me felt the spirit in him. I even shouted "Amen!" occasionally and didn't intend the least bit of sarcasm by it.

Later when things cooled down, Green went on to acknowledge the visitors there. He called out to couples that he hadn't seen before, asking where they were from. Some came from Chicago, others from England and Australia. When he pointed out my girlfriend and I, we proudly shouted back "New York City!" He graciously applauded each of our hometowns as we replied.

It occurred to me then that this was par for the course for his church. In addition to the local congregation, his musical fame drew in tourists like us to his church for these Sunday services. Acknowledging his past, he had no illusion about why we were coming there but he also insisted that this was still a place of worship and needed to be treated that way. But even with the sacred adornments, the music there was a vivid reminder not just of Green's own roots but where R&B and rock sprang us from.

Green then returned to the good book to quote the beginning of Ecclesiastes 3, which is where the Byrds' classic "Turn Turn Turn" takes its words (courtesy of Pete Seeger) though Green didn't mention that in the sermon.

As the two hour service wound down (much longer than what my girlfriend remembered her church sessions to be as a kid), it was time for the proverbial collection plate. They passed envelopes around which we could mark our names, slip in the money and then seal them up. I coughed up $20, which I thought was at least worth what I'd seen. "We all got bills!" Green told us. "You'd think that just once, they'd forget but they never do." Each section then came up front and gave their envelopes back into a trio of collection plates. Even the band and the choir weren't exempt from this.

Green thanked us all for coming out and as the choir sang him out, he departed for a lunch with his church group as he was helped off with his robes by another member (kind of a reverse James Brown leaving the stage).

I hadn't snapped any photos of Green or the inside of the church because that would have been disrespectful in the context, even if I was there as a musical tourist in the end. And though the service was a better, livelier experience than Green's own secular concert at the Beacon Theatre that I saw up close a few years ago, I wondered if this was comparable as 'entertainment' per se. It was a church service after all but it was also one of the most memorable musical experiences I've ever witnessed- thousands of televangelists had also mixed religion and entertainment but never in such a convincing way as I saw here. If I happened to get some of that ol' time religion in me even for a moment, no doubt that would have pleased Green and been worth it to play for us out-of-towners in his own backyard.


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