Upon my return to New York City, my wife and I and our three children began an aggressive sampling of several churches. While the kids delighted in the singing, giggled at the occasional Holy Ghost shouting, and timed all sermons, the services did not engage me initially, and I begged off joining.
With my mother’s death in 2003, though, I began to have a change of heart. At the funeral, while speaking of her pious days, I realized she would have been disappointed, even shamed, were I to remain only an occasional interloper in the church. Besides, those two Sunday hours away from worldly distractions had increasingly brought on a sense of calm for me. And there was the rekindled joy of fellowship with church members who, I came to discover, could be hard-core, secular careerists, favoring the rational over the emotional.
Such associations and my stepped-up attendance softened my antipathy toward church membership. My doubts, I came to believe, did not constitute cognitive dissonance of the sort that would disqualify me from service in the church. I may have had considerable questions about where facts tail off in the Bible and where fable and fiction kick in, but I could not deny that Christianity, despite all my hesitancy, had allowed me to live a better, more disciplined life of value and sharing.
After wandering decades as a nomad adrift from his spiritual tribe, I settled on New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church as a fortress of piety for that collective support and sharing missing in my life. The Gothic church in Harlem, known globally for its historic involvement in social activism, was founded in 1808 after a group of free blacks and Ethiopians bolted from a white New York City church that segregated nonwhites in the balcony.
Though the church attracts hundreds of tourists each Sunday, Abyssinian maintains the hospitality of a smaller congregation, and Rev. Calvin O. Butts III makes sure that the shakers of the city, as well as the shaken, feel welcomed there.
So on the last Sunday of December 2006, to the strains of “It’s a Highway to Heaven,” I gathered myself at the call for new members and marched down the aisle. The joyous handclapping unsettled me as I approached the altar, the choir continuing, “None can walk up there/But the pure in heart.” My peripatetic journey now ended, I halted at the altar with the resigned contentment of a man at peace “coming in from the cold.” I extended my right hand to Reverend Butts, who sandwiched it firmly between his, much as Reverend Dixon had done in Tuscaloosa all those many years ago.
Finally, I had achieved a spiritual mooring. I was home again.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Newsday columnist.