You Had Me at Hammond B3
By Brandon Brown
*This is an older post from before a blog database crash in 2021.
– Blessings, Brandon
I have been watching The Back Church on PBS. It is a fascinating and entertaining documentary series. While watching the first episode, I had a flood of memories from an experience in my early teen years. I was raised in a predominantly white Christian tradition. It is a tradition of deep ecclesiology and emphasis upon the Church, but it can also become too narrow in its consideration of what constitutes the Church. The typical worship experience was a cappella hymns and preaching in plain buildings. Most sermons were rational and calm with guarded emotion. I mention this to explain my reaction to my first visit to a black church.
My Boy Scout troop would typically go to a nearby church on Sunday morning when we camped out. Our troop leaders took us to various denominations based upon those of our troop members. The most memorable visit we made was to the Mount Nebo Baptist Church. I cannot recall where this church is but it was a small rural church. The building had a small foyer with double doors leading into the sanctuary. When we arrived, we were greeted by older women and men who ushered us to a pew near the front because we were guests. One wise woman mentioned that most of us needed to hold on tight because we would be encountering a very different experience than our typical worship services.
As the room began to fill conversations were ongoing. Many came by our pew to welcome us and bless us. The pastor and others took seats on the platform and the congregation began to sit and become quiet. A woman walked up to the organ stand which housed a Hammond B3 organ. There was an air of anticipation in the room which felt electric. Then the woman raised her hands and stroked the first chords of that organ and the room stood; the back doors burst open and clapping began from a choir walking in step toward the front. The voices rose in joyful praise as the organ drove the rhythm. As the choir passed the rows, the congregation began to join in by singing, clapping, and shouting. It was a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving. As the choir took their places, the song continued and flowed into more songs. I was reluctant at first but quickly tried to join in for I felt an emotional response I had never felt in church before. That was the moment when I realized that church could be broader and have more depth than I realized. They really had me at Hammond B3, but that is another story.
As the music flowed into the message time, the pastor arose and stood at the podium. He kindly looked toward our pew and welcomed us. The crowd spoke verbal amens and welcomes were shouted. Then he mentioned that church may be a little shorter than normal because of the guests. The congregation chuckled. The preaching was very different from what I had heard before. I cannot remember the message these years later, but I do remember the cadence and organ chords used at moments of emphasis. It was an interactive sermon with impromptu responses from the congregation. The ending of the sermon flowed right into song and responses of prayer. Then the choir began to exit singing as they had come. Once they went through the doors, the congregation began to speak to one another again and to greet us. The entire experience had gone for two hours and yet, it felt like a moment. One older gentleman mentioned that he was glad we came that day because he was rather hungry and ready to get to lunch. I left there changed and a bit frightened because of that change.
I now have more context and experience to interpret my visit to the Mount Nebo Baptist Church. Watching the documentary series is adding to that context. There is a damning critique that white supremacy was an outgrowth of a Christianity which sought to make itself compatible with slavery yet also incorporate those who were enslaved without tipping the balance of power or economy. While the Church may not still seek that unholy marriage, she can still align herself with the powers of the world and create injustice instead of justice. There is hope in a God who loves and sides with the marginalized and oppressed. When the Church aligns with those whom the powerful ignore, she becomes the Body of Christ more fully.