A Soulful Palm Sunday


The moment I woke up last Sunday, I whipped out my NYC guidebook. Mother Nature had canceled my previous plans for the day (renting a gondola in Central Park . . . probably not as fun in freezing rain), so it was time to start from scratch. I turned to page 146.

"Brock. We're going to Harlem and we have to leave now."

"Huh?" His voice was groggy.

"There's a famous African-American church in Harlem called the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was started in 1808 by a group protesting segregation within the Baptist church. They have an amazing gospel choir and services start at 11 . . . that gives us barely an hour to get there so we need to go now."

We were out the door within fifteen minutes and arrived at the church at 11:10. There was a long line of tourists wrapping around the building. Just as we walked up to the end of it, an usher came and announced that there was no more room inside--cutting off the line right  in front of us! It was the Supreme Court all over again!

Luckily, my dogged husband doesn't give up so easily. It took him roughly eight seconds of schmoozing to get another usher to let us in the front door. Instead of being led up to the rafters with all the other tourists, we took our places on the ground level, right smack dab in the middle of the action.

I don't think my spine stopped tingling for the entire two-hour service. It began with a processional hymn called "All Glory, Laud and Honor." As we were singing, the choir filed in down the two aisles surrounding the middle section Brock and  I sat in. You could hear each individual voice as it passed. It was like listening to ocean waves on a beach--retracted stillness; a pealing soprano vibrato; stillness again; a thundering bass line; stillness; an alto; stillness; a tenor; stillness.

Reverend Turman (click on the link to be surprised) proceeded to give a heartfelt prayer, with a whooooole lot of hand-raising, amens, and thank you Lords woven in from the congregation. An organist accompanied her words, decorating them with major and minor chords as needed. When the prayer concluded nearly ten minutes later, the United Voices of Abyssinian sang a choral response.

Oh, but they weren't done. Next on the program was a spiritual arranged by Roland Carter called "Ride On, Jesus." (Perfect for Palm Sunday--think about it.) With the first note, the skin on my arms swelled with goosebumps.

Ride on, Jesus
Ride on, King Jesus
Ride on, Conquering King
I wanna go to heaven in the morning

You can find a sample of the song's mp3 here, but the choir in that recording doesn't hold a candle to the United Voices of Abyssinian. I couldn't find an mp3 of UVA singing "Ride On, Jesus", but if you want a sampling of the energy they put into it, click here and listen to the ninth track.

Next on the program were announcements and scripture from Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III. This is where things got a little weird for me because whenever the bishop in a Mormon church reads announcements, that segment of the meeting is brief and to-the-point. Not so in the Abyssinian Baptist church! Reverend Butts went on for a good twenty minutes--it was 10% announcements, 90% tangents. It felt like he was just up there shooting the breeze with everyone, rambling on about whatever came to mind. He brought up the Travyvon Martin case, his disappointment with the local district attorney, the crookedness of law enforcement in the area, etc. As he went on, a woman in front of us kept raising her hand in positive affirmation of his words. When she did, I couldn't take my eyes off the bling  she was wearing! I'd spent the previous morning inside Tiffany & Co, so the sparkle of expensive diamonds was fresh in my memory.

A few minutes later, I got my answer when Reverend Butts welcomed the mother of Amar'e Stoudemire to the congregation. Somebody's  takin' care of his momma! Takin' care of her reallll  good.

Naturally, the Reverend doesn't just welcome visiting mothers of NBA players--next on his agenda was welcoming all  visitors. "If you are visiting this congregation, please stand up!" Everybody clapped as a throng of tourists rose on the second-level balcony. Brock and I followed suit on the ground floor, looking like two cotton balls in a coal heap. Immediately, everybody  within a four-foot radius of us turned to shake our hands and introduce themselves. I felt like royalty!

The choir followed with a number called "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord" by Edwin Hawkins. They had a soprano soloist named Mae Carrington who hit notes that astounded me . . . not just in how high they were, but in how effortlessly she sang them. With each progressive measure, her words floated up, up, up, up to the ceiling, the clouds, the stars. It was like those words, that prayer, inside her really did want to go into the House of the Lord, and she was setting it free.

Then came the sermon. It was everything I expected and more: A whole lot of fist-pounding, prrraaaaaaaaaaaise Jesus, and unbridled holy passion from Reverend Butts who, judging by the decibel level of his voice, had forgotten about the microphone in front of him. His sermon centered on Christ and the people who laid palm fronds before Him on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (For great historical context on this, check out this Wikipedia page and read the section titled "Biblical basis and symbolism".) He said that laying down palm fronds was a way of thanking Jesus for all that He'd done for them--healing, feeding, serving, teaching, loving. On Palm Sunday, the reverend said, we  should proverbially lay our palm fronds before Jesus. It's a day for gratitude and adoration.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI gave a sermon in St. Peter's Square that same day that beautifully expounds upon the meaning of Palm Sunday:
Dear brothers and sisters, may these days call forth two sentiments in particular: praise, after the example of those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with their “Hosanna!”, and thanksgiving, because in this Holy Week the Lord Jesus will renew the greatest gift we could possibly imagine: he will give us his life, his body and his blood, his love.  But we must respond worthily to so great a gift, that is to say, with the gift of ourselves, our time, our prayer, our entering into a profound communion of love with Christ who suffered, died and rose for us.  The early Church Fathers saw a symbol of all this in the gesture of the people who followed Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, the gesture of spreading out their coats before the Lord.  Before Christ – the Fathers said – we must spread out our lives, ourselves, in an attitude of gratitude and adoration.
Isn't that perfect?

In closing, Reverend Butts issued a rousing call for us all to be saints in Caesar's palace (see Philippians 4:22). I left the Abyssinian Baptist Church with a new appreciation for Palm Sunday and a heart that swelled with gratitude for my Savior. Oh, and a palm frond. I left with a palm frond, too :)

By the time church got out at 1:30, we were ravenous. (In our rush to get there, we'd skipped breakfast.) I'd heard of a great restaurant in the area that, according to Yelp reviewers, served up good home-cookin' and "shivers-up-your-spine" BBQ.

Oh, baby. Those Yelp reviewers weren't kidding. That was the best BBQ I've ever had in my life. We started out with fried green tomatoes that came with a sauce that had  to have had cocaine in it. Our waitress told us their chicken wings were a best-seller, so we ordered a small plate of just three honey barbeque wings to taste. Again: Unreal. For entrees, we each ordered sampler plates: BBQ chicken, beef brisket, sausage, pulled pork, ribs . . . we had it all. Our waitress told us that they smoke all their meets for fourteen hours--FOURTEEN HOURS! There was so much other comfort food on the menu I wanted to try (mashed potatoes, key lime pie...), but we decided to quite while we were ahead. And by "ahead" I mean "approximately four pounds heavier than we were before."

We spent the rest of the day wandering through Harlem and Morningside Heights. We visited the Riverside Church (financed by John D. Rockerfeller, has the largest carillon in the world), the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (AKA Grant's Tomb, the largest mausoleum in the world...guess who's buried there? NOBODY), the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (the largest cathedral in the world--600 feet long, 146 feet wide), and the beautiful campus of Columbia University. We came home exhausted and with aching feet, but that's nothing that hot cocoa and Mad Men can't fix ;)

Riverside Church

Grant's "Tomb"

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

Inside the above church; largest cathedral in the world. Reminds me of that hallway leading up to the Wizard of Oz!
Makes me giggle to think of a lion diving out of one of those beautiful stained glass windows :)


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