I love Sunday service in a black church. I was clearly in the right city.
Good as a lazy morning with chicory coffee and more beignets sounded, something got my feet moving back to the Tremé. Jack Francis (that’s his last name) at Backstreet Cultural Museum had told me and the kid about the mass at St. Augustine’s, but I was wary. In high school, I’d been tempted to forsake my fundamentalist upbringing for Catholicism; I loved the ritual, the sensory treats of sun piercing stained glass, incense, and chanting, the exercise – Protestants mostly sit, do a little standing, and, rarely, walk down to the front of the church, Catholics are perpetual motion. Marriage to two Catholics, both lapsed, cured me but good.
But this was Jack, who, when it comes to anything that happens in the Tremé, is the oracle.
I nearly missed the service. (I let the kid stay home to get a break from the old lady.) On my way through the empty Marigny streets, on Rampart, a small corner church without windows but with rocking rafters beckoned. But I kept on.
As Jack had promised, St. Augustine’s is indeed beautiful on the inside. Dating back to the 1830s, when the capstone was first put in place, it features a high vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, tall pillars with pink capitals, and an intricately painted dome at the front.
But really, go for the music.
The Soulful Voices Choir is unlike any I’ve heard, and they are led by the amazing Carol Dolliole LeBlanc, who alternately tore up the grand piano, then somehow got it to roll over for a belly rub. Black churches teem with incredible musicians; keyboard players always have a special place in my heart, but the bass player and saxophonist were equally bringing it, with percussion managed by the 10 singers, both black and white.This group took Catholic liturgy – the standard Kyrie Elieson and Allelulia – and set them to spirituals. “Lord, have mercy” used the tune of the mighty “Wade in the Water.” The responsive psalm for the day used the antiphon printed in the booklet, but turned it into a lilting jazz waltz. The old baptist hymn “Trust and Obey,” the transcendent “Order My Steps,” and I wish I’d taken notes but I can’t remember the half dozen others, filled the space with glory. Instead of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the entire congregation joined hands and sang it as Ms. LeBlanc conjured up a glorious arpeggio tempest on the Steinway. The sunlight streaming in only made it better.
The moment that will stay with me forever is when, before the Gospel reading, the Reverend Quentin E. Moody lifted the huge red, gold cross-emblazoned Bible high overhead and walked to the pulpit in stately rhythm as the choir sang. Simple, majestic…..righteous. This is how you treat something precious. This is how you sanctify.
Rev Moody’s message was moving, beautiful, musical, concise. He’s not a yeller. And he’s genuinely kind. When I thanked him at the end of the service, he embraced me like a long-lost family member. “You must come again when you are back in New Orleans,” he said.
Heck, I wanna move there and join.
On the way out, I ran into Jack. “You came back. Good to see you.”
“I am SO glad I did.”
We chatted for a few minutes like old pals. Jack had invited both me and HP to join the second line parade; there’s one every Sunday for the different Social and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans, but he had his heart set on checking out the alligators at Audubon Zoo (a great destination, it turned out). What’s more, the parades are four hours long, and I knew I’d been running the kid a bit ragged, though he’s game. Jack gave me his card; he’s the brother of Sylvester Francis, founder of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the work these guys are doing in preserving national treasures; please pay them a visit if you get down to the city. For me, next time, second line or bust.
My Lord, what a morning. I’ve heard all the arguments of why God can’t possibly exist, had well-meaning folks question my “intellectual honesty” because I believe. So do me a favor: Visit St. Augustine’s for a Sunday service, and tell me what random molecule arrangement is powering that music, those worshippers, that community.
Get that formula down and share it.
But mostly, just get down to New Orleans. The tourist sites are back up and jumping, but the working people who keep the city running and in existence are struggling still. 100,000 have been misplaced, and to be forcibly separated from New Orleans and unable to get back has to, frankly, suck. Get down there, fall in love with it, and do what you can to keep it alive. There’s no place like it. Help it thrive.