Sunday, January 04, 2009

Keeping the "Watch"

Sure, odds are most of us weren't in church as the clock struck midnight New Year's Eve.

Nothing wrong with that, of course -- but it's worth noting that no shortage of our own actually were.

For close to a century and a half, the Black Church has held 31 December as one of its most sacred moments. Linked inexorably to "Freedom's Eve" -- the vigil preceding the 1863 emancipation from slavery -- the "Watch Night" service usually begins at 10pm and prays in the New Year, reaching its climax in a silent, darkened church for the minutes leading up to midnight, at which point the lights go up and the people rise from their knees.

Indeed, the tradition is a Catholic one, too -- from LA to Baltimore, Detroit to DC, New York and Chicago (cue Pfleger), the hubs of the Stateside church's 3 million strong African-American contingent kept the "Watch," several incorporating this New Year's historic rise of the first Black President in their prayers and celebrations.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama but a fortnight ahead, this year's rites held particular significance across denominational lines... an importance duly highlighted in the pages of Friday's New York Times:
So many people showed up for services at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that the street out front was closed to traffic. So many signed up to attend at Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church in Boston that members of the smaller church next door, who usually come to Watch Night, had to make other arrangements.

Though barely known to most white Americans, Watch Night as observed in black churches holds a place among the highest holy days, surpassed only by Easter and Christmas. Originally an 18th-century Methodist addition to the calendar — and still observed in many Christian denominations — its special significance in the black religious tradition was cemented by its link to the New Year’s Eve of 1862, when free blacks and abolitionists gathered to pray that President Abraham Lincoln would carry out his promise to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

“What makes this Watch Night different from all other Watch Nights is that we prayed for an incoming president who is African-American,” said Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College in Maine. “But it must be noted that African-Americans have been praying for this nation for a long time.”

Ronald Kinard, 55, attending the service at St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem on Wednesday night, said the swearing-in of Barack Obama would be, in effect, the answered prayer of millions of people, living and dead, “from the time the slaves were freed.”

Though services vary in their particulars according to the denomination and the minister, the fundamental purpose of Watch Night is prayer — giving thanks for the blessings of the past year, and asking for blessings in the coming one.

In many churches on Wednesday, Mr. Obama figured at both ends of that equation.

“In the name of Jesus, touch the president who’s about to take over the country, God, because you brought us him from a very long way and we say thank you!” said the Rev. Patrick Adams, preaching to the hundreds of people at St. Luke. “Help us, so we leave the past in the past as we bust on through to the new year.”

At Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt, N.Y., on Long Island, the Rev. Reginald Tuggle spoke to a packed house where people who were dressed as if for Sunday morning — or in some cases, for the after-party — were squeezed into the pews with heavy overcoats and children in their laps. He sounded a common theme about the sacrifices of past generations.

“Our ancestors, who were denied the right to be called a child of God, who did not have the privilege to be alive in this time — their prayers as well as ours have been in some measure answered today,” he said.

Older people in the pews, like Mary Carter, a retired schoolteacher and church historian who keeps the record of congregants’ births and deaths, among other duties, could easily picture the people to whom the pastor referred. What she had some difficulty grasping, she said afterward, was the reality of Mr. Obama’s election. “I am still processing the fact that in this country, this could happen,” she said....

The fusion of the spiritual and the historical is inherent to the black church experience, said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., were pastors.

“The black church was born fighting for freedom in a very real sense,” he said, explaining that most black churches were established by worshipers who refused to sit in the segregated pews of the white churches. “For us, the struggle for spiritual formation has always been inextricably tied to the struggle for liberation.”...

For Mr. Brinson, a civil rights-era activist, the Watch Night tradition was rich with nuance and emotion even before the first black president-elect: It was about prayer, to be sure, he said, but also about the dangers of black life in the days of the Ku Klux Klan, and the sense of wary waiting, and the expectation of a better world, which was at the root of the civil rights movement.

“If you have been a black man of my generation,” Mr. Brinson said, “you have been on the verge of tears at the drop of a hat. What I think moves people so deeply is not so much that Obama’s election was some kind of civil rights achievement. It was a human rights achievement.”

At Watch Night on Long Island, as at many services, the lights were dimmed and then turned off completely for the five minutes before midnight.

Mr. Tuggle, the pastor, stood in the pulpit overlooking the congregation he could not see, as they prayed on their knees in silence.

And then the lights went up and everyone rose, and hooted and hugged in the new year.
On an ad intra note, this year likewise marks the centennial of the Knights of St Peter Claver, the Stateside church's largest organization of African-American Catholics.

PHOTO: Gabriele Stabile/
The New York Times