We don't often get to go all Law and Order ripped-from-the-headlines in our church visits, but when the opportunity comes, we take it. In October, I came across this headline while reading the San Francisco Chronicle: "Oakland threatens to fine a church for loud music." We had already planned to focus on church music this December, so a plan came together.
According to the article, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in West Oakland received notice from the city of Oakland's nuisance abatement division that, because of complaints from a neighbor, they would be facing $500 a day fines. The church was told the "excessive noise of the organ, drums and amplified vocals" from the weekly choir rehearsals violated the city noise ordinances.
We arrived about an hour before the service and walked around. The church is in a residential neighborhood with houses on either side and across the street. There are other churches about a block away in either direction, and it's a few blocks from downtown Oakland.
When we entered, shortly before the service was scheduled to start, I noticed an older woman and man greeting each other. "How are you?" "Blessed. And you?" "Still above ground. Woke up with some aches and pains but it gets better as the day goes along." For most people in the church, "Blessed" was the answer to the "How are you" question.
We were warmly greeted by a number of people, with handshakes and hugs. When we sat down a pew by ourselves, a woman called us to sit next to her, and we chatted for a while. Just before the service began, she remembered she needed to be by the aisle, in case she was moved to go forward to pray, so we rearranged seating.
It was a damp morning. In the call to worship we were reminded, "We may be wet on the outside but we don't need to be wet in our souls." The music began, and I could understand the basis for the noise complaints -- not that I was complaining. The singing, drums and keyboard were tuneful and joyous but definitely loud. On occasion we've been warned before entering a church that the music would be loud. But most of those warnings proved pointless ("Watch out! This Barry Manilow album excessively rocks!" kind of warnings.) But the volume this Sunday was high.
We were encouraged to praise. "Regardless of the situation you're in, we're here to praise him." "Devil take notice: you can't take my peace!" "Come on, come on, give God some praise!" We didn't use hymnals or slides for singing time. For most of the songs, the worship leader would sing and the congregation would repeat.
Guests (there were a few others besides us) were asked to stand and were greeted. "If you're looking for a church home, you're welcome here." A woman read the announcements, including addresses for bereaved family members. People in the congregation felt free to call out corrections and additions to the announcements.
For the offering everyone was asked to stand and face the outside walls, then we all walked forward to go by the offering baskets. The ushers marched briskly by the baskets with a hand behind the back.
The Reverend Thomas Harris III came forward to preach. There was loud feedback which took a few moments to fix (the one moment of sympathy I had for the issuers of the noise complaints.) He spoke of being known by the way we walk. He talked about the way African American men walked back in the '70's, "a cool walk, with a limp to it and one hand behind the back". He walked that walk to the delight and with the encouragement of the congregation.
He then called the congregation to walk with integrity. "Integrity is a lost art," he said, and added that we need to value our good name as advised by the Proverbs. He pointed to the newly appointed deacons in the church as men of integrity and invited all to stay after the service for their ordination.
He encouraged the congregation to be there for each other. "You all know how I love illustrations, he said, then asked me and another guest, a woman, to come forward. He asked us to stand on either side of him. He leaned on both of us. "Sometimes a stranger can be an easier person to lean on. At times we can speak more freely with such a person." The worship team then led the congregation in singing "Lean on Me."
Communion was served with interesting plastic cups with the grape juice sealed in and the wafer sealed on top of it. Women were offered small, white head coverings to wear during the ceremony (most, but not all, women accepted them. A few women were already wearing hats). The communion elements were covered with a cloth and remained hidden while the elements were passed through the pews.
After Communion, padded black office chairs were wheeled to the front of the church, and an invitation was given for prayer. One man came and sat in the seat, and the deacons prayed for him. A woman came forward and gave testimony of God's provision.
Two new deacons were invited to sit in the chairs after that, and their families were asked to come forward. The pastor and the rest of the deacons prayed for them, officially installing them in their new positions. The service was then concluded.
I had an opportunity to talk with Rev. Harris when he came to greet us, and I asked about the fines for the noise violations. He said they had worked things out with the city. The church has been there for 65 years and "we were used to doing things our way." The main problem had been choir practices on Wednesday nights that went past 9:00 pm. The church had agreed to end those practices by 9:00 pm, and the fines had been rescinded. The community had really rallied around the church, which was a blessing, the pastor said. And they had been able to make contact with other churches that faced similar issues, providing a chance to encourage each other.
It seems that good has come through this time of trial for the church. If nothing else, it made more people (including us) aware of their warm and joyous ministry.
Service Length: 2 hours 9 minutes
Sermon Length: 38 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted warmly by "ershers" (I'm guessing it was a church joke, since I heard the word used a few times by different people) and by other people coming into the sanctuary. Our seatmate introduced us to all the people seated near us, and "welcome visitors" was part of the very brief order of service in the bulletin. Both during the welcome time and in conversation, we were invited to come back and to consider making Pleasant Grove our church home. We also signed the guest book in the foyer, but nobody else seemed to have written in it since May.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 65
Probable Ushers' Count: 80
Musicians: drums (male), organ (male), keyboard (male, worship leader), three men and six women (one on tambourine) in the choir. Two children joined (I think) their mom by the end of worship and were helping out with the tambourine. The young man on the organ left before the sermon.
Songs: "This is the Day"
"He Has Made me Glad"
"I Come to Lift Him Up"
"Magnify the Lord with me"
"Hallelujah, You Have Won the Victory"
"We Say Yes"
"God is Great and Greatly to be Praised"
"Every Day is a Day of Thanksgiving"
"Lean on Me"
"Bridge over Troubled Water"
"Show Somebody the Way"
"King Jesus my Savior"
Draw me Nearer"
"At the Cross Where I First Saw the Light"
"Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"
Miles to place: 64
Total California Miles: 17,411
Church website: youtube.com/pleasantgroveoakland