I went to hear my friend from elementary school, David Wade
(fka David Melton), preach at the New Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Harlem today.
It was an awesome, moving, amazing experience, from our arrival, when the
security detail tried to prevent our entrance, to our departure four hours
later, escorted across the street by a handsome young bishop.
My daughters, six and nine, and I drove from South Orange into the city and, with a minimum of trouble, found the church and a place to park nearby. We were early, so we stopped at Make My Cake for a cookie and walked west on 139th toward City College. I’d never seen Shepard Hall and it’s magnetizing, even from afar.
We got to New Mt. Zion around 10:15 for the 10:30 service. A man in a military-looking cap, covered in patches, stopped us from entering, “Excuse me, ma’am, we are having an anniversary celebration today, and…”
“I am NOT a tourist.”
I was surprised at my own power, but David and I were in the third grade together. We went to high school together. I saw him preach when he was just starting out—the second sermon, it turns out, he ever gave. I knew his mother and his sister. I hadn’t seen him in twenty-five years. I was not going to miss this. “I am a childhood friend of your guest pastor, Pastor David Wade. Pastor Wade and I went to elementary school together. I am his guest. He is expecting me.”
Behind me, three middle-aged women said “Praise the Lord! Welcome to New Mount Zion!”
We were in.
A woman attached herself to my elbow, promising to take care of us. She consulted with a woman in the small church office and the plan was made: she was to shepherd us for the rest of the service. When I asked to use the restroom, she came along. At first, I felt like a criminal, but she was kind to the girls and asked their names. I gave her mine. Hers was Sheryl. She explained that the pastor doesn’t like tourists, who often come for the music and then leave when the sermon starts. In fact, another white family, looking kind, but wearing backpacks and clutching a guidebook, were being spoken to as we took our seats. They left soon after.
People wandered in. The older women in their suits and bejeweled hats, but the women my age and younger not much more fancily dressed than I. One skinny, skinny old woman had a golden woven hat with a tremendous brim and a very shallow crown. It must have been 36” in diameter. Her golden suit matched the hat. There were at least three different styles of choir robes—for the dancers, the older singers, and the children’s choir.
It wasn’t hard for David to spot us from the pulpit—we were the only white people in the church—we waved hello and he beckoned me forward. The couple to our right let me out of the pew and I made my way down the aisle. Tears sprang to my eyes as I hugged him hello. “Look at you, Annie! Good to see you! We’ll talk after the service.” But then, he spotted my children and came back and said hello to them to.
My voice cracked a little as I said to Sheryl, “You see, it is true. I do know him.”
I tell you, it was an awesome, moving service. I will try to tell you more about it tomorrow, but let me say that it’s a really amazing thing to see a friend you remember from third grade grown into a preacher who really has the Spirit working in him.
As my older daughter said afterwards, “You can tell that he really believes this. He’s not just putting on a show.”