Voices

Holiday and Heaven

A worship experience south of Cheltenham Avenue

Issue: "Crossing borders," June 23, 2007

Once you cross from north to south of Cheltenham Avenue into Philadelphia proper, the names of the churches go from the sedate to the sleeved up: Better Way Bible Church, Bible Deliverance Holiness Church, Abundant Life Healing Fellowship Church, Turning Point Worship Center, Solid Rock Fellowship. I've been wanting to go there.

Today after the first service at sedate I slipped out the side door with MapQuest directions and crossed the line. I had phoned Vision of Missions on North 11th Street and inquired as to worship times. The receptionist chuckled and said, "We start at 11, but I can't tell you when we finish." I was sold.

Churches south of the border don't look like churches, which is all to the good-once you can find them. You slow your car to a crawl in the mainly deserted streets where Sunday morning shakes her skirts of all hangover-nursers and leaves the salt of the earth and the children of light. You look for storefronts, not steeples.
"I shuffle down past the Third Street Gospel Mission;
Jesus always saves a place there just for me.
He's got his own band of angels playin' music.
From a block away you can hear them sing
To a kick drum and a tambourine.
Corner of Holiday and Heaven,
No place on earth I'd rather be."

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This is my second time, so I know what to expect. A lady will start chanting "Hallelujah" into one of the five mikes at the front of the room, to no perceptible cue. People will slowly gravitate to seats. In a few minutes the mikes and chairs will fill in, the "Hallelujah!" taking on a life of its own and swelling toward crescendo. It will pick up a single electric guitar along the way, then the bass when it feels like it, and finally keyboard and drum.

The gathering river of "Hallelujah!" now branches into rivulets of simple lyrics dwelling on His awesomeness and majesty and holiness. Like Bolero but with Holy Spirit fire for fuel, it sweeps all in its path into a trance of praise. The whole church sways now, though you don't recall where it began. A half-hour in, there is no sign of the song subsiding.
"Now from the outside looks like
Just another lonely place
On just another hard road downtown,
Where the wind blows the trash around
In circles on dirty streets.
But the joy of the Lord is found
Where the heart of the new believers beat.
Corner of Holiday and Heaven,
No place on earth I'd rather be."

I don't know what the Regulative Principle of Worship is that I was supposed to learn in seminary, but I'm pretty sure by now it's been gagged and hogtied and tossed out the window. Five ladies in floor-length white robes looking like angels come up and dance to the glory of God, waving colorful, sheer kerchiefs in pantomime to a song about finding a secret place with the Lord. Ulrich Zwingli might faint.

The preacher comes up, almost anticlimactically. He holds no paper or 3-by-5 card, and it is clear he will not be contained by the pulpit area. His text is Hebrews 4 and Psalm 119 but he hardly gets to the Psalm, detoured by the Holy Spirit into words earmarked for me from the foundation of the world, though everyone in the joint is resonating, too, urging him loquaciously with "Come ons" and "Hallelujahs" and "Praise Jesus" and "Glory!" as he wipes his brow at intervals and takes no prisoners.

I wish it would never end. Hey Lord, let's build three booths and stay-one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. There's quarreling and kids with epilepsy down there. Couldn't we linger a while in your house? One more round of "Hallelujah"?
"Goin' down to let my light shine through a lonely window.
A chance a lost soul will face up to the pain.
I like the preachin' . . . that little dance he does so entertainin'.
He seems to know just how to save my soul,
Take my burdens, make me whole.
Corner of Holiday and Heaven,
No place on earth I'd rather be.
Right there on Holiday and Heaven,
No place on earth I'd rather be"

(Bryan Duncan, "Joyride").

-Andrée Seu is the author of Normal Kingdom Business and Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, essay collections available at worldmag.com

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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