I’ve been in Richmond for two weeks now and I’m settling in well. My host family, the Avulas, have been very gracious. I feel like part of the family. My adopted church family, East End Fellowship, has also been welcoming. EEF is a unique mix of races, ages, and education levels. They make it clear that they’re a work in progress, charting new territory and making it up as they go along. The church was created when a number of white couples from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville) were inspired by John Perkins to live intentionally for racial reconciliation. They moved to the Richmond Hill area of Richmond where they soon fell in with an African American pastor, Don Coleman, who mentored them. The leadership of the church is racially mixed, and the worship style leans toward modern Black Gospel.
My first Sunday at EEF was Pentecost Sunday. I missed some of my favorite things from Pentecost back home—especially the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus—but was also struck at just how Pentecost-like the church is. A mix of races is hearing the Gospel in their own language, there is a strong sense of community, and the singing and praying is exuberantly spontaneous. It is rich to be immersed in another community’s Pentecost.
The sermons at EEF are striking. First, the preaching is shared by three pastors. They make an effort to communicate in a way that all education levels can understand, and they use the power of story as a common thread. While this could easily devolve into a string of moralistic anecdotes, I’m happy to report that they find images that communicate the Gospel well. Another striking aspect of the preaching is that they don’t shy away from talking about race and racism.
I play bass in EEF worship. Taking part in the music is a very different and refreshing experience for me. All the playing is “off the page.” At the beginning of the week I’m given a list of songs with links to chord sheets and YouTube videos. When we get together before Sunday’s service, the band arranges the songs on the fly. I’m used to playing by ear, but it’s been a long time since I took part in a whole service that was all improvised. It’s interesting how being off the page allows you to be in the moment. If a song is heating up, we keep it going, regardless of how we rehearsed it. There are some hand signs to guide repeats, but mostly you just listen to the congregation and other musicians and adapt accordingly.
Since EEF services are in the afternoon, it gives me the flexibility to visit other churches. This week I visited Redemption Hill, where Shelby Murphy leads the music. We are both part of the Liturgy Fellowship Facebook group. They meet in a school gym, but don’t feel like a church that meets in a school gym. (Except for the basketball hoop which is right above the preacher’s head!) This week they had a string quartet, glockenspiel, trombone, and tenor sax in addition to a more standard acoustic praise band. The arrangements were extremely well written (by Shelby); imagine what it would sound like if Sufjan Stevens were your worship band and you’ll be in the ballpark.
My work with the interns is going very well. They’re excited to learn and I’m excited to teach them. I see them each week in group and individual songwriting lessons and I teach them about worship once a week. The latter are lessons based on the book I’m writing. From the reception the material is getting in the classroom, I feel confident that a book on the fundamentals of worship and worship leadership will meet a real need. Of course, finishing the book will be the hard part. I’m a quarter of the way through the first draft and trying to write all day on the days I’m not teaching. It can be tough going at times. Also tough going is being away from my family. Even though the Avulas have adopted me for the summer, I miss my own family and can’t wait until they join me in a few weeks.