3) I'll Fly Away - Allison Krauss/ Gillian Welch off O Brother Where Art Thou (Soundtrack)
This song is a popular Christian Hymn that I heard more than a few times during my 14 months. Following our days doing service, we brought groups to night sites in the surrounding area to give them a taste of the culture and life in the area. Church obviously has a big presence in the region and Wednesday was Church night so we would often bring them to one of the local churches. During my time, Mosby Pentacostal, Bivens, and Blankenship were in the rotation.
Before my time, The Farm had made connections with a few local Church members who extended invitations to join them for these services. Often, it was through our work with People’s Self Help Housing since a few of the guys on the crews were also preachers. So for the volunteers it was a nice way to see the lives of those they served with outside of the workday.
Those services were a very different experience for volunteers (and me, at first!). Raised as a Catholic boy, I was familiar with services that started wrapping up around 45 minutes in and started dragging when they got past the 1 hour mark. The Catholic Mass is very structured and ordered and oftentimes is evident if a single word is omitted or changed. The Wednesday night services...not so much. They all followed a general format. They typically began with a series of hymns sung by the congregation. Then someone would come up and preach. There are usually one or two main preachers for the congregation- leaders of the community or well respected members. But preachers on any given night could be most anyone, especially if they felt particularly called. There were no set passages or readings (as far as I could tell). Again, it was driven mainly by what the preacher felt called to speak on.
After preaching, they would invite people who had something on their heart to share it with the congregation. This could be anything from a song that had been on a person's mind, a particular passage that had spoken to them, or just general thoughts or an appreciation of Jesus. There was no time limit here. Sometimes these witnesses would become a sermon in their own right. Most of these procedings were punctuated by "Amens!" or other exclamations from the congregation. Last was usually a general altar call. This didn't happen necessarily every time. But when it did, they invited up those who felt the need to be prayed over. There were a few times during my time that I answered Altar Call. It was a slightly intimidating feeling, having a group of people lay hands on me and begin to pray asynchronously for and about me. But aside from the initial shock, it was a nice comfort knowing that all these people were so genuinely and fervently interceding on my behalf.
Altar call was also an opportunity for those who felt compelled to become Saved, i.e. to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. When this happened there was typically a lot of rejoicing and sparked more Witness from the congregation.
All this added up to a slightly frenzied, always enthusiastic and joyous, often extended service. Most would last around 1 hour 45 minutes, with services over 2 hours cropping up quite a bit and a few 3+ hour services thrown in for good measure. What always struck me was the incredible passion and Love that permeated those services. There was an intense community feeling that always shone through. Part of it can be attributed to the fact that a lot of large families attended the same Church. But I think there was also something to be said for the general forthcoming atmosphere where people were encouraged to stand up and speak about their personal history or struggle or blessings that nurtured this intimate connection among the congregants.
And there was something so tied to the culture, something that felt so endemic to the people's identity that created this incredibly close bond as well. There was this sincere, intense love of Jesus that was so evident. I was constantly reminded about the parable of the house built on rock and the one built on sand. The idea being that the house built on a solid foundation could withstand the trials and tribulations of the nastiest weather. And so these relationships,and services, built on the shared love of Jesus always felt so solid and I constantly marveled at their Faith in the face of their personal struggles.
The extreme juxtaposition of style between these services and the ones I was used to had me going on my own journey. I remember going though a period of frustration with the Catholic Mass. Where was this passion I saw every Wednesday, where was the fervor? It all seemed so stuffy and uninspired after those frenetic late nights. The boisterous hymns on a Wednesday gave way to Thursdays and Sundays of timidity. But as the year went on, I started to swing the other way. The structure of the Catholic Mass became more desirable to me and offered a compass needle I couldn't seem to get on Wednesdays. Suddenly, those nights seemed less substantive than they had in the past and I yearned for the textual analysis of the Homily. At the end of my time, I think I landed somewhere in the middle. I felt so appreciative that I had friends who would so willingly welcome me into their house of worship and I got such a spiritual revival from being in that engaging atmosphere ever Wednesday. I cherished being among people that were enthusiastic and loving and the incredible feeling of community that came from those gatherings. The differences between those services and our Catholic Mass weren't so troubling anymore but a chance to appreciate the distinct approaches to worship and take something away from both.