Amazing Grace

  • Jon Kelly
  • 29 Sep 08, 11:00 AM GMT

In a country where showbiz and religion are well acquainted, the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis must top some sort of chart. Its resident pastor is a genuine, bona fide music legend.

Al Green recorded a string of soul classics in the early 1970s, including Take Me To the River and Tired of Being Alone. However, he turned to God following an incident in 1974 in which a girlfriend doused him with a pan of hot grits before shooting herself dead.

Programme from Al Green's Full Tabernacle Gospel, MemphisOrdained as a minister in 1976, Green has preached at the Tabernacle ever since. I turned up for a morning service wondering if the stardust of his other career might have been sprinkled on the act of worship here. What I found instead was a modest building in a working-class black neighbourhood, where the unabashed enthusiasm of the faithful was infectious.

I'd never been to a gospel service before, and the force of the choir struck me as soon as I stepped through the doors. The congregation, maybe 200 strong, was clapping, dancing and singing. I hadn't realised you were allowed to have this much fun in church.

During a rare break in the music, myself and the other visitors were asked to stand so we could be applauded: normally I'd be mortified to be singled out like this, but I felt genuine warmth from those around me.

Al Green himself was a captivating preacher. He delivered his sermon underscored by a live band, and would break into song when duly inspired. The congregation whooped their appreciation as he rhapsodised about God's mercy and love.

He was sensitive enough to their concerns, too, to address a subject that was clearly worrying his flock: Congress's Wall Street bail-out and its implications for their homes and livelihoods.

"Get us out of this mess," Green implored the Almighty, to cheers from the congregation. "Help the country out of this financial crisis."

Worshippers called back their approval: uh-huh. That's right. Tell it like it is.

Green wasn't just relying on the Lord to deliver the United States from economic turmoil, however. Later, he acknowledged that he had hopes for a more earthly force, too.

"I'm no politician," he said. "But the senator from Chicago - it seems like he's got some good ideas."

Edith Walker-WilkinsWinning support from a pastor has not, of course, always benefited Barack Obama in the past. But given his popularity in this room, Al Green seemed a good person to get on-side.

Outside the church, members of the congregation were, if anything, even more vocal about their anxieties over the bail-out.

When Edith Walker-Wilkins spotted my notebook, she wasted no time in telling me how tough things were for people in Memphis. The 58-year-old was juggling several part-time jobs, and it was an affront to her that Wall Street banks were being handed so much in public funds when ordinary people were struggling.

Edith produced a blank voter registration form from her handbag. If she met anyone in the street who hadn't filled one in, she told me, she would thrust it into their hands.

"We're in need of change," she told me. "You have people who are starving, people with no health cover.

"If the economy had been managed properly in the first place, we wouldn't need this bail-out."

Barbara PerryShe wasn't the only one who was angry. Barbara Perry was a big Al Green fan who had come all the way from Baltimore, Maryland, to hear him preach.

After a visit to Memphis's National Civil Rights Museum, Barbara, 65, was also passionate about exercising her hard-won freedoms. "If someone doesn't vote," she told me, "they should be beheaded."

Barbara had been a Hillary Clinton supporter right until the former First Lady dropped out of the race, but was now right behind Obama.

She'd be fine whatever happened on the markets, she said - she was retired, and her mortgage had been paid off. But she worried that her daughter now stood little chance of getting on the property ladder.

I asked what she thought of the deal on Capitol Hill. "I just hope that it's going to benefit everyone," she replied, with an eyebrow raised.

Herman PatersonBut I did meet one worshipper who was right behind the deal. Herman Paterson was a deacon at the church. He also ran an interior design firm, and had seen orders drop by 20%.

He wanted Washington to stimulate the market, and was confident that Congress's deal would do the trick.

"I think it's a good idea overall," he said. "It will be a good shot in the arm for the higher echelons.

"A lot of the money requested will trickle back down to the lower echelons."

Different visions of how the economy should be run, sure enough. Al Green certainly presides over a broad church.


  • Comment number 1.

    Preach It!
    Amen, brother.

    Our neighborhood press interviews about ten folks each week. This past week there was a full page of insightful concerns about the proposed bail-out -- both for and against. Folks were making points I hadn't considered and remarking on possible consequences I hadn't even heard on NPR.

    I might add that I've only ever seen one white face printed among our paper's interviews.

    Welcome to my town.

  • Comment number 2.

    Welcome to Memphis Jon. You are seeing the true effect of race in this election. I assure you that policies in Memphis have nothing to do with the issues. When you get to Nashville, ask a few people what they think of the "help me" welfare state that is Memphis. Those derelict shops were caused by the political corruption of Memphis, and the willingness of congregations to vote on race instead of reform. Your education on America is just starting. Don't be lulled into the flash over substance.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good morning.

    I am disappointed to learn that a grammatical sin common to American youth (and an unfortunate number of their elders) has infiltrated your brain during your trip to America: "myself and the other visitors were asked to stand so we could be applauded".

    "Myself" is a reflexive pronoun. So, "I wash myself in the morning" but not "Myself was asked to stand".

    Grammar Girl has an excellent discussion of this at


  • Comment number 4.

    jeffreyg, the English language is on the decline everywhere, I think. On the whole, though, my opinion is that Jon does a fine job compared to that other blogger.

    My pet peeve, in the context of the presidential debates, is that "podium" seems to have become a synonym for "lectern," rather than something to stand on.

  • Comment number 5.

    Nice to hear a Brit who understands what he sees when he attends a Black American Church Service. Matt Frei seems to never understand. What you are seeing is a "personal relationship" with with the Lord in action. It is in the music and in the sermon. It is the only place in America that African Americans can feel truly free.

    This is why the Right-wing White Fundamentalism have adopted the Black Church Service in order to make the oppressed White American feel free. However, they have stood it on its head in order to oppress other Americans. They turned a system of freedom into a system of oppression.

    The Black preacher listen to God, while the White Fundamentalist instructs God, then dictates to the US government on who is and what is sin so that the Church and the State become one, which replaces God.

    Understanding and knowledge are the two gifts from God that is open to anyone.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great post Jon. I posted your experience on my blog. Maybe that can be a new project for you; visiting different churches in a specific country. I did that for a Religious Studies course at University.

  • Comment number 7.

    Amos is the Prophet with the Answer to Today's most pressing questions: what does the Ancient Hebrew Bible say about the Poor??? Amos went North to the Ten Tribes Northern Kingdom, to remonstrate with them; for Stealing The Tithes; and spending these on themselves. He warned the Ten Tribes Upper Class: that they were attracting Negative Attention from Ancient Assyria, by spending the Tithes Lavishly on themselves. He warned them that they might be taken off and scattered all over the Ancient Assyrian Empire's Mountainous Regions, with the delicately Rich Women, led off with fishhooks through their lips, by cruel Assyrian Soldiers. The Northern Kingdom's Baalam's threatened Amos life; and told him to leave. Amos knew of what he spoke; he pruned sycamore figs, down near the Dead Sea, and kept herds of animals. Amos dealt with the Caravans passing by to Western Arabia, and to Egypt and Africa, and gathered all the day's news from them. He warned the Ten Tribes that their Tithes were to keep the poor from starving and freezing, so Israel could have a large population, and a large army. The Ten Tribes Upper Class would not listen; so God gave them a new Upper Class, who would treat them better; The Assyrian's Upper Class said; our younger sons would be a better Upper Class, for the Ten Tribes, whose people deserve much better treatment. This was the origin of the Good Samaritans, and the Ten Lost Tribes Upper Class: who never returned. What is a Baalam? A Priest of Baal; Baal was the ancient, pre-Semitic false god of the original Indo-Europeans of Mesopotamia. See Numbers and the Baalam's Ass Story. The Baalams of Washington and Wall Street want a Bail Out, when they do not pay Social Security, the modern Tithes, nor do they propose granting Universal Medicaid/Medicare, just Upper Class Greed. Time for Cruel Soldiers to lead them off with fishhooks through their lips. Look Out, Palm Beach, New Port, River Oaks, etc. All Around the world; Presidents are looking at the US and saying, Our Young Sons would treat the American People much, much better...... Just like in 726 BCE/BC. 2804 Years Later: Is It Time for some New Good Samaritans???

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm a social worker. I work with the poorest of the poor. If anyone is starving in this country, it would have to be drugs or alcohol keeping them from wanting to eat. Look around. See anybody skinny?


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