08.20.15

When the Doors of the Church Should NOT Be Opened

“The doors of the church are now open” must be one of the best-known sentences in Black Church life. It’s that time in the service when people are invited to join the church “by letter, on Christian experience, or as a candidate for baptism.” When I was a boy, Rev. Betts used to say those words with a warmth you could cozy into, like a favorite blanket on a damp day. “The doors of the church are now open.”

But sometimes the doors of the church should be closed, y’all! Not only closed, but locked! I couldn’t help share this anecdote from one of the best books on the African-American experience published in recent years, The Warmth of Other Suns. Read this and be glad this ain’t your church (at least I hope it ain’t your church)!

In the summer of 1932, the church actually split into two rival factions as to who should be the pastor. One side was backing the Reverend W. W. Hill, an old-school preacher who had just been ousted; the other was supporting Professor Foster, a starched man with a standoffish wife and brilliant children whom some people saw as having enough influence as it was, seeing as how he already ran the school. The church grew so divided that people were no longer speaking. Enemy lines were drawn. The church had to shut down for two whole months. The authorities in Monroe took away the keys. The church reopened the first Sunday in September 1932, along with the wounds and hostilities that were no closer to healing than the day the church was shuttered. That morning, Sunday school had barely begun when “there arose a contention between the two factions as to who was in charge of the church,” the Chicago Defender reported. There was a question as to whether the apparent victor, Professor Foster, should speak, the Hill people saying it was perhaps best that he not, the anti-Hill faction urging him to go forward. Professor Foster was accustomed to running things. He arose and stood stiff and pious and was reading Bible scripture, when four women walked up to the pulpit and demanded he stop preaching, as if to suggest he had no right to be taking over as he had. It was an outrageous, unheard-of disruption, practically blasphemous, and the church broke into an uproar. Several men rushed the pulpit and began fighting. A deacon backed out of the door, hitting back at those who pursued him and falling down in the street. A parishioner named James Dugans, who was either a supporter of Professor Foster or merely enraged at the show of disrespect, picked up a chair, drew a pistol, and started shooting. A bullet struck a woman named Patsy Daniels in the stomach. Incensed, her father ran to a house next door and got a pistol of his own. The father came back to a fight that had now spilled out to the front of the church. When the first gunman, Dugans, saw the woman’s now-armed father, he shot him in the chest. The bleeding father continued firing as he fell, killing Dugans and wounding three other parishioners. Patsy Daniels died from her wounds. In all, as many as seven people were left wounded, including the dead woman’s father. Professor Foster and his family managed to escape unharmed—physically, in any case. The Monroe police again had to take the keys of the church. Until the congregation could settle its dispute, “ the doors of the church were securely nailed up,” the Atlanta Daily World reported.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Rajun Cajun

    I understand the point of this article. As a digression, I am uneasy at the part of the service that begins with, “The doors of the church are now open….”. In my opinion it is unbiblical and seeks to manipulate individuals via compulsion to “walk the isles”. This is further enforced when the preacher elongates the invitation by: (1) having everyone close their eyes and those who want to “accept Jesus” raise their hand, or (2) claim that the spirit is speaking to them and they know that there are one or two more individuals out there that need to come forward, or (3) have the choir sing the song one more time to give people another chance to make a decision, or (4) the preacher tells some emotional story (supported by the musicians playing in the background) designed to prey on the conscience of the flesh, or the best is (5) ask the person to the right and to the left of you if they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, if anyone said “no” take their hand and bring them to the front.

    The icing on the cake is when the preacher approaches those who have come forward, sticks a microphone in their face, and asks them if they accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. The answer is always, “Yes”. Then the preacher says, “Welcome to the family of God. You are now saved. Follow Sister Johnson out the door to my left and she will share some information with you.” All the while the preacher’s sermon topic was discussing how the Republican’s treatment of Obama is comparable to Pharoah’s treatment of Moses.

    • Ulasa Harris

      My goodness, brother!!

      I wish I could say I know of no place where something like you storied takes place but I do.

    • jeyjey34

      That’s a typical Sunday at a traditional, black baptist church unfortunately.

  • Johannes Archer

    Good points all round. I wonder if my church gives the key out to new Christians still on milk, and let them take time speaking out during a service, too soon, well certainly too easily. I maybe a bit hard, but I remember we take heed of a prophet when by experience we know he is sound, so why are we to give heed to those on milk and not require them to submit their words beforehand ? Is the church service really time for experiments ? Who draws the line, each set of elders every two years ?