The Church on the Hill

In late June I recreated a familiar ritual from my childhood, and attended a Friday evening service at the Church of Jesus Christ, Apostolic, Inc. I loved growing up in that congregation, now popularly known as CJC; the preaching was always thunderous, and on occasion, it was inspiring. The congregation is largely Jamaican, which is what you would expect, since the founding pastor is also from that island nation. (He was born in Cuba, and spent his early childhood there before his parents moved to Jamaica.) During the jubilant worship segments, my friends and I would bop and bounce to phenomenal music that had evolved over the years from upbeat ska and traditional hymns to American gospel. The more daring and sly musicians would slip in riffs of R&B, funk and hip hop during what was called testimony service, the 30-minute portion during which congregants stood up to share personal stories of triumph, pain or even lead the congregation in a short song.

Before heading out the evening of my visit, I did a quick Web search for a service schedule. Didn’t find one of those, but I did come across one of the younger members’ YouTube page. Wanna see a video? I’m not in this clip, of course, but I did spot my godfather, two cousins and of course, several childhood friends.

On the surface, everything about CJC remained as I remembered it: the worship was lively, the women exemplified modesty and natural beauty in their fanciful straw hats and long skirts, and the men where well-groomed, kind and handsome in their sharp suits. What about the ‘too cute to do much more than clap’ seasonal visitors seated in the gallery? Yes, they were there, too. But on the whole, the church seemed to have lost something. For one, attendance was sparse. Seating was remarkably easy to come by minutes before the start of service. This was shocking for a Friday night, when the main sanctuary would be tightly packed 30 minutes into the service, as hundreds of congregants had come from several states and foreign countries to worship during the annual gathering. The youth ministry would run Friday evening services, and their brash confidence, combined with standing-room only attendance, would fill the house with raucous energy. Also, the service was pretty much the same as it had always been: testimonies, exhortations from church delegates, offering, sermon, altar call and wrap up.

Located on a hilly street on the north side of Paterson, this church used to be one of several hubs of activity for Jamaican immigrants in North Jersey. In my estimation (and I’m no church historian, so take this with a grain of salt), the church saw its heyday during a 25-year stretch from the 1970s to the late 1990s, when it launched and allied with churches from Massachusetts to Florida on the East Coast, plus international congregations in Canada, England, Africa and India. And of course, Jamaica. At one point, when CJC was on evening radio broadcasts, the bishop went on regular mission trips to India and Africa, and congregants had bursts of creativity and entrepreneurship publishing books, cutting records and opening businesses, the church was a force, a tropical storm that had originated in rural parishes in Jamaica, and was on the verge of being upgraded. But Hurricane CJC never materialized. When CJC’s message, mission and values should have breached a tipping point and appealed to people from all walks of life, its progress really slowed down. Ultimately, its stubborn Jamaican roots held it back and it could go no further.  With few constructive places to put all that energy, no consensus to guide its progress, the church turned on itself. Foreign churches and daughter congregations broke their alliances with CJC.

This was sobering to watch, the underused potential of CJC. There were times when remnants of its ministry have given me the push I need to do better in some area of my life. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that I, and a lot of my church contemporaries have ultimately found what they believe to be better spiritual care elsewhere.

Still, I think that despite the quietness of the church, it has a lot going for it. For one, I’ve always found that it had a strong backbone and brain with its generally decent men. The young people are emotionally devoted to the head man who is the founder and prelate, and for good reason. He was always generous with his time and affection toward them and they could always count on a treat, in one way or another, for birthdays and graduations, etc. Sure, he could thunder and roar from the pulpit about any doctrinal issue, but I remember a man who was much gentler and understanding if you took the time to get to his house or the parsonage and talk your issues over with him. If he gave you a reasonable reprieve on some MINOR lifestyle issue in hot debate at the church, he might send you off with a tiny grunt to let you know you shouldn’t broadcast the conversation to everyone else afterward. He’s not in the best of health these days, and spends a lot of his time in warmer Southern climates. But there he was, seated near the rostrum and presiding over the service. Even young people who have grow up, moved away and start families come back to visit him—the men to shake his hand, and the women to present their babies.

If the men are the backbone of CJC, then the women are its heart and soul, and I don’t mean that in a soft sentimental way. Do you know much level-headed, clear-eyed work is involved in running a church like this? The women have been indispensable lieutenants in whatever the church has needed, from teaching Sunday School to preaching at ordination services. I’ve benefited from warm, smart, generous women who took me and my other girl friends under their wings in our critical adolescent years. I’m so grateful to them for taking their free time on Saturdays to mentor us about boys, relationships with our parents, dealing with ‘worldly’ expectations and any other of our teenage issues, that I keep in touch with them to this day. They’ve come to my wedding and received Baby’s birth announcements. Women hold up half this church, if I could borrow a phrase from the Native Americans. As long as the leaders listen to them, it will never falter.

Let’s not forget that music. No church, whether black, white or multicultural will go anywhere without a reason to get the congregation inspired and involved in the service. This church’s medium is brilliant, brilliant music.

By the time the offering was collected, Baby was exhausted and slumped on Hubby’s shoulder. He was giving me clear signals to pack up and head home. Hubby’s not used to Apostolic/Pentecostal marathons (uh, services). When I want to give him a hard time, I take playful jabs at his upbringing. But I knew that church time would have been the most inappropriate moment to call his childhood church candy-@ssed by comparison!

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2 Responses to “The Church on the Hill”

  1. Interesting what you said. our pastor at our own church is leaving to go to Texas with his wife and small daughter and it has been quite a transition for us. I have come to realise that I want something different in my life also. Regards to your husband and baby.
    God Bless!

  2. I hope that ‘something different’ turns out to be fulfilling and uplifting!

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