Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring

The 14-person chorus chanted lyrics from a book called African American Heritage Hymnal as they swayed together in perfect rhythm. Behind the pulpit, the piano, organ, guitar and drum ensemble, dressed in their black Sunday best, joined in as the embodiment of religious devotion. 

May we forever stand

True to our God

True to our native land

The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III introduced the opening hymn on the first Sunday of Black History Month as the celebratory anthem for the African people. His church, Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem, was formed when a handful of African devotees broke away from the predominantly white First Baptist Church more than 200 years ago. On this Sunday, the sanctuary was decorated with traditional African brocade; a testament to the artistic creativity that defined a people. 

“We have so much talent in this room,” said the reverend. “This is all a part of our great expression.” 

The African American church has been using music to tell its story since its inception. At Abyssinian’s service, gospel music expressed what Bible verses may have not – the resilience and faith of Black America. 

Butts led by singing a new song, while the Total Praise ensemble followed his cue, almost as if to represent the spirited Abyssinians themselves. 

We have come this far by faith,

Leaning on the Lord,

“Everybody sing to the glory of God,” instructed the Rev. Dr. Raschaad Hoggard, preaching each lyric before the choir joined in. “Now let’s sing with conviction!

Trusting in His holy Word,

He’s never failed us yet.

The rows of well-dressed men and women were joined together by the nostalgia of each verse and the spirituality of each word. The song served as its own kind of prayer, with a resounding message of safety in God’s care.

As the choir began their gospel rendition of Happy Birthday for all churchgoers with February birthdays, I saw masked worshippers hugging each other and posing for photographs. It seemed like their warm embrace was to make up for the past two years of isolation, and the music was what brought a familiar sense of community that they had been missing.  

The pastor brought everyone back to their pews to start a sermon from Apostles 8:26. In it, he described the kings and queens of Ethiopia who were consistently underestimated, and who served as a lesson of the great successes Black people had found throughout time and oppression. 

“The core of our people is our struggle,” he said. 

A twinkling piano melody filled the silence between affirmative “mmms” and “Amens.” The long phrases felt deeply meditative, and his hands seemed to glide over the keys as he closed his eyes, entranced with what, or whom, he felt. 

He’s got the whole world in His hands.

An operatic soprano performed the next solo to the crowd of enchanted worshippers. Some eyes were closed in prayer, some open in awe, with each person’s body swaying as part of a whole. 

He’s got the whole world in His hands.

She sang the high notes with so much passion that it warranted a standing ovation, “yes ma’ams” and abounding claps.

“Thank you for encouraging our hearts,” said Reverend Hoggard. “That was masterful.”

I understood that music wasn’t just for the ears here. It was for mind, body and soul, and connected each person’s heart with the sentiment of feeling God. 

A different soloist, this time with a brassy, mezzo tone began the next song, “Is There Any Way” by Richard Smallwood. She closed her eyes as she sang, pulled in by the deep emotion of speaking to God through her words.

God, You promised to be with me

Through the storm and through the rain

You are my everything

The Total Praise ensemble sang with her in harmony. Music, along with God, was the church’s everything. Their blended, melodious voices sounded like what many cultures deem will welcome good souls to the pearly gates of heaven. 

“When the spirit is in us, our creativity celebrates the fullness of who we are,” he said. 

Again, the piano music crept up in perfect transition to the end of service. A new, jovial tune played with cymbals and drums played in the background of the closing prayer, signifying a hopeful future for the ancestors of Abyssinia.