“Church music” for a Haitian in Trenton means a trumpet player dressed like Miles Davis, a twelve-year-old boy on a drum set, a trombonist, and a lady in purple wailing, singing, shouting, and dancing like Aretha Franklin. No droning organ here: The altar, crowded with instruments, looks more like the stage for a salsa band or a jazz orchestra. Behind the altar is a mural of a blue sky, with tropical green hills painted below it: Le Ciel. Heaven. This morning, a screen hanging in front of Heaven read “Bienvenue à la Première Eglise de Dieu”: Welcome to the First Haitian Church of God.
On this rainy Sunday morning, the mood inside First Haitian was colorful and Caribbean. No one worried about singing in key, just loudly and with energy!—and whenever the spirit overtook someone, she would just blurt out “Hallelujah!”
The Holy Spirit took hold of more than one soul this morning. One 80-year-old lady dressed all in red, like a Gaugin painting or a tropical rainforest, leapt up from the front row and threw her hands in the air. Jitterbugging down the aisle, she called “Hallelujah!” as she strutted her stuff like a 1920’s flapper, shaking her booty and leaping in the air.
Another woman was so taken with the Heavenly Spirit that she started doing what at a heavy metal concert would be called “moshing”—banging her head, jumping violently up and down and thrashing—or what in a psychiatric ward might be called “having a seizure.” The church pastor had to hold her to keep her flailing arms from hurting the other parishioners.
These people knew how to worship. When they said they loved Jesus, you believed it. When they yelled “Hallelujah!” you could tell they were rejoicing. When they shouted “Praise the Lord!” it sounded like joy– loving, ecstatic, unconditional, emphatic praise. Thanks. Gratitude. La joie du Ciel!
If there is a God, he wasn’t sleeping through this service.
The sermon that followed the songs was like a song itself—like a Charlie Parker solo at a jazz club. If you didn’t know Creole, the words poured and bubbled and splashed over your ears like the saxophone notes of a bebop tune. The preacher, fresh in town from New York City, talked about wine. His voice started soft, then gradually built tempo and energy until he was shouting at the congregation—and they’d shout back “Amen!”, “Tell it, brother!” Old guys called out, like old hip kats at a jazz club, shouting when the speaker’s words—his riffs, his melodies, his improvisations on the Gospel—hit home. He told the story of Jesus at the wedding turning water into wine. The preacher said that wine was good, not like other alcohol, and that yes, Jesus was at a party! Because to party in the name of the Lord is good! He said that in the Bible we find the word “vin” 148 times. Then he talked about the goatskin container where they kept the wine—How when Jesus turned water into wine, he needed a fresh goatskin, a new container! Likewise, he said, you have to become new in order to take the spirit of Christ into your life!
Here, his voice picked up tempo and volume as he shook his fist at the pews and pointed at individual parishioners with each sentence. He said that many poor people think that they can never get a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree, never live in a nice house or have a car, but that they pray to the Lord Jesus Christ and He changes their water into wine!
By the end of the sermon the preacher was shouting “Jesus vive!” Take God into your soul! Wherever you put God in your life, there He will be! If you leave him out the door, there He will be!, but if you invite him into your home, you’ll be with Him in Heaven forever!
Suddenly, the preacher fell to his knees, with his head hidden. Three men walked over and touched his sweat-soaked back, helped him up. As he stood up, the preacher’s cheeks were wet with tears.
When the sermon was over, the keyboardist started playing chords. Soon all the horns were playing, all the congregation started clapping and singing and throwing their hands in the air. The preacher literally jumped up and down with tears rolling down his face. The 80-year-old woman was still jitterbugging down the aisle—throwing her hands up, making faces along with the words, gesturing to herself as she welcomed Jesus Christ into her life.
You can bet he’d feel welcome here.