Holy, Muddy Ground

Chris Rice, a former columnist for Sojourners, chronicles in Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South his years living in Antioch, an interracial community in Mississippi that was modeled on the radical communalism of early Christians. Following is an excerpt from his book.

Black folks slowed down "Amazing Grace" into their own 15-minute version, making one word a line in itself: "Uh-uh-ahhhhhh-maaaay...zeeee-uh-inggggggg gra-uh-aaaaace." When they sang "that saved a wretch like me," they let "wretch" and "me" linger, like they felt it from a history of trials, from the agony of being crushed and having no greater power to depend on, no triumph to look to, except God's.

White folks in my WASP-y upbringing sang the same words with the confidence of those who tasted victory here and now, speeding them up to a happier, triumphant pace. Singing "a wretch like me" was more stating an idea, a theological concept. It wasn't like I really was a wretch. And in my lineage, if you ever experienced being wretched—in addiction, abuse, being cheated on or betrayed—you didn't let on. Personal pain was left outside church, stuffed in the closet at home, perfumed with public confidence, hidden by a thick veneer of niceness. When asked "How are you?" there was a correct answer: "Fine." In other words, "I am self-sufficient."

If the music opened up my heart and soul, "sharing time," Voice of Calvary's other notably grace-filled worship practice, had an equally dramatic effect on my proud perfectionist self, a self which was being more and more exposed on this turf.

For anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes in the middle of the service, the floor was opened to anyone to stand and offer thanksgivings or requests for prayer. What followed was not announcements, not just mentions of sickness, but raw public confession, usually from black members.

Expressions of gratefulness had a profound simplicity. Every single week an elderly blue-collar man stood up. "I thank God," he said simply, "for wakin' me up this mornin' and puttin' me in my right mind." Someone else might stand and start a spontaneous solo, and Arthur would slide over to his piano and pick up the melody. One Sunday a husband said he had an argument with his wife that morning. "Baby, I'm sorry," he said, turning toward her. I nodded my head with concern as my eyes filled with disbelief. This is being said, like, in public? Sometimes there was a confession about an ongoing struggle with alcohol or drugs. Often those who stood to make their confessions were the "least of the least" in our midst. They seemed to have no fear, nothing to lose. Worship was like a three-hour scream for help. Their confessions boiled down to "I'm screwed up! I need God! I need y'all!" At these moments people left their seats, surrounded those hurting or confessing, put hands upon them, and prayed, proclaiming forgiveness and begging for deliverance. The spirit they all had, I needed more of.


From Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South, by Chris P. Rice. Published 2002 by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Company. Copyright © 2002 by Chris P. Rice. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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