While many churches opted to livestream instead of meet, Rev. H. P. Washington Jr. addresses a sparse crowd of about 50 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Frayser. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

I went to church yesterday.

As in, I walked into an actual sanctuary, sat down in an actual pew, and . . . y’know, church.

Despite Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland requesting churches suspend their services. Despite having covered a webinar in which major religious leaders in Memphis discussed how to demonstrate their faith in the face of the coronavirus pandemic – among them, live-streaming and telling their folk to stay home.

I had no intentions on going, mind you. I literally live right next to Mount Zion Baptist Church on Dellwood Ave. in Frayser. I’d had friendly conversations with deacons coming and going on Sundays, but I’d never set foot in the building until yesterday. Judge away.

The parking lot at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Frayser is usually packed on Sundays, but about 50 faithful members overcame coronavirus fears to come worship on March 22. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

Anyway, I was doing some work in my garden, when to my surprise, I noticed cars in the parking lot. A few more pulled up. I saw some people getting out of their cars with surgical masks on. “They’re actually going to have church?” I thought to myself.

I know news when I see it, so I put on my other shoes and walked on over.

For a variety of reasons, I set some rules for myself. I just wanted to be an observer. For social distancing reasons, I decided I wouldn’t interview anyone. I figured the pastor would explain his reasoning from the pulpit (more on that in a moment). And I suppose part of me felt like I was snitching for going in with the intent of covering this service. It’s weird feeling like you’re snitching on people for going to church.

I heard organ music as I came through the doors. Ushers were already inside the sanctuary, so I just eased on down to the far left door so I could tip in, sit on the back pew well over six feet away from anyone, and take it all in. But I didn’t get to my seat.

The ushers noticed me coming in and silently signaled for me to go back out into the lobby. That’s where one usher took me back to the hand sanitizer station they had next to the sanctuary doors.

“You’re not sick, are you?” she asked as she spritzed my hand.

“No ma’am,” I said.

Moments later, another usher upended my plan to sit unobtrusively in the back, guiding me down the center aisle to my seat. As I came in, I did a quick head count: In a sanctuary that can easily hold 400-plus people, there weren’t more than 40 or so there. The ushers were methodically seating people with plenty of social distancing, though in some cases people were sitting closer than six feet apart.

“If they require us to shut down, we’ll shut down,” said Pastor H. P. Washington Jr. as he took the podium.  “But if they’re requesting us to shut down, we will be open.”

Lee Eric Smith

Washington said he’d been preaching on faith since the beginning of the year, saying that times would come that would test one’s faith. He invoked the story from Mark 4, in which Jesus is sleeping through the storm that is freaking his disciples out. “Where is your faith?”

Turns out that much of the early part of the service was dedicated to honoring a church mother who had experienced some health issues. One by one, biological family and church family stepped up to the mic to “give her flowers” while she’s still here.

During this part, however, the drummer had been assigned double duty. After each remark, no matter how short or long, he stepped to the podium with a small spray bottle of disinfectant, spritzing the microphone (which became its own running source of laughter) and wiping down the podium. I stopped counting after eight spritzes, but I do know he did not miss a single one – not even at the pastor’s mic.

A few of the church mother’s friends and loved ones went over and hugged her. Later, Washington took the mic to tell people to save their hugs and kisses for when they got back home.

Spritz. Wipe. Then Washington stepped up to introduce the guest speaker, the Rev. Jimmy Davis.

“If you look at this thing from a logic perspective, you’d be afraid, you’d be hiding under your bed,” he said. “God does not operate out of logic, out of things that make sense.

“It don’t make sense that a man can walk on water,” he said. “Don’t make sense that somebody can take two fish and five loaves of bread and feed over 5,000. It don’t make sense that three boys can be thrown into a fire and walk out unscathed. You have to view things from a spiritual perspective. God’s got this thing under control.

“I’m not saying that nobody in here will get this virus,” he added. “What I’m saying is that God will bring you through. He didn’t stop the boys from going in the furnace, but he brought them out. He didn’t stop Daniel from going into the lion’s den, but he brought him out.

“That’s the God we have to trust and believe in.”

Rev. Davis delivered the main sermon, leaning on Proverbs 3:5 for his inspiration: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” What followed was quite a bit of shouting.

“Where is the trust this morning?” he bellowed. “It’s not in the White House! It’s not in Donald Trump this morning! It’s in the Lord!”

Honestly, I couldn’t make out all of what he said, though I heard something about sin and men marrying men. Like I said, there was a lot of shouting – it felt as if he was trying to generate the same energy a full sanctuary would have. After he took his seat and Pastor Washington did an altar call and offering, one of the deacon’s recognized me.

“Aren’t you our neighbor?” he mouthed toward me.

Moments later, he asked Washington to acknowledge my presence as a guest of the church. “Y’all give Brother Lee Smith a hand,” he said. So much for me being incog-negro.

Before giving the benediction, Pastor Washington acknowledged that it may be a while before the church gathers in the building again. He had a parting thought.

“You better make sure your life is fixed up with the Lord,” he said. “I stand here and preach the Word of God for times like these. If you don’t get real with God, you might miss Heaven. And if you miss heaven, there’s only one place left: Hell.

“If the Lord takes me out with coronavirus, if you hear that I got coronavirus and I die, remember one thing,” he continued. “I died on the battlefield. And I’m satisfied with what I’ve done for the Lord. Amen? Amen.”