I guess I’m feeling a little guilty as I step into church today. I push the tall boy Budweiser and red-lit posters from the night before to the edges of my mind as I cross the holy threshold of St. James Temple. Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, is a Pentecostal denomination that was a consolidated in the Mississippi Delta in the mid-twentieth century. Bill Ferris took a great deal of photographs and Super 8 footage of the old Clarksdale COGIC church in the 1960s, which he released in the form of a short documentary entitled “Black Delta Religion.”
The usher seats us front and center in the large white church, which is today about half-full with its congregation of 150 people. The choir is just beginning its selection for the service: a contemporary gospel piece, executed with intensity and careful precision. The harmony is complex, and the song resonates through the church without the aid of microphones. The choir is exceptionally bright and crisp, balancing practice and passion in its resonant sound. Christopher Coleman, a friend who works at the Delta Blues Museum, stands out in front with his ringing tenor.
The service turns to a healing ceremony. The choir and band continues to play a quiet spiritual dirge as the Deacon calls to troubled worshippers to approach the altar. The gathering group includes three pre-teen girls, the matron with whom they were sitting, a very pregnant woman, and an elderly Sister of the church dressed in her uniform of Pentecostal red skirt, white suitcoat and elaborate white headdress. The Deacon confers with each believer in hushed tones and then places his hand on her forehead, furrowing his own brow as he concentrates deeply. Over and over, he repeats his request for God to purify the blood, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet. He asks this of God in the word, he repeats, in the word, and in the blood, we are healed. The devil will no longer bother or try to confuse this woman. This woman will be healthy, and Jesus will purify the blood and the heart from the top of the head to the soles of the feet. In the name of Jesus and the word of God we are healed.
Each believer shouts for joy as she falls backward and then recovers with the help of the Deacon and the female ushers in the nurses’ uniforms, who lead her back to her seat. The healed continue to shout and jump long after the event. The young girls sit in the front row and hug each other, each with her head on the shoulder of another. The Sister in the red is final receiver of the ceremony, and she prepares to receive the sacrament solemnly as her thick glasses fall far down her nose and her corkscrew braids bounce around her shoulders. As the Deacon implores the devil to leave the Sister’s mind from confusion in the name of Jesus, the woman begins to run in place, stomping her legs with absolute intensity. She faces the sky with her fists at her collarbones, pulling at the air in a kind of begging gesture. Her eyes are closed as the Deacon works his word and his hands, asking Jesus to purify the blood in the word made flesh.
As the Deacon finishes his work, the Sister in red falls sharply backward into the arms of the ushers. The choir sings louder as the stage clears for Bishop Scott’s mighty sermon. As the service comes to a close, we are asked to introduce ourselves and, after doing so, are given hugs and kisses by a number of the congregation.
Please see this film by my advisor, William Ferris, on the Clarksdale COGIC and other services entitled, “Black Delta Religion.”