On Being Gay in the Black Pentecostal Church
And the 'Imaginative Rupture' of Queer Desire During Church Service
There are two types of churches: ones with low ceilings and others with high. Think about it. Aren’t those the only types you’ve ever attended? This is to say nothing of how big the church is or how many people it can seat. But rather, the space between floor and ceiling creates some amazing room for the sound to bounce around, from what I’ve experienced.
Low ceilings, of course, mean everything will sound out with a bit of a muffle on it: think of a trumpet mute. Or maybe something akin to the antithesis of a noise filter, where all this stuff stands between your ears and the “pure” or true sound itself. It doesn’t matter how loud the sound is in the church, the low ceiling will compress that sound, make it less angular and things will sound— accordingly—more insular, will sound more pressing. Imagine listening through something like Harriet Jacobs’s crawl space, if you will.
Growing up, one bishop’s church building we often visited might be the very definition of low ceiling. It was an old supermarket, a converted A&P or Pathmark or ShopRite, now for church services, with the purpose of the upbuilding of the kingdom. And the sound of that church was so very different from the sound of other churches and I suspect it is because when sound would ring out—from the Leslie speaker to the tambourines to the hand clapping to the preacher in the microphones—that sound would only be able to go up but so high until being dispersed. The sound had to travel horizontally much more than vertically so stuff happening in the front of the church didn’t reach the back until maybe a beat or two later, so much so that if you sat in the back of the church, you were already behind the move of spirit that took place in the front (the two Leslie speakers, of course, were in the front of the church and not the back). This is why, I think, most of the people who sat in the back were more spectatorial in their engagement with the church. Not because they didn’t want to feel anything but, because of the sound, their arrival was always late a bit.
But then there is, then and of course, that other type of church building, literal sense, creates a circle by its centripetal and centrifugal—centrifugitive— force turning turning turning around and around and around, sound going under over and above you (though I know physics doesn’t confirm my intuition; sound circulates in the low ceiling building too but . . . stay with me). In this high-ceiling church, sound “rings” a lot more, it remains in the air and is heard thereafter, it seems like sound strikes everyone much more at almost about the same time (but, still, a ruse, really), it sounds “bright.” If the low ceiling muffles, the high ceiling releases and sounds tremble with treble. Everything seems clear in those types of environments.
If you had ever paid attention at all, you would have noticed in the low-ceiling church the organist playing in the high register a lot more (at least an octave above middle C) to invoke the spirit and in the high-ceiling church, this same organist might very likely muddy the waters by playing dark bass notes. I think, in both instances, the musician would feel the difference created by the architecture, by the acoustic environment, made possible by the height of the ceilings. Without knowing it but certainly feeling it, they’d play in ways to create as much balance as possible in the space.
Would you be surprised to know that my first time really, really touching D was in a high-ceiling church? It was the second week in August right before I was to leave for college, so I was eighteen years old and we were having convocation in one of those churches. This church, of course, was a converted synagogue made possible by white flight from inner cities years and years ago (and I think there might be a relationship between Blackpentecostal sound, white flight, and synagogues: think Detroit—Bailey Cathedral, a former synagogue, is pretty famous for its sound—there are, of course, too many examples; there are others, of course). In any regard, this synagogue-turned-cathedral became the home to many Blackpentecostal services where the power of the Lord came down. But—and this is true for lots of synagogues-turned-churches—when services weren’t big, or there just weren’t enough people or not enough money to pay the electric company to light the full sanctuary, services would occur in the basements of these large tabernacles, cathedrals, temples of the Most High. And those basements are the perfect mix between the high and low ceiling, at least in terms of sound. Thus, the organist has the best possibility of balanced sound and, subsequently, moving the congregation.
And it was then in August. It was a Monday night so not a lot of people planned to be at the service anyway but D and I both sang with the convocation choir and he had just directed some song and winked at me ever so faintly, bravely, sinfully and erotically while directing and nobody saw it but me and I was astonished and shocked and scared shitless because the Lord was certain to strike us down at any moment, given his display. But nobody saw it and we had never had sex, only’d lay in the bed next to each other and touch ever so slightly but I already told you about that. It was in August after we sang that I first noticed the grace of his body when he was shouting.
And you know when someone is gonna shout. Vanessa was playing the organ—can I tell you how much I love a girl organist? Nineteen years old, killing the bass and the drive and the changes. Augment, suspend, seventh, minor: go! She did it all. She was playing as we marched back to our seats. The basement was full of metal folding chairs, so you know the sound just bounced off everything and sounded so good. The song was an up-tempo tune where we sang about climbing mountains or knowing what prayer can do or some other song where the only thing that really mattered in the song was the vamp—or the drive, or to be really throwback, the special—and once we were done and back in our seats and Mother Jackson was encouraging the saints to praise the Lord, church!, Vanessa began playing ever so faster and ever so faster and ever so faster and eversofaster until it was at full shout speed. Brooklyn pace. So you know it was quick.
And it was in that Monday in August when I noticed D’s grace. So he was gonna shout and I knew it. At first, he was seated (he was tired from directing). But then as the music swelled and sped, he stood and began to clap a bit hesitantly . . . elegantly, looking about him and smiling at the saints dancing but— you could almost hear the commentary in his head—not himself dancing. Then, he put his right hand in front of him on the metal chair. Then, he put his head down. And, you know what happens when the hand is gripping the chair or pew in front of you and the head is down? He had his program in the left hand and he began to dance playfully, eyes still open, head down but looking around a bit. But then Vanessa hit the chords that everyone was waiting for, some chording that Twinkie’s been doing since at least 1979 before I was born—dun dun dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun dun-dun dun dun dun!—And he let out a little yelp and by then, his feet were moving and he threw the program down and he moved from out of the row into the aisle and had both his arms bent at the elbow but tight next to him and his head was down and his eyes were closed and his feet did some hopscotch shit.
The pit of my stomach dropped because Vanessa did it again and this time more people were screaming and the sound was a bit more clear and more people were dancing and I knew that if someone as young and beautiful as D could dance in public—I didn’t do such things very often, I always felt the display too public and I never wanted people to look at me—dun dun dun dun dun!—and I ran up next to D and it was the spirit moving me, I promise, I had no idea what was occurring—and grabbed his left hand and we shouted together. My stomach always dropped right at the borderland and line of playful dance and full out shout. It was indeed holy terror, I suppose. Our feet did not cross, we did not step on each other’s toes. And he didn’t fight me but—and I don’t know how I knew this—he knew it was me, though his eyes were shut tightly.
We were sweaty after it all. The preacher got up and because we were still a bit young and people would not ogle us leaving the basement sanctuary for some air—or to pee—after such a display, we went to the bathroom. Vanessa was backing up the preacher who, I’m sure, wasn’t making much sense but used the high energy from the high-low-ceiling sound to animate his sermon. He was, if anything, smart. Folks were already praising so he just kept a spirited engagement with the congregation so, in the bathroom, we heard a combination of Yes! Thank the Lord! Praise Him! Bless me! Fix me! Do it Lord!
Anyway, we both peed. In separate stalls. Went up to the sinks to wash our hands—shhhhhhhh—the water said and then we turned off our faucets. I was drying my hands. He was drying his. We’d said nothing. He was so graceful and that was all I could think about. We were both sweating. He took his brown paper towel—the rough ones that, when you fold them, have rough edges and corners and aren’t too soothing—he took that paper towel and brushed it over my brow. I said thanks. I took mine, smirked a bit, and brushed it over his brow.
He said nothing. He took his paper towel—he was standing to my right—placed it in his right hand and put his left arm at the small of my back and I sorta knew to turn to him. He brushed it against my brow again but my right arm was caught and could not move between our bodies and his left arm; and my left arm was caught between his upheld hand brushing my brow. I turned around. Someone could have walked in. I was terrified. Terrified. Simply terrified
The sound from the basement sanctuary of that former synagogue forced its way through the door but was muffled. We—in the bathroom—said nothing. We were barely breathing. And. But. Breathing heavily too. Heaving. He dropped the towel and took my right hand and took me to the handicapped stall. Undid my pants. Undid his. We stood there, shirts on, pants and underwear at our ankles. He kissed me. We rubbed against each other for nothing more than a minute. We said nothing. We pulled up our pants, washed our hands again and sat apart from each other in the sanctuary. He would not, of course, take my phone calls for weeks after that, not until I left for college. Maybe the music caused us to act out of ourselves, or to be more fully who were already were. Or wanted to be. Or had always been from some otherwise temporality. It, of course, felt good. But it, between us, would never happen again.
The building, the praise, it all made possible that moment of imaginative rupture, imaginative disruption. Right there in the church. The constraint became an occasion.
Excerpted from The Lonely Letters by Ashon T Crawley. Copyright © 2020 by Ashon T Crawley. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Duke University Press.