Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle, 3307 Third Ave. N.
Service, 11 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014
Length of service: Undetermined. Length of sermon: Likewise undetermined.
During this, my third foray to a place of worship in Billings, I uttered my first unprompted prayer. Half an hour into the service, during which we had been continually on our feet and singing hymns from a dog-eared, tape-reinforced “Melodies of Praise” songbook, I said under my breath, “Please, God, not another song.”
It wasn’t that the music was bad. When I walked into the church, with its orange carpet badly in need of replacement and its pews with matching orange fabric on the seats and backs, “Great Speckled Bird” was playing on a boom box.
I love that song, and once sang it while playing a guitar lent to me by a lady singing hymns on the corner of North 27th Street and Montana Avenue. When I finished, she eyed me sharply and said, “You’re not saved, are you?” I guess it was that obvious.
Some of the songs we sang on this Sunday were nearly as good as “Great Speckled Bird,” including “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Pass Me Not,” which had a jumpy, double-time chorus. But Brother Dennis, not otherwise identified, who was singing and playing a grand piano, dragged the song out to nearly 10 minutes.
Near what I thought was surely the end, after singing the chorus three or four times, he noodled on the piano for a bit, as if lost in thought, then shouted, “Let’s sing the second verse again,” followed by a couple more choruses.
He was joined by Brother Steven on the guitar and Pastor Rhea Goes Ahead (as I determined later) on the drums. Between songs, Brother Dennis and Sister Rhea would throw out random exclamations of praise—“Glory to God!” “Wonderful Jesus!” “We give you all the praise and unlimited glory,” etc.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
All I knew of this church before going in was that it was non-denominational Pentecostal. When the service started at 11, there were exactly seven other people in attendance, all of them Native American. I wasn’t stared at or made to feel the least bit uncomfortable, however, even when they all commenced reciting from their Bibles, and of course I hadn’t thought to bring one.
It wasn’t until just before my early departure that I noticed a stack of Bibles on a little table off to one side of the altar. There is always so much to learn.
Did I say early departure? I mean that only in the sense that I left before the service was over, if indeed it ever ended. I had already been there for 90 minutes when I decided to make my exit, and Sister Rhea was then 38 minutes into her sermon—nearly 45 minutes if you count the two songs she sang by way of warming up.
A signboard outside the church said Sunday services were at 9:45 and 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Maybe the service at 9:45 was for those who wanted to get in and out relatively quickly.
I have no idea when the 11 a.m. service ended, or whether it just went on until blending into the service at 6:30. Regular attendees evidently were aware of the rolling nature of the proceedings because they kept dribbling in the whole while. When I left at 12:30, a couple with a young child were just arriving.
The portion of the service I witnessed had a relaxed, improvisational air about it. Bros. Dennis and Steven would audibly confer about what key to play various songs in, people would wander in and out of the sanctuary, and when Brother Dennis or Sister Rhea spoke, their remarks seem unscripted. As the spirit moved them, I suppose.
I had assumed that white-haired Brother Dennis was the pastor until Sister Rhea slowly worked her way into the sermon. I’m not even sure it was a sermon, more like a series of confessions, exclamations and ruminations on various Old and New Testament passages she would read aloud.
She talked a lot about speaking in tongues and being saved. “It was like something melted in me,” she said at one point, and at another, “It was like someone giving me a big drink of water on a real hot day.”
She gave credit to her mother for showing her the true path and teaching her right and wrong, including this bit of testimony: “My mom, first time she ever caught me drinking: pop!—she hit me over the head with her purse.”
I was a little surprised , though, when she spoke of the need to separate herself from tribal activities like powwow, or Indian spiritual practices like smudging.
“We have a wedding garment that needs to be kept clean because we are a bride of Christ,” she said.
It was all very heartfelt and honest and as she spoke I saw many people in the congregation nodding their heads in agreement, smiling, slowly waving their hands and mumbling prayers of their own. I understood that she was doing good and helping people, but I wasn’t in need of help—or so I told myself in what was probably a moment of heathenish pride.
That was when I finally decided to leave. Though I didn’t need any spiritual help, I did need to get a few other things done on that Sunday afternoon.
Previously: Chapter 1, St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.
Chapter 2, Mount Olive Lutheran Church.
Next week: First Church of Christ, Scientist.