Mystery Worshipper: Meet and Right So to Do
Church: Lord God of Sabaoth
Location: Christiansted, St Croix, US Virgin Islands
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 April 2016, 9:30am
A Danish Lutheran congregation was organized in 1734 and worshipped at Fort Christianværn, once the hub of slave trade activity. Their first church building dated from 1750 and was used for 78 years until rendered unsafe by hurricane damage. Now called the Steeple Building, that structure is part of a national park. The congregation met temporarily in an Anglican church until they acquired their present Baroque style building in 1831 from a departing Dutch Reformed congregation. The building dates from around 1740 and is said to be the oldest church building on the island of St Croix. Extensive renovations were performed inside and out. Above the doorway in the north porch is the royal cypher of King Frederick VI and the date 1830. The present floor plan is in the open style, with the chancel and altar separated by two raised steps. Mahogany dominates the interior, which incorporates many fixtures that were brought in from the old church: the pews, Italian marble flooring, baptismal font, and a splendid mahogany reredos. To the left of the front row of pews is the governor's box, again elaborately carved in mahogany. Of great interest are a large number of memorial plaques on the north and south walls, not unlike an old parish church in the English countryside, bearing inscriptions in Danish, Dutch and Latin.
Lord God of Sabaoth was at the heart of Christiansted during the era of Danish colonialism. The Danes have been gone for 99 years, but the Lutherans appear to be a very active congregation, with services on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, a church school before Sunday's service, an organized choir, and a Lutheran Men in Mission group. All that was missing was a Facebook page or parish website.
The US Virgin Islands comprise the easternmost territory of the United States and consist of three principal islands: St Thomas, the touristy island; St John, the millionaires' playground; and St Croix, which the locals pretty much call their own. The weather is temperate all year round, and the trade winds make the Virgin Islands less humid and more tolerable than Florida or elsewhere in the Caribbean. Lord God of Sabaoth is at 51 King Street, very near the ominously named Gallows Bay and the old Fort Christianværn, which is very well preserved. Government House is just across the street from the church. Several other churches of varying denominations are nearby, along with a variety of restaurants. Just offshore can be spotted the aptly named Protestant Cay, reachable by ferry and providing the only downtown public beach in Christiansted. The water is warm, calm and shallow, with a smooth sandy bottom, and is great for swimming.
The Revd Gerald A. Williams, pastor, wearing a white alb with cincture and stole, presided. The crucifer was Brianna Harris, who wore an alb with cincture. Knyah Bruce, wearing a light red cassock, was the acolyte. The minister of music was Shelton Shulterbrandt, who wore street clothes.
What was the name of the service?Eucharist
How full was the building?
There were about 70 congregants scattered across the pews in the nave, which could easily accommodate about 200. The galleries were mostly empty, with only the small choir and music director occupying space above.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A moment after I had made my way through the west doors and had taken a seat in the pews, an usher made his way in from the south porch and handed me an order of service. He seemed surprised that I had entered through the west doors; it appears that regulars use only the north and south porch entrances. Several congregants welcomed me during the peace, which seemingly lasted forever, as this is one of those churches where the regulars canvass the entire nave, shaking everyone's hand either sincerely or superficially. It's always difficult to tell at church.
Was your pew comfortable?
For an original 18th century wooden pew, it was extremely comfortable, despite the lack of padding. There was also adequate legroom think premium economy on a commercial airline due to the lack of kneelers. It might be less comfortable, however, if the pews were full and you couldn't wiggle about.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived about fifteen minutes early most of the congregants arrived about ten minutes before the stated time of half-nine o'clock and found it extremely quiet with very little chatter.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Before playing what was described in the order of service as the "gathering," the minister of music said, "Welcome and good morning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Lutheran Book of Worship was in the pews but unused. Instead, the order of service made exclusive use of This Far by Faith, an alternate Lutheran hymnal and liturgy. The readings were from Celebrate, a week-specific insert in the order of service.
What musical instruments were played?
An electronic keyboard of unknown make, straight out of the late 1980s or 1990s, in the gallery. There was also a small choir of three or four voices.
Did anything distract you?
I expected a stately service this was, after all, the colonial-era parish of the Danish state church but was stunned by how, erm, charismatic everything was (more on this below).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As a traditional Anglican, I'm not an expert on the churchmanship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America let alone the liturgical rubrics but the worship at Lord God of Sabaoth was uncharted territory for me. It was about as low on the proverbial candle as you can get and would be best described as charismatic worship not unlike that of many non-conforming evangelical churches. The pastor, crucifer and two other acolytes even danced up the aisle during the processional. All of the important liturgical bits of the service were familiar, though executed in an unfamiliar manner like gathering in a semi-circle and holding hands to recite the Lord's Prayer. About 60 per cent of the congregation were black and seemed comfortable, but the 40 per cent who were white (and all of retiree age) seemed less comfortable with the happy clappy worship. I don't know the standard operating practice of most Lutheran churches, but I was stunned to find that the wine at communion was in little plastic cups on a tray.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The pastor spoke from the epistle side lectern instead of the double-decker pulpit. He preached well, and his sermon had a good basis in theology and doctrine.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We always want Jesus when things are bad, but forget to seek him during good times when we fall prey to the evil one.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon, actually. These days one doesn't always hear of sin and Satan "the evil one" in a church of the American mainline Protestant denominations.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
What to do with the plastic cup of wine.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service ran about 25 minutes longer than I had planned, and I had an appointment that I had to keep and so I couldn't hang around. But anyway ...
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There had been no mention of any after-service fellowship.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – While not my cup of tea, the worship was vibrant and the preaching solid.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It helped me appreciate the diversity of the Church Militant.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Not knowing what to do at the altar rail, when I discovered that the wine wasn't from a chalice, but rather plastic cups.