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354: United House of Prayer for All People on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith, Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts
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United House of Prayer, Roxbury, Massachusetts
Mystery Worshipper: The Waiter.
The church: United House of Prayer for All People on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith, 206 Seaver Street, Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts.
Denomination: United House of Prayer for All People.
Comment: We have received comments on this report.
The building: This aircraft hanger-sized church is in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, right across the street from the Franklin Park jewel in Olmsted's Emerald Necklace of parks around Boston. The building is the cavernous former home of Temple Mishkin Tefila, a 1920s synagogue, built in a debased Victorian style. It had sat vacant for the 25 years I've watched it decay and probably closer to 40 years. Trees were growing from the roof. The denomination has completely renovated the building, certainly spending millions on the synagogue and the separate school building, but inside the church remains as interesting as a Port Washington & Dubuque Railway station.
The church: This church seems Pentacostalist, but way beyond the margins.
The neighbourhood: The church is right across from the zoo. The neighborhood has fallen on very hard times since the white flight of the 1950s and 60s. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have been caught dead walking here day or night. Today, given the number of late model cars parked on the street, I was merely nervous walking the five blocks back to my car.
The cast: Precious Precious Sweet Sweet Daddy Madison, presided. Not all of these duplicative honorifics were used each time Bishop S.C. Madison's name was invoked, which was many times, but he was never less than Sweet Daddy. Mrs Sweet Daddy Madison also sat on the dais with the bishop. While he was the clear patriarch of this assembly, Mrs Madison showed she was the queen, with her regal bearing and Church Lady Hat, brightly glittering to rival a 70s mirrored disco ball.
What was the name of the service?
It was the dedicatory service, but I couldn't find out the name. There were not enough bulletins for every one.

How full was the building?
It was completely packed. If the fire department was there, they turned a blind eye. Perhaps 1,500 people, seated, standing in the aisles and sitting on the steps of the balcony.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We all waited outside, arrayed on the 50 granite steps leading up to the front doors. It was a mob scene as folk flowed in the doors once they were opened. There were oddly attired ushers (think 1930s movie house ushers) who were more interested in crowd control than in greeting people.

Was your pew comfortable?
Brand, spanking new wooden pews for everyone. The arms at the end weren't high enough for an elbow, but otherwise they were comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was a hubbub and a scramble for seats, but the brass bands were already going at a full tilt.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I couldn't really say when the service actually began, but things were hopping by the time I ascended to the balcony.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was no written liturgy at all – no books, no hymnals.

What musical instruments were played?
Well... two dueling 15-piece brass bands, with tubas and Sousaphones and trombones and trumpets and other assorted horns, for starters. There was also an electric organ, piano, electric bass guitars, various cymbals and tambourines. And the Gospel choir voices. Surely these counted as instruments, too.

Did anything distract you?
Everything was distracting: the trombone shout bands, the floor-to-ceiling mirror tiles behind Sweet Daddy. The two young women who stood beside and slightly to the rear of the centrally positioned, wheeled, high-back, white upholstered, office chair whereupon Sweet Daddy sat. They assisted him every time he rose, which was often, and held the chair still every time he sat. The coat stand at the rear of the dais holding Sweet Daddy's coat seemed bizarrely out of place. During some of the speechifying there was some weird reference to lawyers, lawsuits and a struggle for control of the church finances.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was beyond happy clappy. There was an intensity of emotion, intention, and noise that was positively raucous. We seemed determined to demonstrate without a doubt that the Holyghost! had arrived with Sweet Daddy. There were three choirs who were paraded to the front of the church to sing. As the last choir was winding up into an orgasmic crescendo, the women choristers broke ranks and began to shimmy and sway and jerk around in an ecstatic dance. This spirit-filled worship was accompanied by the furious playing of the Trombone Shout bands. As the band playing tailed off, the choristers who came to their senses first began herding off the others who remained in their dancing ecstasy.

United House of Prayer, Roxbury, Massachusetts

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were three preachers. Each took a surprisingly short 10 or 12 minutes. It was hard to know when to start timing because each was introduced and then spent several minutes whipping up the congregation and the trombone shout bands before launching into their sermons.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – There were a number of politicians present (plus a representation of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts). Boston Mayor Menino was invited to speak. The (white) architect was present and got a standing ovation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The basic message was that Sweet Daddy's episcopal authority was firmly based in the succession from the Founder, Sweet Daddy Grace, to the Successor, Sweet Daddy McCollough, to Precious Precious Sweet Sweet Daddy himself, all under the power and inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Sweet Daddy also addressed a charge to the chief minister of this local church.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I can't honestly say that any part of the service was like being in heaven.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The noise and fury of the trombone shout bands dueling with each other.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service, I descended from the balcony to the main floor and stood around. No one approached me. The whole service was almost three hours long, and things wrapped up around 10.30pm, so folk seemed tired and ready to go home.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no sign of a reception after the service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – If it was the only place in town, then, perhaps.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not really.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
During the latter part of the service a collection of money was called for. A parade of young women and girls in pastel dresses marched in and lined the center aisle. Then people in the congregation started to pass money down the pews to these girls. When a girl received one of the greenbacks, she would hold it high in the air and walk down the center aisle to Sweet Daddy and hand it to him. This went on for 15 or 20 minutes while the bands played. Sweet Daddy would alternately hand the bills to one of his attendant girls who would stuff it into a trash can or else wrap it around a fat wad of cash he pulled out from his suit jacket. Without a doubt the image of the Money Girls delivering up the money to Precious Daddy will stay with me all my days.

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