Sunday September 16th is National Back to Church Sunday. It's also the anniversary of a very special event in my life. I share the full story because so often we think everything must be in order before God will accept us. As you read my story you will see that I hadn’t given up one vice, not one. (I was knee deep in it, as some would say). But like the prodigal son, that didn't stop God from welcoming me when I returned. This is my story:
"At 5:30 the night before, I stepped off the 32 bus at 33rd & Montgomery Avenue in North Philly, and waited for the light to change. It was a Saturday and I was coming home from work – an 8 hour shift of mandatory overtime with 'Ma Bell'. Even though I was on my way to the house directly right across the street, I still lit a cigarette and took a couple of puffs. I didn’t realize that would be the last puffs of nicotine I would ever take. I tossed the cigarette to the ground right before knocking on the door. It was my mother’s apartment. She had watched the twins for me that day and I was only planning on picking them up, taking them home for my grandmother to watch because I had plans that night. A house party at 18th & Diamond and a rendezvous afterwards just over the bridge. Little did I know I would never make it to either location that night.
"Once I got inside my mother’s apartment I found my sister was visiting. I don't remember how long it took, but suddenly they were telling me about this youth service at church that night. They were going on about how this whole church was coming from Jersey with their choir and the speaker and how I just had to come. I tried telling them I had plans, but they didn’t want to hear it. They just kept talking about this youth service. Now, let me pause here to say that I had left the church nine years before, and had been doing my thing for quite awhile. My family would invite me to church from time to time, but not like this. It was like a campaign to get me to church that night. I said I didn’t have anything to wear. My mother offered an outfit. I said I didn’t have any pantyhose. She offered that too. When I said I didn’t have a hat, and she offered me the cute little black had that I had been begging to borrow for months, I should have known something was up. You see, before that night, she always said no because she knew I wanted to wear it to a club (yes it was that kind of sharp). So anyway, I get home with the kids and ask my grandmother if she could babysit because I wanted to go to church. She says no, followed by “You know good and well you’re not going to nobody’s church, out there running them streets!” I had given her plenty of reasons not to believe me. All those times I’d say “I’m going out for some cigarettes” and then not coming back for hours (or the next day) were still fresh in her mind. Again, I insisted I was going to church, and since my sister was there to vouch for me, she finally agreed.
At the youth service I found out there is also a guest choir and that the guest speaker was someone named Elder Willie Shy. Don’t ask me what they sang and don’t ask me what he preached because I don’t remember. What I do remember is when the service ended, I was at the altar crying out to God to forgive me and to take me back.
The service - and the fellowship and refreshments afterwards - lasted so long that it was almost midnight when I got home. That's when the struggle began. I remember being very happy and also very afraid. The kids were already asleep, of course, so all I really had to do was to lie down and do the same. Go to sleep. Only I couldn’t. I was fighting the urge for a cigarette. It was so strong I remember finding an old bible and trying to read it until the desire went away.
Finally I must have fell asleep, because the next thing I knew, it was Sunday morning. The kids were up and it was time for breakfast, washing up, getting dressed and going to Sunday School. (Even in my years of wandering, I made sure they went to church every Sunday). My memory is kind of foggy on the next few hours. All I remember is that I had every intentions of going to Morning Service but after the kids left for Sunday School I kept falling asleep. Right after they left, I fell back to sleep. When I woke up, it was almost noon. I got up and laid out an old maternity dress to wear (it was all I had at the time that was appropriate for church). Next thing I knew, I was waking up again and it was almost 1:30. I lived right around the corner from the church so getting ready and walking there didn’t take long.
It was just about 2:00 when I walked into church that Sunday morning. The sermon was over and the prayer line had stretched almost to the back of the church. I remember standing in the back of the church wrestling with the thought of “do I or don’t I” regarding getting in that prayer line. The night before I felt God’s spirit all over me, but I wanted more. I didn’t just want to feel His spirit again, I wanted to be filled with His spirit again. That desire is what made me get in that prayer line again.
It was hard to concentrate on anything but all the eyes on me, the knowing looks, the nodding smiles, the prayerful whispers “Thank you Lord” “Bless her Lord” “Touch her Lord”. They probably thought they were being encouraging but really, they were making me more nervous than I already was.
Once I got to the front, our Jr. Pastor, Elder Robert Jones, who had preached that morning, said something like “Yes?” I told him exactly what I wanted. And what I appreciate about the next moment to this day is what he said next. There was no further probing. No back and forth. No doctrinal discussion. He said something like “Is that what you want from the Lord?” I said "Yes". He asked me the same thing again. “Is that what you want from the Lord?” Again I said "Yes". His response was “Well, lift up your hands and tell him!” All I was able to get out was “Lord I” before the Lord did just what I wanted: a refilling of His spirit - a refilling of the holy ghost.
That day was Sunday September 16, 1990. Every year since then, I have celebrated the 15th and the 16th of September with special consecrations to the Lord. Sometimes the whole month, if He leads me to. I didn't know until a few years ago that my spiritual anniversary fell on the same weekend as National Back to Church Sunday.
As I stated earlier, I'm sharing the full story because so often we think everything must be in order before God will accept us. Remember, I hadn’t given up one vice, not one. (I was knee deep in it, as some would say). But something in the songs that were sung, in the sermon that was preached, in that atmosphere of prayer, praise and worship, connected with something in me. That something in me was an empty void, and a deep longing for something more, something real, something true: the infilling of the powerful, loving, life-changing, spirit of the living God - Jesus Christ our Lord.
Sunday September 16, 2018 is National Back to Church Sunday. But more than a campaign ad to invite people to come back to church, this will be the first step in inviting people to come back to God.
Won't you come?
"Then Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28 NLT
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