“The religious left lacks the intensity, resources and infrastructure built over the years in the evangelical community.”
– Ralph Reed, the chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has field teams in 19 states and plans to knock on two million doors by Election Day.
Democrats (Wistfully) Take Aim at a Republican Stronghold: Evangelicals By Elizabeth Dias, Sept. 14, 2018

Progressives lack the intensity, resources, and infrastructure Ralph Reed helped create for the Religious Right. We suffer from this deficit disorder because most of us treat religion like good or bad ideas. Religion is really about feelings.

I discovered the core spiritual feeling quite by accident. It started with a joke.

Several years ago, I attended a national meeting in Boston of liberal clergy and seminarians. While there, a friend and I decided to attend the Sunday service led by a newly credentialed minister who wanted to combine her liberal, social justice work with traditional, Christian mission work.

The small sanctuary was packed to overflowing with the truly dispossessed and downtrodden in this drug ridden, desperately poor, black and brown Roxbury community. But the evangelical spirit of the minister’s traditional black Protestant background was present in full force. Toward the middle of the service, there was an altar call.

The congregants lined up, music played, and everyone sang. Each person in line had a chance to whisper something into the minister’s ear. Each person then received a personal blessing and now, aglow, rejoined the larger congregation.

As my friend and I left the church after the two-hour service, we talked about the altar call we had just witnessed.

“What do you think would happen if we initiated such a ritual in our mainline congregations?” I asked my friend. He replied, “Here’s what would happen in my congregation. Everyone would line up. Each person would whisper into my ear: ‘After the service, I want to talk with you about your sermon.’”

…the principal weakness of our mainline churches and our ministries: we don’t “do” emotions.

His joke wasn’t funny. We didn’t laugh.

My colleague had just exposed the principal weakness of our mainline churches and our ministries: we don’t “do” emotions. I quickly changed the subject and talked about important things learned from books, journals, newspapers, and every place except the human heart. But something about the service tagged my attention like a child’s game of hide and seek.

What snagged me?

I decided to visit an evangelical church service to figure out what I felt. Vacationing in Florida, I went to The Church of the Glades in Coral Springs, one of the country’s most successful evangelical congregations.

David Hughes, the lead minister at “The Glades,” had taken a failing church with less than 500 members and built it up within a decade to a campus for 6,000 souls; this, in an area with a population that is 93% unchurched. I wanted to witness Pastor Hughes’ mojo first hand and watch the way he handled the emotions of his flock.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the church was that it wasn’t a traditional Protestant sanctuary. There were no stained-glass windows of Christ and his apostles. Rather, I now stood in an auditorium with row upon row of padded theater seats. A band played Christian-lite music with the words projected on an overhead screen. The melodic structures were simple enough so everyone could sing along after hearing the tune only once. The band was stage left. A large, overstuffed couch was center stage.

The service began when Pastor Hughes, dressed as casually as Mr. Rogers, entered from stage right. As Pastor Hughes talked to us, he sat in a relaxed pose on the couch and looked like he was glad we had stopped by for a chat. After a few words of welcome, Pastor Hughes told us a story that I remember going something like this. Americans had been taken hostage by a group of terrorists. (If he identified the country where this event took place, I can’t recall it.) A small band of Navy Seals surprised the terrorists and a firefight ensued. The Navy Seals quickly defeated them. After the firefight ended, the captain broke open a locked door, entered the small room, and found the terrified Americans cowering together in a corner. The captain beckoned to the people and said, “Okay! You’re free. Let’s go.” No one moved. So, the captain spoke again. “No, really, you’re free. The bad guys can no longer harm you. They’re dead. Come on,” he said, beckoning to the group again and smiling, “Let’s go. You’re free.” Still, no one moved.

As he told us this story, Pastor Hughes became Captain Hughes, and we, the listeners, became the terrified Americans.

“Captain” Hughes now moved into the center of the circle and knelt, so that his eyes were aligned with ours. He whispered, “You’re safe now; you’re safe now….” Captain Hughes slowly rose to his feet as he continued to whisper these words. As he stood, Captain Hughes became Pastor Hughes again. He told us the captives stood and calmly followed the captain out of the room to a helicopter that took them home.

I easily identified the elegantly simple formula for creating feel-good emotions in us.

Pastor Hughes then knelt again, looked at us and said, “You’re safe now; you’re safe now; you’re safe now.” Pastor Hughes then started talking about Christianity and the safety provided by God. “Some of the stories in this book defy reason,” he said, as he held up the Bible.  He told us that he wasn’t asking us to believe anything in this book that didn’t make sense to us. He said he was simply asking us to have a conversation with him about the word of God.

I easily identified Pastor Hughes’ elegantly simple formula for creating feel-good emotions in us. (I had, after all, produced a celebrity talk show for nine years and knew how to orchestrate feelings.) Pastor Hughes had stoked and then quelled our anxiety in the name of God.

Was his strategy manipulative? You bet. And was I moved even though I knew exactly what he was doing? Much to my surprise, I was. Pastor Hughes, I concluded, did the same thing to my emotions that I did to my own feelings when I felt anxious or sad. I manipulated my feelings in order to gain control over them. I watched a favorite, lighthearted feel-good movie I had seen a bazillion times, or I kicked back with a good book or listened to music I loved. Or I would go shopping. Or eat something sugary, even though I was not hungry. I wanted a hit, a surge of neurochemical energy that would wrestle with the unwanted feelings until they disappeared because I could no longer feel them. And I persisted until I got the fix.

Pastor Hughes spun me around and gave me feel-good feeling highs. I enjoyed the ride and got the hit. But he did not turn me into an evangelical Christian. He didn’t, after all, first go after my beliefs. They were beyond his reach. Instead, he went after my deadened feelings, grabbed hold and uplifted them, and then tried to tailor them into the patterns of his own faith.

That evening, as I thought about what Pastor Hughes had done and what I felt, I jotted down a few notes. This kind of analysis was just my cup of tea, and I worked late into the night. I conjured up an idea for a new scholarly essay for publication. Perhaps I could call it “The Five-Step Lift: How Evangelicals Dance with God.”

The moves of Pastor Hughes, I concluded, entailed five basic steps.

Step 1. He acknowledged the presence of anxiety. In Pastor Hughes’ Navy Seals story, this first step occurred when he recounted the story of Americans held hostage by a group of terrorists. The hostages fear the known, but they are also flooded with anxiety because of all the unknowns. Will they be killed or tortured? How long will their ordeal go on? The Americans didn’t know the answers to these questions. So, their bodies were riveted with angst. We, the listeners to this story, vicariously experienced the angst. So, our own anxiety was triggered.

Step 2. He heightened our anxiety. The firefight between the terrorists and the Navy Seals heightened the hostages’ anxiety. Who’s going to win? Who are the combatants? Other terrorists? Will the first set of terrorists kill the hostages as a retributive act? Who’s going to walk through the door? The hostages don’t know. They cannot move even after the American captain appears in the doorway because they are stymied, flooded with anxiety. We, too, can’t move because Pastor Hughes as master storyteller has turned us vicariously into the terrified hostages.

Step 3. He guaranteed salvation. The captain announces their freedom. They have been saved. But no one moves. We are breathless, too.

Step 4. He made us feel saved. Their Christ-like Navy Seals’ captain now becomes one with them. He enters the center of their anxiety and aligns himself with their feelings. He looks them in the eyes. He whispers to them. Their savior, now eye to eye with their own angst through his freely chosen and lowly position, takes on their anxiety, and they feel relief. In a word, saved. The Navy Seals Captain and Captain Hughes are now one because Pastor Hughes has lowered our own level of anxiety and thus made it go away.

Step 5. He gave us confidence. “You’re safe now; you’re safe now…” Captain Hughes continues to say these words to us, his flock. Captain Hughes has won our confidence in him. He holds up the Bible and says he has saved us in the name of Christ.  Our feelings of assurance and confidence are now, in a word, christened. We feel loved, and this feeling is explained as God’s presence in our lives.

Pleased with my analysis of how Pastor Hughes gave our anxiety a religious spin, I let loose a loud “aha!” And then I yelled, “Gotcha,” as I slammed my right hand on the desk as if to kill a gnat. I was not a fan of Pastor Hughes’ form of ministry with its manipulated moves to create religious feelings in folk. These people’s feelings were being jerked around in the name of God. My core assessment was wrong, but I didn’t know it yet.

When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, as part of my weekly routine, I passed by St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge on the way to my neighborhood Whole Foods store. But I had never noticed this three-story, red-brick A.M.E. church building or the tiny parking lot squeezed next to it on this very modest residential street until I started looking for an African American congregation I could conveniently visit.

I wanted to observe how emotions were handled in a black church. The comparison of black and white church strategies to upgrade raw emotions into religious sentiments, I thought, would certainly increase academic interest in my fieldwork and add depth to my study.

The Rev. Richard Allen founded this Christian denomination in 1816, when he and other African Americans rejected the white Methodists’ segregation rules restricting black participation in church services. The A.M.E. church is now one of the largest black church movements in the world.

The main church service began at 10:45 AM, but I arrived 10 minutes early. The church sanctuary was almost completely full, so I had to sit at the back of the church, two rows from the main entrance. The dark wood pews, stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling, chandeliers and red-carpeted floor made the large space feel smaller than it actually was. The sanctuary with the balcony above would seat some five or six hundred people, yet the setting was not imposing, but warmly inviting. Almost everyone in the congregation was African American.

A great many women wore huge Sunday hats and their “Sunday best” clothes. I was glad I had decided to wear my one and only black dress, stockings, and black pumps. Almost all of the men wore suits and ties. There were a few congregants in jeans and t-shirts or other casual attire, but they were a tiny minority. I seriously considered buying and wearing a hat if I ever attended another one of these services. But with further observation, I noticed that hat-wearing seemed for the most part to be limited to the women who were elders of the church.

All of these observations and thoughts were quickly erased from my mind by the music. I was listening to jazz! Not Saturday nightclubbing jazz but Sunday morning go-to-church jazz. The pianist, organist, electric bass player, two saxophonists, the electric guitarist, and the drummer were playing gospel music within a jazz motif of blue notes, fluid styles, and rhythmically complex riffs. Surely, the music must have rekindled memories in the older congregants of the classical era of progressive modern jazz in the mid-60s when Miles, Mingus, Coltrane, and so many other giants turned jazz into the music of the black intelligentsia.

A praise team of three women and two men stood at the front of the sanctuary singing. The satin voice of the leader, a jazz singer who could easily have been a protégé of Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, or Ella Fitzgerald turned the jazz music into praise songs to God. By the time the formal service began, most of the congregants were on their feet, swaying back and forth to the beat of the music and saying “Amen.”

Next came the long procession of choir members, deacons, and deaconesses, with the five ministers of the church at the very back. A woman dressed in white and wearing white gloves, with one of her hands gently closed and resting on the small of her back, was at the very front of the procession. With a slow, syncopated step, she led the procession to the front of the sanctuary and then turned and extended her arms in both directions. The procession line now split like the Red Sea as the people moved to their designated seats. The processional lasted at least 10 minutes as the congregants sang, swaying back and forth to the beat of the music. The senior minister—a towering grey-haired figure with glistening dark chocolate skin, piercing eyes, a strongly chiseled brow, and sculpted cheek bones—walked alone at the very end.

Everyone who could stand was standing. So did I. I rocked back and forth with a disco dance beat that delighted me. I loved to dance. The movement of my arms and feet, the soft swaying of my hips unlocked something in me, and tears streamed down my cheeks as I swayed back and forth. I felt as if a pressure valve inside me had been dis-engaged by the rhythmic heat generated within me through the music, and singing, and the slow, steady rhythmic beauty of the procession. The chokehold grip on my feelings was broken, and emotions that were triggered in me now flowed out in tears as an unnamed mixture of sorrow and extraordinary joy. I had never felt this way before in my life, and I hadn’t a clue as to why I felt this way now. My body and its feelings had become part of my conscious life. My mind was awestruck, stillpoint still. There were no thoughts in my head. Every part of me felt realigned in this awesome place.

“You will always have a place here.”

Twenty minutes into the service, first-time visitors to the church were invited to stand and introduce ourselves, and then remain standing. Wave after wave of congregants stopped by to greet me as the music rocked.

As the service continued to unfold, I learned that the senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Leroy Attles, who had been pastor of the church for 32 years and built it into a 1,500-member congregation, was retiring. Governor Deval Patrick as well as several members of the Cambridge City Council attended Pastor Attles’s final service to bid him good-bye.

At one point in the service, Pastor Attles stood on the chancel behind the altar rail and invited persons who needed special strength to come forward for a blessing. He then waited and was silent for a long moment. And then he said – “Anyone who is in pain, come forward and shake my hand.”

Without a second thought, I stood and walked down the long aisle, up to the pastor, and shook his hand. He smiled. So did I.  When I returned to my seat, an elder woman of the church seated next to me patted the small empty space on the pew between us and said, smiling, “You will always have a place here.” This was stillpoint sitting, breathing and living.

By the end of the three-hour service, I felt inspirited and elated.

For the next two years, every Sunday that I was in town I went to St. Paul. I sang their songs but was careful not to participate in the congregation’s doctrinal readings that affirmed their Trinitarian faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or to participate in the Lord’s Supper or the altar calls to prayer. I thus honored their Trinitarian religious traditions as well as my own Unitarian faith tradition. Every Sunday I spent in the worship service, I was filled with energy and feelings of extraordinary goodwill as I watched women wearing flowing white gowns dance, listened to the men’s choir, the 60-voice children’s choir, the teen choir, or the chancel choir, and so much more. Everyone, including me, was having a good time.

The sights and sounds of the Sunday service began to abound in me throughout the week in stillpoint space and time. I felt the presence of the St. Paul congregants as the new way my spine tingled and a new way life-giving energy coursed through my veins.

I now understood how the congregants in the Church of the Glades felt in their Sunday services, namely, renewed and regenerated. I felt the transformative power of a corporate worship life that empowered my life.

The congregants knew I was Unitarian, but this didn’t matter to these Trinitarian Christians. They loved me beyond my religious beliefs that differed so markedly from theirs.

If I missed a week, numerous persons would welcome me back when I returned, and they would tell me that I had been missed.

Thanks to these kinds of ongoing experiences in this church, I found what I didn’t know I was looking for until it showed up inside me, namely, an inner sense of being an adored and deeply communal self. The inner sense of myself as an isolated soul beholden to no one and dependent upon no one was gone. My interior life was now peopled in ways that affirmed rather than destroyed my emotional integrity. I felt like a homing pigeon that had finally reached its destination: my feelings.

Every time the music director, Donnell Patterson, played or sang, I was swept into a field that gave my emotions the wings of a holy presence. The sights and sounds out there beyond me now whirled around inside me. I felt alive from the inside out and the outside in at the same time.

The experience was akin to being at a rock concert or in a symphony hall when the music gathers all of us up into the same sweep of feeling and makes us one collective soul for the duration of the concert. But now this sweep of feeling didn’t end with the concert because I had been changed. The rhythmic back-and-forth movement created by the music and the timbre of the spoken word warmed my heart. This heat felt like a Higgs Boson of faith that gave feelings the mass, power, and weight to bind folks together, personally and collectively, as an ingathered community of souls.

The music rocked my emotions and loosened them. And the beat wasn’t singular; it had a rhythmic sweep that made my inner feelings dance. And the dance wasn’t a Five Step Lift but a Three-Step Glide.

Step 1. The Slide. I slid into feelings inside me I didn’t know were there. I felt joy, sadness, loss, remorse, grief, and so much more, without being swept away by an undertow that dragged me out to sea and drowned me. I wasn’t flooded. I was fluid and free. More like a master downhill skier on an alpine slope than a swimmer.

Step 2. The Glide. As I continued to glide, I was lowered into feelings of being held and cherished.

Step 3. The Love. I felt the infinite expanse of life—all of it—in a finite moment of my life. I was awestruck with love as every part of my life was taken up into the creative power of the All of life and embraced, cherished, and celebrated.

…It was the rhythmic presence of the universe sweeping me into cosmic consciousness. I was not praying. I was the prayer.

I now understood a story told to me years earlier by a Catholic priest, who discovered the heart of his God beyond the reach of his own religious beliefs. The Catholic priest had spent several months in Ethiopia, doing famine relief work with people from a local village. While in the local village, the priest participated in a dance, in which the members of the devastated community spent countless hours, rhythmically moving in a circle to the beat of a single drum.

Without food to forage or land to cultivate, the members of the village could do nothing except wait for their next shipment of food to be flown in. But instead of simply waiting, they danced a slow step that consisted of something that by the count of the priest seemed to consist of a “one two three jump” sequence. The villagers did this for hours on end.

Wanting to be accepted as part of the group, the priest joined in, which immediately brought him face to face with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He could never jump at the right time. He jumped too soon or too late, or sometimes he simply forgot to jump at all. Needless to say, these missteps provided the rest of the members of the community with countless hours of laughter.

The children, quite frequently, were so amused that they fell out of the circle, onto the ground in fits of giggling delight. The priest said it was neither intended nor experienced as ridicule. Instead, it felt more like the bemused jesting that goes on in a community when one of their own marches to the beat of a different drummer.

Hour after hour, the priest labored to learn to count and then jump in just the right way. How many times did he move into and then out of step with the group’s rhythm? Too many to count, he confessed, but as time wore on, something happened to him that completely surprised him. As he told me the story, tears welled in the eyes of the priest and he was silent for a long moment.  And then he whispered to me, saying, “You know, until that experience I thought that I had known God all of my life. But only as I danced with the other members of the group did I actually feel God’s presence in my life.”

The priest felt the full, awesome presence of life itself, the All of life, which for the priest, is the presence of God. Thanks to the St. Paul congregation, I felt a full presence inside me, too.

If progressives want to shift America’s values, we have to create Love Beyond Belief communities…

But I wasn’t a theist. As a college kid, I had dismissed all religious notions of God as cultural constructions. But now I had been swept away into cosmic feelings and heard what resounded in me like the heartbeat of God. This wasn’t the sound of a deity; it was the rhythmic presence of the universe sweeping me into cosmic consciousness. I was not praying. I was the prayer.

I felt love beyond belief.

If progressives want to shift America’s values, we have to create Love Beyond Belief communities where religious as well as spiritual but not religiously affiliated Americans together create thriving congregations. The “intensity, resources and infrastructure” required for our work begins here with insight, reflection, and action guided by compassion: love beyond belief.