Grab your coffee, and let’s have church.
For those of us fighting through Jazz Fest withdrawals, let me introduce you to one of my favorite medicines: WWOZ’s “The Gospel Show.”
Time-released for weekly application, The Gospel Show was my measure of a good Sunday morning. As a priest, I kept holy the sabbath by frenetically flying from Mass to meeting to Mass to… (you get it). As I checked in on priest-friends after the feast of feasts at Easter this year, my common sentiment: “Jesus has risen; I hope you have found your tomb.” Sunday rest is a little different for priests than, well, the rest.
It was a rare pleasure, then, to conclude 7:00 a.m. Mass and find my way to the radio for The Gospel Show’s 8:30 a.m. tipoff. Rarer still would be getting to hear the whole 90-minute set. But I got a taste of a different type of worship, in the comfort of my own little ritual.
Grab your coffee, and let’s have church.
DJ Lauren Mastro’s opening line is the call to worship, following a song or two, in a style not unlike the opening rites of a Catholic Mass. “Today’s hymn” always precedes father’s “and with your spirit” greeting. Both should do more than settle the banging of hymnals and the outside noise of our lives: they invite to and, really, remind of community. Different tunes, different times, similar structure, similar words. Change with familiarity: that’s my comfort language.
And Mastro’s gathering also works on another psychological level. When I became pastor, I started doing research on community building. One common sales tactic is to get something warm into the customer’s hands. It evokes hominess, sympathy, interest. The caffeine probably helps, too. Grab your coffee, and rest awhile.
I grew up in Gentilly, which is shorthand for: I know how to get on with a diversity of people. A gospel religious experience, though, was never part of my upbringing. We toggled between organ and keyboard at my childhood church, but we never had the rawness of emotion or repetitiveness of refrain constitutive of a Gospel service. Even now, Jen and I might go to Our Lady of Guadalupe in large part for the saxophone and cornet, but we still get out before the clock hits the hour mark.
The Gospel Show works on different levels, though. Mastro enjoys pulling deep from her collection, the buzzing static on the album muffled by the back-country praise of a 1950s minister or an inner-city choir. If you’ve never met Sister Rosetta Tharpe, stop what you’re doing and spend the next hour with her – a woman born into an Arkansas cotton-picking family and who inspired every significant rock-and-rollers. As a woman. With religious music. Can I get a witness?
The Gospel Show, though, is not just accessible for residents. Visitors, like me, feel at home, too. And it’s more than the warmth of the coffee.
I can be very much in my head, trying to piece together the purpose of actions and the holes in systems. This can be great for school, but hell for faith. Put another way, I’m not just a floating head (may Ted Williams’ memory be a blessing). Gospel music helps connect my head and heart. Emotional without being emotive – I’m trying to live there.
And until I can take up residence, I’ll keep visiting through The Gospel Show, enjoying the genius of the music and the theology. Sometimes the canonical article or Hebrew translation or liturgical explanation is just cold comfort. Sometimes, we just need Thomas A. Dorsey to ask our precious Lord to take our hand, the Golden Gate Quartet to encourage us to stop our Jezebelin’ ways, and a choir from Saulsburg, TN to remind that Jesus will fix it.
All of these were pearls from last Sunday alone.
I emailed Lauren Mastro one March Sunday morning. For that Lenten playlist, she included a take on the Prodigal Son (which I include in big-video form below). Allegedly described by Charles Dickens as the greatest short story ever written, Jesus’ parable does not offer much for a preacher to add. Imagine leading an art class in Louvre with your own work.
But that morning was different. Mastro pulled out an upbeat three minutes from the Southern Jubilees. I know a bit about things southern; I know a DJ named Jubilee (consult Gentilly, above). But the “Southern Jubilees”? You got me there.
Because of its pace and placement, this “Prodigal Son” didn’t focus on that ne’er-do-well offspring, but Jesus’ real emphasis: the welcoming father. A helpful sermon on a Sunday radio.
If all of this sounds a bit too…religious, find a small entry point. The Gospel Show does listen better with a side of actual church, but membership seems pretty open. Picture again our Fair Grounds festival site: that encircling dust track, which we hopped back and forth across from tent to stage, hosted the Kentucky Derby winner last December. How’d Rich Strike do? Fifth place, fourteen lengths behind the horse it just run down to win at the Churchill Downs pole.
If Rich Strike can go from a Fair Grounds fifth to Derby roses, we can probably make it from the Jazz Test to The Gospel Show.
Give it a try, grab your coffee, have some church.
Southern Jubilees’ “Prodigal Son”
I like to think about (see how hard it is for me!) the way we talk. For instance, what’s the great post-Jazz Fest question? Who’d you see?? As my rambling guide indicated, I usually don’t mark off my cubes with permanent ink. Serendipity is my song of the day. So, who did I see? Dennis James Allen!! You know, the head coach of the Saints! Few festers made that connection either.
There I was, one hand balancing Trout Dizzy (a good substitute for Trout Baquet), the other clinging to a strawberry lemonade (no specialty cup this year…), and a party of four moved across my field of vision. One guy had a greying goatee and black hair emerging from below a baseball cap. It couldn’t be, could it? The shirt gave no clues: a black, short-sleeved dryfit. Sensible and team-colored—could that be my coach?
Demario Davis I was not, reading the situation like I was still playing elementary school flag football. I let the group pass, but then I doubled-back to get a second look at the lead blocker. No one was around him—a product of New Orleans respect or heat-onset obliviousness? As they moved thirty yards down the Fairgrounds field, I knew I had to attempt at least one Hail Mary. “Coach!!” I yelled, getting the man in black to twitch slightly and giving me the confidence to snap the ball again. “COACH!!!” He turned around, hordes of blockers between us. What to say now, genius? “Good luck! We’re with you!” I mustered. He nodded with appreciation, undoubtedly for the sentiment and for not being forced into a fish-plate-lemonade selfie. He turned and reentered the crowd, looking like any other late-40s tourist from Texas or Georgia. Who dat, indeed.