On Dec. 31, 2019 — the last New Year’s Eve before the pandemic — I was on the phone with my sister talking about holiday plans. I told her I wanted to go to Watch Night service; she planned to join me.
“But wait,” she said, “who is even having Watch Night?”
Gone were the days when every Black church in town was holding worship on New Year’s Eve. Instead of wondering, as I had in my youth, why they didn’t get together and have one big service, I lamented that churches were now forced to collaborate just to draw decent attendance.
I sat there in church that evening as 2019 came to an end, reflecting on how much had changed about the Black worship experience. But that Watch Night service stood as one of the old landmarks yet to be removed.
I can hardly wait for Watch Night this year — to remember the suffering and death COVID-19 hath wrought, to say the names of those who were with us last year but now live on only in our memories, and to resolve to carry our sorrowful joy into a hopeful new year.
It may feel like more of the same as we take mask-muffled breaths, but 2022 nonetheless is another year pregnant with possibility.
My home church of Pilgrim Baptist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was founded a century before that 2019 service, during the Great Migration. And for 98 of its now 102 years, it has had a pastor from Alabama. The congregation’s Southern and rural roots in the “heart of Dixie” run deep, and that has continued to set the tone for its worship, even today.
The service I attended in 2019 began the way my Watch Nights always have, with hymn lining. Usually some evangelical standard by Isaac Watts or John Wesley, a lined hymn reflects the call-and-response style that is a prominent feature of African American Christian worship.
As a youngster, I could not understand why a four-line stanza took five minutes or more to sing. The slow pace and mournful tone seemed to hark back to the pain and powerlessness of enslavement and segregation, experiences I believed were best left in the past.
But the older I got, the better I understood waiting as a spiritual discipline. When the Holy Spirit moved among the people, hymn lining eventually led to a crescendo of joyful shouts of praise and adoration. Change comes in God’s time, not ours — perhaps not initially, but ultimately, “for those who wait upon the Lord.”
I most look forward to the testimonies of the elders. At Watch Night, there are no pastors offering carefully crafted sermons but instead laypeople giving evidence of God’s goodness. Their stories aren’t interpretations of Scripture or sermons they’ve heard. They talk about what they know to be true through personal experience, about how they’ve been blessed since the last Watch Night service.
This is probably the most important part of the service to me, for I draw strength and encouragement from hearing others speak of struggles, defeats, trials and triumphs. It is most important because I am a glass-half-empty guy. My days are partly cloudy, never partly sunny. I think I prefer it that way so I’m never disappointed when the rain comes; I expect nothing less.
I am therefore always uplifted by people who “count it all joy” — and I do mean all. I recall a woman in 2019 who seemed to be wasting away from some illness that prevented her from digesting. She said her doctor was preparing her for the end and she and her husband were making plans to sell their property and enjoy their last days together.
“Then the Lord led me to a new doctor, an Indian doctor,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit guided him to the right answer. I thought I would be dead and gone, sleeping in my grave. But praise be to God, I’m here!”
The subtext of her testimony was significant, for it said something about the way she believed God works. God didn’t heal her so that she could see another year but so that she could give all glory to God. Also, it wasn’t the half-dozen or so white doctors but a brown man from the other side of the world that God chose to use to cure her. God can use anything or anyone to accomplish God’s will. Therefore, we should look for blessings in unexpected places as well as in the familiar.
The prayers of the righteous are interwoven in the fabric of Watch Night. Indeed, the start of the new year at Pilgrim always found somebody praying — for themselves, their family, their church, the world.
And while to some degree the content was standard, these prayers were extraordinary, in part because of their form. Prayer leaders didn’t stand but approached the throne of grace on their knees in humble submission. Somebody prayed; the rest sang. Of course, this meant no one could hear the prayer. Right, I know. I didn’t get it either.
I remember, as a child, asking my father about this practice, and he said we were helping the person pray with our song. That might have made sense to him, but it didn’t help me hear the prayer any better. Sensing my dissatisfaction, he said, “We don’t need to hear. God hears.” That, I get.
Whether in hymn lining, testifying or praying, the message of Watch Night for me is clear: life is often a struggle, but we draw strength from one another. We are to walk together, rejoice in each other’s victories and be mournful when others are full of sorrow. It is in community that we learn the blessings are not in the things we accumulate. The blessings are in the journey.
God has brought us from a mighty long way, and we don’t know how far we’ve got to go. But we can take comfort in knowing that God will be there every step of the way.