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Alexandria Church Embraces Unusual Musical Tradition

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Saturday morning Shabbath services at Church of God and Saints of Christ, in Alexandria, Va.
Emily Berman/WAMU
Saturday morning Shabbath services at Church of God and Saints of Christ, in Alexandria, Va.

When it comes to African-American congregations in the D.C. region, there are some churches that are pretty well known for their sweet-sounding services. There's The United House of Prayer For All People whose house brass band, the Sweet Heaven Kings, you may have seen playing outside the Verizon Center. Or maybe you've heard about the steel guitar-infused services at Keith Dominion Church on Kansas Avenue, NW.

A lesser-known congregation in the heart of old town Alexandria, Va., makes its musical mark a capella. The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as the oldest African-American congregation that adheres to the tenets of Judaism.

It was founded in 1896 in Suffolk, Va., and has spread to more than 40 tabernacles in the United States, Jamaica and Africa. Though much of the terminology is similar to Christian faiths, the group views Jesus as a Prophet and not the son of God. Members congregate around an arc and a Torah scroll, and recite many traditional Jewish prayers, though mainly in English, not Hebrew.

Here in D.C., there are two tabernacles. One is on New York Avenue NW, and another is in a small white church set back from North Patrick Street.  It's called Tabernacle 16, since it was once the Church's 16th tabernacle established in the church's founding state of Virginia.

Elder Aaron Carey, the general chorister of the church, says it's actually quite difficult to describe their musical sound.

"Our music is better felt. There is a certain harmonic structure — it's a sound known by us and given to us," Carey says. "When you sing the certain progression of chords, you will feel the spirit of the music."

In keeping with ancient Jewish custom, there are no instruments in the prayer service, just voices, and their musical notation of hundreds of songs have never been written down.

"It's a tradition passed down entirely from mouth to ear," Carey explains.

Kip Lornell, Ethnomusicologist at at George Washington University, explains that it's not only the sound of the music that makes it such a fascinating tradition, but also the way new songs are brought into worship.

"People dream them. These songs come to people in visions, in dreams," Lornell says. He explains how they then bring the tune to their tabernacles' chorister and choir, who then in turn bring the song to the all-Church gathering during Passover. There the songs are presented to a larger audience, and if the crowd likes them, they end up in the hymnal and are sung all around the world.

Most of the songs are call and response, with very few solos. All are in at least four-part harmony. Just about everyone in the congregation joins in the four-part harmonies, even the children. And no one has a hymnal. The only way to tell who's in the choir and who's not is by what they're wearing.

Male choir members wear brown suits with long coats and kippa, or head coverings. The women wear baby blue silk shirts and long brown skirts, with a baby blue hair ribbon. The blue and brown are symbolic, says the Tabernacle's Pastor James Parker, of the meeting of earth and sky, of human and divine: "With everyone wearing the same uniform, we're not divided by economic status, educational degrees; we are brothers and sisters of god together."

Most of the Tabernacle's 100 or so members have been part of the congregation their whole lives, and remember a time when services lasted all day long. Kip Lornell points out that the songs have no set length.

"It lasts as long as it needs to last. Unlike the Lutheran and Methodist churches I've been to, 11:45 a.m. the sermons done, a song or two, and you know you're done by 12:00pm," Lornell says. "That ain't gonna happen here. How long the spirit is moving you is how long those songs will last."

Elements of a traditional Jewish service combine with the sounds of 19th century spirituals to create this church's simple, yet powerful sound. Here in Washington, Lornell says, there really isn't anything else like this church — musically, culturally or spiritually.

Correction: The Church of God and Saints if Christ was incorporated in 1896 in Emporia, KS, not Suffolk, VA as stated above. The international headquarters is in Suffolk.

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