As a child, I recall New Year’s Eve to be an exciting day. I heard people on the news speak about a ball dropping in New York City. My family talked about a Watch Night service. People were not going to paint the town red or party. These Black folks were going to church.
People across our county would gather together in various Black churches. The church I grew up in was right outside the city limits. This white cinder blocked church situated next to a red clay dirt road surrounded by fields would be the place of hope. Before we could get out of the car, you could hear people clapping their hands and singing. As you entered the sanctuary, the deacons would stand directly in front of the pulpit facing the congregation. One deacon would bellow a congregational song. He would say, “This is the dressin’ up room.” The community would respond with “down here, down here, you got ta go to heaven from down here.” This type of call and response would continue for a while. This devotional service couldn’t end without a long-meter hymn such as “A Charge to Keep I Have”. The deacons would raise a hymn, and the congregation would follow.
There would be pitches, rhythms, and tones that would harmoniously fit like pieces to a puzzle: no instruments but just pure voices. You could hear the weariness and cracks in older voices, but one could also feel the joy. The deacons would shake hands and kneel to pray. Historians suggest the shaking of hands signified a farewell. These folks didn’t know if they would see each other again. The praying deacon would start with lines of thanksgiving. “Thank you, heavenly Father, for waking me up this morning and starting me on my way. Thank you, God, for putting clothes on my back and shoes on my feet. Thank you that my last night lying down was not on a cooling board. God, I just want to tell you thank you!” This duality of joy and pain would happen quite frequently throughout the night.
The choir would sing songs, and someone would have a spiritual breakthrough. As I see it today, the Spirit’s moving would overcome people reminiscing over what life served them, and these people became grateful for remaining alive. This particular service was where people could bring the pain of twelve months and put them on display. Watch Night service was a balm for wounded souls and gave hope to those who were worn.
This tradition is vital to the life of the Black Church. Historians suggest that over 150 years, Black folks were in their meeting places praising and praying, witnessing and worshipping, singing and swaying. These slaves were waiting in the still of night for freedom. These enslaved people knew that their physical body’s freedom was closer than ever in the darkest hour. The enslaved worshippers heard that President Abraham Lincoln would enact the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st. Watching and waiting through a pitch-black night brought about a tangible hope. This hope means that every road would now be a freedom trail. Finally, the enactment would expose the world to Black joy.
This year will be different. There will be no singing, testimonials, or hugging. There will be no sausage, grits, or biscuits after Watch Night. We will all have to celebrate in our own separate spaces. I encourage leaders to take some of the elements of this service. Take the time to lament the hundreds of thousands lost to a novel coronavirus. Reflect over this brutal year of racial tension and pain. Mourn the loss of the norms and routines. But also rejoice in knowing that there is a new year coming. Be optimistic that change can happen. Hold on to a hope that will pull you through difficult times. Hang on to songs of praise. Take a firm grip on this Negro Spiritual “run on and see what the end is going to be.”
Watch Night: Black Hope Event
What does “Watch Night” mean after a year like 2020? Join scholars and pastors for a conversation about the past, present, and future of this vital Black Church tradition for the prospect of Black Hope.
This online education event is open to the general public and people from all backgrounds. Watch the discussion of Watch Night and Black Hope here. https://www.facebook.com/168541913167218/videos/1009209486241262
– Rev. Kenneth Young, Director of External Relationship at the Massachusetts Council of Churches and Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill, MA
– Rev. Alicia Johnson, Assistant Pastor at the Historic Myrtle Baptist Church in Newton,MA and Assistant Director of Wellesley/MIT Upward Bound
– Rev. Carrington Moore, Lydia Fellows Program Director at the Massachusetts Council of Churches and Associate Pastor for Discipleship and Families at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, MA
Instead of an in-person “ecumenical pilgrimage” to a Watch Night or New Year’s Eve service, Massachusetts Council of Churches will provide a list of online services you can join on 12/31 across the state.
If your church is hosting a Watch Night or New Year’s Eve service and would welcome ecumenical visitors from other traditions or journalists, please email Rev. Laura or send us a Facebook message and we’ll do our best to add you to the list below. Thank you and God bless you into the new year.
Union United Methodist Church in Boston
12/31 6:30pm on Zoom: http://unionboston.org/worship/
Concord Baptist Church of Boston, Milton
12/31 11pm on Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/cbcofmilton
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain
12/31 11pm on Zoom: https://www.facebook.com/events/418126689386486/?ti=ls
Timothy Baptist Church, Roxbury
12/31 11pm on Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/tbctimothybaptistchurchma
Greater Framingham Community Church, Framingham
12/31 11pm on their website: https://www.gfccnet.org/live
Holy Trinity Church of God in Christ, Springfield
12/31 11pm on Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/HolyTrinityCogic/