|616: First Baptist, Providence, Rhode Island, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: First Baptist, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
The building: Beautiful traditional New England white wooden church with ornate pierced steeple, built in 1775. Entrance to church is through a portico with four columns. Simple white with green trim interior with few decorations other than a crystal Waterford chandelier. A national historic landmark building.
The church: Church was founded by Roger Williams in 1638. It was, in fact, the first Baptist Church in America. At one time it was one of the most influential Baptist churches in the country, founding several other Baptist churches in the city. As the local economy and population declined, the church's membership did also, but it has remained active and may be recovering somewhat.
The neighbourhood: One of the oldest sections of Providence, on the edge of the downtown area. It's near Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Brown was originally a Baptist college, and still holds its commencement ceremonies at the church.
The cast: Minister James C. Miller; reader Barbara Staples; organist Stephen T. Matorella; tenor Noel E. Velasco. Another person served as deacon, but I didn't see his name.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Overall, the building was pretty empty, with about 75 attendees.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The church is situated on a hill, so you enter into the undercroft. There were a half dozen people standing about, all of whom greeted me, some shaking my hand. I wasn't sure how to get up to the chapel, and a woman noticing my confusion directed me to the proper stairwell.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a box pew with wooden backs and a decent cushion for sitting. Reasonably comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The chapel was nearly silent. People were sitting in their pews looking toward the altar waiting for the service to begin.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O come let us worship and bow down..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible New Revised Standard Version and The Worshipping Church: A Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Large beautiful pipe organ on the top level of the church. The tenor sang solo pieces at various points in the service.
Did anything distract you?
Although there wasn't much traffic on a Sunday morning, a few cars and motorcycles roared by during the service and a loud siren interrupted the sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal. The minister, reader and deacon sat throughout the service on the lower level of a two-tiered pulpit (except for the sermon, when Rev. Miller climbed to the top level and stood grandly above us), and before the service with the three of them looking out at us, I felt as if a legislative meeting were about to begin. People were silent except during hymns and prayer responses.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 The speaker was very expressive, used generally effective gestures, but seemed to wander at times. It took me a long time to figure out where he was going with the sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"The Tyranny of Expectations." We often feel burdened by other people's and even our own expectations. When overwhelmed, people respond by doing one of three things: fleeing their responsibilities, concentrating on only one aspect of the many expectations; or ignoring the expectations and doing one's best. While we may think we've fallen short, if we do our best to live God's way, God will appreciate our honest efforts.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I've never been to a Baptist church, and communion was done in a way I'd never seen before. The ushers passed out to the seated congregants pieces of bread, then the minister and deacon gave the bread to the ushers, and two ushers gave bread to the minister and the deacon. The minister led us in the Lord's Prayer, and then said, "Now, let us eat together." Then the ushers passed out tiny glasses of wine, the deacon said a prayer, and the minister said, "Now, let us drink together." To me, this made the sacrament particularly communal and blessed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the end of the service, we were all invited to come down to the altar. As I walked down, a man grabbed my hand securely, then I took the hand of a young woman next to me. This wouldn't have been too bad, except the hand-holding went on forever as all visitors were asked to introduce themselves. By the time of the final blessing my right hand was starting to go numb. I did notice a few people, probably regular parishioners, who did not take hands until the time of the blessing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As soon as the service ended, the person next to me began a conversation since I had mentioned that I was from the Bronx in the introductions of visitors just before. I imagine it would be difficult to look lost for long at this church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee and tea in thermos containers (making the tea very strong) and some iced cookies that were a bit dry.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 Not my faith or my city, but it was such a warm and welcoming place, and such a beautiful church, I'd be tempted to convert if I lived in Providence.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I couldn't ask for much more from a church (except for fresher cookies). Definitely.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The communion service, particularly the tiny glasses.