Sunday, November 6, 2011

Marching For Jesus - Black Church Processions Part I

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a four part post on Black church processions. This post provides general information about this tradition in the United States.

Click for Part II of this series (African American & Canadian beginning church service processionals and during offerings).

Click for Part III of this series (Processional of Church nurses, ushers, and other church groups).

Click for Part IV of this series (African church processionals).

Brief editorial comments, and a few video viewers' comments are included in each of these posts.

This series is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of Black Church Processions. This series is also not meant to imply that processions aren't a practice in the church services of other races and ethnicities.


Marching into the church sanctuary is an old tradition among African Americans and other Black people. However, judging from my experiences, and the comments that have been added to YouTube videos, processionals are viewed as an "old school" tradition that is done by fewer and fewer Black churches, partly because some churches have moved away from formal choirs to praise & worship groups, partly because those churches consider processions to be irreligious, or for other reasons.

A number of persons commenting on discussion threads of YouTube videos of Black church note that processions help set the tone of the worship service. Processions add energy to the service. They are a way to praise God and "make a joyful noise to the Lord".

Marching for Jesus adds to the dramatic nature of religious worship. Group marches also adds to the drama-and the entertaiment of celebratory group events such as anniversaries and conventions. Choir marches into the church's santuary mark the beginning of church service. Processions of choirs, ushers, nurses, or other groups that march into their anniversary program or their convention events enhance the celebratory nature of those programs & events. But processions are more than a way for groups to make a grand entrance. Processions signify that the service or program is special, since processions are outside the norm of everyday occurances.

Traditionally, during church services, members of the congregation who are able to stand do so to welcome the procession of choirs. The congregation stands in acknowledgement of and out of respect for the choirs' responsibility to help bring forth manifestations of the Holy Spirit through their spirited singing. That is a religious reason for processions. But choirs marching at the beginning of church services, and marching during the offering portion of church services also add to the enjoyment of the church service. Furthermore, I think that it's no coincidence that some Black churches have the tradition, choirs march down from their choir stands to give their offering (money to the church). In many Black churches at least one offerrings occurs immediately before the minister's sermon. Knowing that the choir is going to march to an uptempo song helps gets the congregation "hyped" and further sets the stage for a spirit filled sermon. Getting the audience hyped (excited) is also part of the reason for marches of ushers, nurses, and other church groups during those group's anniversary programs and conventions. The celebratory, special occassion nature of those events is sometimes reflected in the fancier attire and the cosages that group members wear to those events. And the celebratory, special occassion nature of those anniversay/convention marches is evidenced by the audience holding up their cameras to take photos & videos, and giving verbal shout outs to the group or its individual members -neither actions are usually done during formal church services.

Along with other leadership positions in the church (ministers, elders, bishops, deacons, trustees; church clerk/secretary), being a member of church choirs, usher boards, nurses guilds, and other church groups, and especially being an officer of these groups confers status within that church and within the community. Status giving positions are particularly important to Black people because of the low status that we have had and largely continue to have in our employment, and in other aspects of our lifes as judged by mainstream society.

Black processionals as performed by church choirs, ushers, nurses, and other church groups combine elements of drum major parades, military drill teams, step team, and - dare I say it? - secular dance movements. These marches are done for the glory of God and, for reasons I have articulated, also for the glory of the group, and its individual members. However, I think that the reason why so many people, including me, love to experience these Black church processions is that they are the embodiment of much of the music and movement aesthetic that we love.

Church processions usually occur
1. at the beginning of a Sunday church service

2. towards the end of a church offering after the members of the congregation have given their offering (either by walking to the alter or after putting their offering in the plates that the ushers carried to the church pews); this type of procession may occur during Sunday church services or during the group's annivesary service


3. at the beginning of a special church program, particularly during the anniversary of that church group or during a convention of that church group


The choirs might also march out of the santuary at the end of a church service. However, in my experience, and judging from the lack of YouTube videos, this is done less often and with less pagentry than that which occurs during processionals.
Click "Black Church Services" for my description of how the minister, choirs, and some deacons, deconesses (particularly the head deacon and deaconess of my Baptist church (in Atlantic City, New Jersey) march at the end of the Sunday morning church service.

In Black church traditions, members of choirs and other church groups move into the church santuary in a choreographed manner. By "choreographed" I mean that instead of each person "doing his or her own thing", the groups move in a coordinated, rehearsed manner. Choirs are usually the only church processional group which might sing. Ushers boards, nurses, and other marching church groups don't sing. However, all choirs that march don't sing while they are marching. Often they just move to the beat of the music. When the entire group is standing in the standing in the choir stand, the choir usually sings the song that they have marched to.

During the procession, the choir or other groups move in single file or in pairs down the center aisle of the church santuary. Usually, marching choirs and other church groups make a distinctive sharp turn when they reach the front of the church before they move up to the choir stand or to their seats in the congregation.

Black church ushers have a distinctive way of holding their right hand behind their back while they move in a procession. Ushers hold their right hand that same way while they perform their role during actual church services and church events. Although I've never been a church usher and haven't read this explanation anywhere, I believe that the traditional Black usher's stance of placing their right hand behind their back signifies submission to God and service to others.

For the record, I have only experienced choirs marching in person. Although I am African American, I had no knowledge of processions of church ushers, nurses, or other groups until I saw YouTube videos of those marches.

Traditionally, the congregation stands when the choir or other processional group is announced (either verbally by a deacon, the pastor, or another church leader, or by the sound of the music playing). The congregation doesn't need to face forward while the procession moves down the aisle-usually members of the congregation turn while standing to view the procession. If the choir is singing, members of the church may also sing along. Church members may also clap their hands as accompaniment even if the choir isn't clapping their hands while they march into the santuary. Members of the congregation may also play their tamborines while the choir proceeds into the santuary-although in some Black churches its also rare to see people playing tamborines.) If the choir or church group is marching into the sanctuary without singing, the congregation rarely sings or claps their hands. Unlike New Orleans second line parades, no member of the congregation outside of those groups designated to march in the processional, would ever join the processional.

Audience decorum during anniversary services is much less formal than during Sunday church services. As some of the featured videos in this series demonstrate, during some anniversary processions, audience members may hold their cell phone or other cameras and take photos or videos of the procession. It's also acceptable during group annivesary events at some churces-though not all-for audience members to shout out exclamations of encouragement and support for the group or for specific individuals in the group. This audience behavior may occur most often during anniversary events in which members are individually introduced by the program host or hostess while they march down the center aisle of the church with other members of their group. "Giving a shout out" to the group or individuals in the group is the same behavior or very similar behavior that occurs during many non-religious Black music or dance events.

Traditionally, Black church choirs wear the exact same color and style robes, or clothes in the same color combination clothes (for instance, black skirts for women and black pants for men, and white shirt). Particularly during their anniversary services, Black church ushers may wear the exact same outfits or they may wear outfits with the same color combination. These outfits are often quite stylish during their special event programs. Note that it's not traditional for Black females to wear pants in church. However, many Black churches have relaxed the rule that prohibits females wearing pants in church.

Members of the nurses guild in Black churches are almost always female. Nurses provide first aid, and otherwise see to the health needs of the congregation and pastors. In so doing, they pass out hand held fans (which are traditionally contain a religious painting on one side and an ad for a funeral home on the other side), hand out tissues to people who are crying, and help those persons who are overcome with the holy spirit. Church nurses usually wear the same type of attire during processions that they wear for church- white nurses dresses with a white nurse's cap. Male ushers wear black suits and white shirts and female ushers usually wear white shirts and black suits or wear white dresses during church and processions. Female ushers can usually be distinguished from church nurses because they wear a pin on their dress, they wear white gloves, and they don't wear a nurses cap.

For those Black churches which still adhere to the tradition that females should always have their hair covered in church, outfits for female ushers, and for female choir members will include hats. Note that males weren't part of that head covering tradition. However, it's been a very long time since I've seen all but a very few members of my Baptist chuch congregation wearing hats - and that includes female or male choir members wearing their distinctive hats with a single tassel.


The substitution by many African American churches of praise & worship quartets or groups for church Gospel choirs has resulted in far fewer churches upholding the tradition of processions/marches. This tradition may have been dying out before the 1990s when praise & worship music became popular in an increased number of African American churches. However, judging from the comments of viewers on YouTube videos of processionals, processions are now considered "old school", usually warmly remembered, but experienced in person by fewer and fewer church going people. However, marching for Jesus is still done in certain Black churches, as YouTube videos will attest. The remaining posts in this series showcase some of those videos.

Click for an essay with video samples on "The Sources, Art, And Purposes Of Black Church Processionals" written by Azizi Powell 6/9/2012

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