Sunday, January 10, 2021

The History And Purposes Of African American Church Ushers (Video & Article Excerpts)

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, April 11, 2016

We provide an inside look at the spirit and discipline of some highly trained ushers who are much more than church doorkeepers. The men and women who serve as ushers at  Hemingway Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in District Heights, Maryland help create the mood for worship.

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a pancocojams series on African American church ushers.

This post showcases a video of Black church ushers and presents excerpts from three  articles about African American church ushers.

Click for Part II of this pancocojams series. Part II presents theories about why African American ushers wear gloves as part of their usher attire.

Part III showcases a video of a Church Ushers Grand March and showcases an article excerpt about the roles of the Black Church ushers. That article excerpt also includes a section on the ushers' Grand March. 

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners. Thanks to the publisher of this embedded YouTube video.
Click the "Black Church Procession" tag for more pancocojams posts on this subject. 

Excerpt #1:
From  "Ushers History: Ushers serve as 'doorkeepers' to worship" by Jonathan M. Pitts, July 11, 2015
…[Vanessa Lucas is] “one of about 400 people in Maryland and 15,000 in the nation who have been trained and certified by the National United Church Ushers Association of America, a historically black education and service group that has preserved and passed along a "universal method" of church ushering for 96 years.

The organization has its roots in early-1900s Baltimore, where three African-American churches set aside their differences to create an ushers association and school — one that still grills its students on everything from greeting techniques to a complex set of hand signals with which to manage crowd movement, or even indicate an emergency in the making.

The Maryland chapter, one of 28 in America, turns 100 this year. Those who work with members say that at a time when church attendance is declining in the U.S., its mission retains a powerful resonance.

"Ushers are the 'doorkeepers' Scripture tells us about," says the Rev. Howard Wright, pastor of Grace A.M.E. Church in Catonsville. "They set a tone of reverence with their friendliness. They take care of worshipers' needs throughout the service so [pastors] can focus on God's word.

"It's a very, very important ministry."

At Grace one recent Sunday, Lucas and five others greet arriving worshipers with hugs and "good mornings." As gospel music begins to resound, they create a line and march down an aisle, leading the choir into position.

The lead usher takes a position up front and places a fist at the small of her back. The place goes quiet at the signal. The service has begun.

In the beginning

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said the most segregated hour in America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. Decades before that, in the late 1800s, three devout men from this region chose to reach across another divide.

Elijah Hamilton and Charles Dorsey, African Methodist Episcopalians from Philadelphia, and a friend, a Baltimore Baptist named Henry Sorrell, found themselves wrestling with a question: Why did the major African-American Christian denominations have so little to do with each other?

Seeking common ground, they settled on a theme they saw running through the Old and New Testaments: ushering.

At the Baltimore unit headquarters, a brownstone in Reservoir Hill, Lucas recently met with fellow usher Sandra Arnette below several framed portraits of the founders, reeling off the men's beliefs as though they were still alive.

"We consider God the first usher in the universe," Lucas says. "Didn't he usher in light and call it day? Didn't Moses usher the children of Israel out of Egypt? And the star of Bethlehem guided the wise men, just as John the Baptist ushered in Jesus' ministry."

God even created the first usher organization, she adds, choosing one tribe, the Levites, to care for the tabernacles of Moses' day. References to "watchmen," "porters" and "doorkeepers" permeate the Bible.

The job carries additional weight in an era when crime can invade the world of worship, from petty thefts to stunning tragedies like the one that unfolded in Charleston, S.C., last month when a man entered a black church during a Bible study and shot nine people to death.

"We are to be alert at all times. Even when going into prayer, our heads are bowed but we keep our eyes open," says Sylvia Graves, a member of Perkins Square Baptist Church and 17-year ushering veteran.

Sorrell probably never imagined such things, but he perceived a need. He assembled the leaders of three Baltimore churches — Sharp Street United Methodist, Ames United Methodist and Enon Baptist — in 1915, persuading them to form the State of Maryland United Ushers. By 1919, the Philadelphians had a similar group. Chapters in other states followed.

Sharp Street, Ames and Enon churches remain in operation. The Interdenominational Church Ushers Association of Maryland now includes 32 member churches in Baltimore and 92 in the state. All belong to a national association with chapters in locations from California to Maine.

Members coast to coast have adopted a passage from the Old Testament as a kind of mission statement. "I'd rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked," Lucas says, quoting Psalm 84. They share a passion for traveling to state and national conventions.

"It's wonderful Christian fellowship," Lucas says, adding that the subject of denominations never comes up.

Service position

Like many who catch the ushering bug, Ernest Wilson Jr., has been at it for a long time — in his case nearly six decades, making him one of the longest-tenured ushers in Maryland.

If church is a place where souls are saved, he reasons, what could be more important than getting people in the doors and engaging them?

"If you come in and nobody speaks to you, you carry that mood to your seat. So when people come in, I always look them, smile and say 'Good morning,'" says Wilson, 82, who began ushering at Perkins Square at 8, returned to it at Enon in 1957 and hasn't stopped. "They can focus their minds on what the pastor is saying."

The founders saw that kind of thinking as consonant with Christ's teachings, including his counsel to treat other people as you would like to be treated. And as the years passed, a code of behavior developed.

The man or woman at the front door (the doorkeeper) was "the connecting link between the inside and the outside of the sanctuary." The "usher-in-charge" led the other team in prayer before services, assigned everyone's roles for the day and directed communications. Aisle ushers filled pews and monitored guests.

A good usher, they said, planned for anything — a worshiper passing out, a child needing the bathroom, the pastor needing water — and provided.

Because noisy ushers would be distractions, leaders devised a set of hand signals that could be flashed in silence. George T. Grier, first president of the Illinois chapter, codified them in 1948, spelling out dozens in "The Universal Church Ushers Manual," a guide still in use.

A loose fist at the small of the back — the "service position" — means an usher is on duty. Arms across the chest means "prayer underway." If the lead usher moves the right hand to the base of the throat, three fingers up, it's a request for seats in aisle three.

A hand signal does exist for dangers such as fires or bomb threats — the usher drops an arm behind the back, raises both hands, then does a reverse brush of the head with one hand and drops the hands again — but nothing to flag suspicious characters like the Charleston killer.

Graves has written a letter to national leaders urging that they create such a signal and call for doorkeepers at all church events.

It's a dizzying system, but one ushers know well and use with reverence, says Arnette, leader of the Grace A.M.E. team.

"It's a ministry, not a club," she says. "It's about giving your best service to God."...

Excerpt #2
From Ushers’ Day Cultural Resources; The African American Lectionary: A collaborative project of The African American Pulpit and American Baptist College of Nashville; July 18, 2010
[by] Tammy L. Kernodle, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator; Associate Professor of Musicology, Miami University, Oxford, OH
"The Old Testament is full of references to those individuals referred to as the doorkeepers of the Temple. In the selected lection for Usher’s Day, we find an account that speaks to the importance of the doorkeepers and how their ministry impacts all of the inner workings of the Temple. It becomes clear that if the doorkeepers failed to function properly; the day-to-day operations of the Temple would have halted. This level of importance of ushers/doorkeepers can still be witnessed today. While it is one of the familiar symbols of the Black Church, few understand the cultural importance of the church usher.

The usher board has historically been a “catchall” for those who did not know exactly where they fit within a particular congregation. But over the years, as pastors and parishioners have come to understand the function of the usher, such practices have been restricted. Similar to other auxiliary roles like that of deacons and trustees, certain spiritual attributes have become criteria for acceptance onto usher boards in a small number of churches. Leslie Parrott asserts in the book Serving as a Church Usher, “The usher board is now generally viewed as the fourth great ministry of the church, behind preaching, teaching and music respectively.” Participants within the ministry of the usher board view their primary responsibility as tending to the details of each service and insuring that, as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 14:40, things are done “in a fitting and orderly way.”1 

This orderly way extends beyond just philosophy and is at the center of an ethos that has developed within the auxiliary. This ethos is constructed around the belief that the usher is there to maintain order within the context of the service, assist as necessary as the Holy Spirit moves, and welcome parishioners and visitors into the sacred space of the sanctuary. This is done through intricate practices that range from rules for walking down the aisle to the proper manner for distributing offering plates. Manuals and help aides, as well as “usher schools” and “conventions,” which instruct beginner and veteran ushers in the intricacies of this ministry have also shaped a code of conduct that stretches across generational and denominational lines.

Although many usher boards have moved beyond the traditional white dresses and black suits that defined the traditional view of ushers, their role as one of the foundational ministries within the worship life of the church remains. For additional information on the etymology and history of organizations such as the National United Church Ushers Association of America, see the cultural unit written by Bernice Johnson Reagon.2 For more information regarding more traditional practices such as the “Grand March,” which was an important part of Usher Day celebrations, see Ralph Wheeler’s contribution to the lectionary from year two.3

II. An Usher’s Story - “It was military!”

Each experience as an usher, or the perspective of others about ushers, is vastly different.  This account represents Tonya Jones’ experience as an usher and her observations regarding the ministry in the church she grew up in during the 1970s in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Although she no longer participates in the ministry, she recounted fondly how important it was in shaping her maturation in the church. 

It was military! It was order! No kids running down the aisles of the church all willy-nilly. Nothing like what you see today! My momma was an usher. That was her pride and joy. She was always on the back door and on guard. Crisp uniform, white gloves—snap, snap in the military style. I became an usher because there was a rule in my house. If you didn’t sing in the choir, then you ushered. No one in my family was going to sit on a church bench and do nothing. So I came from a family where my momma and brothers ushered. And my aunt was one of the instructors at the usher school in Cincinnati.

But know that even if this was something you wanted to do, you couldn’t just stand up and be an usher. You had to be trained because everything was intricate and there were expectations as to how you were to act and look. There was an usher book, a manual you had to go through before they would let you out on the floor and you had to go to usher school. Usher school met every Saturday, and churches from all over the city of Cincinnati would participate. The school would move from church to church each week.  But the instructors remained the same and you learned a lot. Everything from the way you were suppose to turn, all of the hand signals and all of the requirements regarding your uniform, were drilled each week. You see, there were so many rules to follow. For instance, you couldn’t turn your head when ushering; you had to use your peripheral vision. The only usher allowed to turn was the one in the middle and she would signal to the rest of us. The door usher was the head usher, and she gave all of the commands and determined who went where and did what. With an usher in each aisle it meant that complete order was kept in the service. Every usher kept their left arm behind their back, especially when you went out on the floor. You didn’t scream, “I need a fan! I need an envelope!”  You performed the hand signals. If you needed an envelope, you put up two fingers on your right hand. The demeanor of an usher was serious and disciplined.

The youth ushers went through the same training as the adults. What I liked was that they partnered you with an adult—like a buddy system—and they helped you learned the ins and outs. You were gradually worked into the regular rotation and not just thrown into the service after a certain point. It was like one generation passing the torch to the next. It made us (the youth) feel that we were really contributing something to the church. My church had one Sunday a month where the youth ushers functioned alone. But even then you had to have proven to be disciplined and serious about it. I can’t believe I can remember all of the signals and rules after all these years; especially since I haven’t ushered in twenty-plus years. But being an usher made me feel important and I knew that I was contributing to the church and my family in what I was doing.

As a greeter, some took discipline and control too far. They were a little too serious and could be scary at times. We all know of or have heard stories about the “mean” usher. You know that one usher who kept the children and adults in line. It was Ms. Louella at my church. She was all about respecting the holiness of the sanctuary. There was no talking, eating of candy or excessive walking when she was on duty. She would give us kids a look and we would all get scared, because that meant that we were in trouble and she was going to tell our parents. I remember her so clearly because she turned out to be a nice lady. But she was one of those serious ushers, who was about maintaining order in the sanctuary. I grew to really like her, and she ushered for years until she was physically unable to participate. She was very committed.

I don’t usher anymore, and when I look out from the choir stand these days I see how things changed. No one talks about the usher’s manual anymore, and the usher school is now defunct. Most of the ushers remain in the back of the church and wait until offering time or something that requires their assistance. The military precision that I witnessed and was a part of as a child is no longer evident. While many people felt it was obsessive--all of the stuff we used to do--there was something special about it. People were very serious and professional about their roles as doorkeepers for the Lord.


IV.  Songs
There are many traditional congregational songs associated with the Usher Board. Some of the most common include “We Are Soldiers,” “It’s a Highway to Heaven” and “Come on in Where the Table Is Spread.”
This article continues and ends with the lyrics to the song “You Can Use Anything Lord You can Use Me” and the lyrics to the song “I Am On The Battlefield”.

Excerpt #3
From "Practice makes perfect, as church ushers work on their skills" by Jessica Anderson, April 22, 2017
"Colette McCorvey called out commands as she led a group of church ushers through their paces.

 "When you're getting attention, grab the knot of your tie. Ladies, you have to pretend you have a tie," she said, as members of the group clutched their right hands at the neck.

 "Can I get a signal for ushers to take their stations?" McCorvey asked, prompting the group to make another gesture — brushing their faces with their right hands.

 The session was part of the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association of Maryland's 67th annual convention being held this weekend. The group — the women all wearing white dresses, then men in black blazers, all of them wearing white gloves — was practicing the standardized signals ushers use at church services.

The signals are used to communicate with one another as they quietly and discreetly direct crowds from the doors and into the pews. The 20-some gestures are painstakingly learned and practiced by ushers to communicate without causing distractions during services.


There are about 400 people in Maryland and 15,000 in the nation who have been trained and certified by the National United Church Ushers Association.

On Saturday, they practiced proper procedures for signs and signals; service and prayer positions; ushering in the aisles; how to collect the offering; and duties and responsibilities of positions like the "doorkeeper" and "usher-in-charge."

The ushers take their jobs seriously because, they say, they are often the first connection people have with a church. A bad first impression, they say, can quickly turn people off. Often, ushers are the first face to greet those with serious issues.

"You don't know what problems or concerns people have coming through that door," said Vanessa W. Lucas, the Baltimore unit president.

She recalled the time when a man showed up at her church asking for someone to pray for him. He talked about committing suicide. She said she pulled him into the foyer and quickly got the minister.

Sylvia Graves, a member of Perkins Square Baptist Church who has been ushering nearly 20 years, said people who are struggling will often seek out a church for comfort or aid.


Brittney Spurlock, 17, has been ushering for about five years.

"I like serving God and helping people," she said." "

This concludes Part I of this pancocojams series.

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