Hallelujah, Hallelujah

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Savannah has hundreds of churches–that’s a whole lot of beautiful music. 

When I first moved to Savannah a few months ago, I was—like every new visitor—struck by the ornate antebellum architecture, the trees draped with Spanish moss, the romantic parks and squares, at once manicured and teeming with flora. Living here, though, it doesn’t take long to appreciate how much more the city has to offer than a horse-drawn carriage glimpse of a genteel past. The city pulses with living traditions of a varied, vibrant culture that is evident at every turn—witnessed not least by Savannah’s hundreds of places of worship, some with musical legacies as old as the city itself.

The First African Baptist Church, just off Franklin Square, was organized in 1773 under the leadership of Reverend George Leile. The choir is presently under the direction of Arkeem Brown, who was born and raised in Savannah by his grandparents, and apart from a few childhood lessons on the piano, his skills as a singer and organist are largely self-taught.

Brown was introduced to Baptist choir music as a young boy, and he knew then that this would be his life’s work. But his wish came sooner than expected, at the age of 12, when the sitting musical director failed to show for Sunday service. At the pastor’s request, Brown stepped in, and he has been leading his beloved Baptist choirs (here and elsewhere) ever since.

Music is the lifeblood of the First African Baptist’s Sunday morning service, animating every song and elevating the pastor’s prayers and Bible readings. Driven by a booming organ, the voices, drums and guitars of the choir move the congregation at a volume that carries through my ears and body.

Everyone sways and rises to the tide of the rhythm, and that’s the point. “More than anything,” Brown explains, “I want people to be able to join in, and feel part of the service, especially if it is their first time at the church. This is much easier for them if there are only a few words to each song—which is why the lyrics are repeated, making it easy to sing along with choir.”

 And sing they do! Encouraged by the pastor and inspired by the beat, a refrain of You give me joy, down deep in my soul rises to the rooftops, and that same transcendent sentiment is reflected in everyone’s faces. When, after the final hymnic hurrah, the doors are thrown open, the congregation spills out and parts with a flurry of hugs and warm wishes that leaves everyone uplifted, and a little more at peace.

Encouraged by the pastor and inspired by the beat, a refrain of You give me joy, down deep in my soul rises to the rooftops, and that same transcendent sentiment is reflected in everyone’s faces.

Two dozen blocks south, Christ Church Anglican, on the corner of 37th and Bull streets, offers the epitome of the High Church choral tradition, perhaps most readily experienced through its evening Compline service. The mood is more meditative than overtly celebratory: serene and measured, haunting and seductive, focused by the near-darkness of the candlelight setting.

On early Sunday evenings, parish musician Mark K. Williams leads his choir through rehearsals for the service. Raised in Houston, Williams had a career as a television editor working for NBC and CBS before taking up his post at Christ Church Anglican more than 20 years ago. Today, his choir is a lively group made up of close friends and, in some cases, family: Wiliams’ wife is a cantor and soprano.

Although rehearsal is full of laughter and joking, there is serious work to be done. The service, which begins at 9 p.m., only lasts for half an hour, but it is almost entirely sung by this choir: an ecumenical, auditioned group, with members coming from churches all over the city. There is none of the Baptist choir’s improvisatory zeal, yet the studied quality of this preparatory session is anything but staid. Fidelity to the beauty and purity of traditional song expresses a collective commitment to the truth in the music, and there is profound joy here, too.

Christ Church Anglican was founded in 1733, and Compline worship itself dates back to monastic life in the Middle Ages. It is the last of the daily “offices,” invoking a sense of protection and peace for the night to come and offering thanks for safe passage through the day that has passed. “We’re saying goodnight to God at the end of the Lord’s day,” Williams explains.

The time set aside for quiet contemplation and disciplined prayer is among the most potent characteristics of the service. Attendees might look passive in their stillness and silence, but the music asks its listeners to be deeply, actively engaged as the event unfolds. As with the Baptist service, participation is paramount. Christ Church Anglican’s rector makes the point emphatically: “The office of Compline is not a performance for people to come and hear. It is a transformance of the individual worshipper.”

For all the aesthetic differences between the musical offerings of these two historic Savannah services, in the end, their similarities are greater. In both churches, the words of prayer and praise are a stirring assent to the experience of beauty itself, which, within the Christian tradition, finds its truest expression in and through God. Yet the glory of these services is also their openness. Whatever your religious bearings or sympathies, the transporting sounds of devotion and exaltation in these and other houses of worship throughout Savannah promise the broadest experience of spiritual succor and joy, and the warmest of welcomes.