Must read: Baltimore Sun explores rich world of ushers, in black church traditions

During my two decades -- sort of -- teaching journalism in Washington, one of the sharpest and most talented journalists I got to know was Hamil Harris of The Washington Post.

Now, this ultra-energetic man -- a student once called him Hurricane Hamil -- is talented in so many ways. Name me another former Florida State University gridiron lineman who is a great multi-platform reporter, speaks Russian, is a talented Gospel musician, has worked as a tech aide (hope I got that right) in emergency room surgery and has a theology degree. Does he fly airplanes too? I forget.

I could tell so many Hamil stories. But the key for this post today is his constant emphasis, speaking to my students, on never losing sight of the human element in reporting. Journalism is about people, their voices, their stories, their pain, their joy and, yes, the information in their heads and at their fingertips. Journalism is often about famous people, but wise journalists know that everyone they meet knows something about some story, information that could be crucial in the future. Treat them right. Respect them. Listen to them.

That's Hamil talking. This brings me to his insights, through the years, into the role that ushers play in African-American church life. They are more than doorkeepers. Ushers are a crucial part of what these churches do, both in worship and in community building. They are the eyes and ears of the body of the church.

So I thought of Hamil when The Baltimore Sun ran a fine news feature the other day under the somewhat bland headline: "Ushers serve as 'doorkeepers' to worship." The opening anecdote captures the "eyes and ears" concept.

Vanessa Lucas, an avid churchgoer, says she'd love for everyone to be as blessed by the Scriptures as she has been. So when a friend missed a half-dozen services, she decided to investigate.
The last time the woman had been to church, Lucas learned, an usher had handed her a program so rudely she decided not to return.
"She had one unfriendly experience at the door, and look how it changed everything," Lucas says.
If Lucas, 61, has a divine purpose these days, it's to keep such things from happening again. She's 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.

A "universal method"? You mean there is more to this than saying "hey" and shaking hands? Actually, the story notes that this association "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."

In this day and age, tragically, many ushers are now being training in how to handle emergencies involving everything from gunmen to protesters trying to disrupt services. Church doors open onto the streets, you know. The story mentions that angle, as well:

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.

But that is not the norm. The week-to-week work is linked to the basics of worship. I loved this detail, the kind that only comes from a journalist paying attention in a real, live service.

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.

Wait. There is more detail to come, linking the normal with the, tragically, unthinkable.

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.

Now, a veteran in this field has petitioned the national experts to create just such a "signal and call" for ushers to know and, if need be, use in the future.

This is serious business.

So what is missing in this story? Well, only one thing, from my point of view (after years of discussing this with Hamil and others).

There are ushers in other churches in a wide variety of other church traditions. But, friends and neighbors, my experience is that their work is rather hit or miss. They are not, let me stress, the USHERS one encounters in African-American sanctuaries.

Thus, I wanted to know more about why this unique leadership role developed in these churches and why it has continued to live on. And what about the era when this when from being a primarily male role to a primarily female ministry?

The bottom line: Why are ushers such a crucial part of the church body in black churches, while playing lesser roles elsewhere? Surely there are experts who know the history of that.

In other words, this story left me wanting to know more.

That's good. The Sun team (and journalists in other newsrooms) can go back and dig into this some more. There are riches to be mined there, still.

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