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Mack Williams: Group dynamics

Mack Williams

I recently sang at a Methodist church where I had guest soloed before. The congregation is using the small chapel space of another church, since their basement is having problems with flooding (“in house” flood, not “outdoor” like before).

To familiarize myself with this “borrowed” church, I used the Google street-view man, dropping him kicking and screaming (well, not really) into the immediate area of the church. Like an unguided (blind) bomb of World War II, my little street-view-man landed “a bit off target,” so he and I gradually worked our way down the road till we arrived.

Looking left, I saw a Food Lion, the local Social Security Office, McDonalds, and apartments. Swiveling the viewing arrow to the right, my field of view was filled with tombstones and mausolea as far as the eye could see. The ground there being higher, it is called Highland Burial Park (and I have sung at a few Presbyterian graveside services there).

Along the side of the road, I saw the “R2-D2-like” shadow of the car-mounted Google Street-View camera (since getting both hips replaced, I feel a kinship with C-3PO).

Despite this necropolis dating from 1924 and looking mostly full, its ground has remained elevated, despite the additional weight of vault, bone, and greater weight of “topping off” by memorial stone.

Actually driving by on Sunday morning, I saw an area where houses obstructed part of the cemetery, but between those houses could be seen the carved granite squares and rectangles of remembrance (with the odd triangle or two). The house and buildings of the foreground represented the here-and-now, while the tomb tablets marked eternity. In one yard was a little patch of bareness which would need filling in the spring, but the tombstones visible on the horizon behind seemed to remark (as if stones could speak) on that future bit of Springtime yard work, echoing the prophet, “Vanity, vanity, all is…”

Passing the cemetery, there were “flashes” of light from the tops of the stone tablets, and they seemed to move with me. The sun was reflecting from the polished tops of tombstones. It being morning, there was almost a moistness in that shine, like the moistness of freshly formed dew, or what the dampness of freshly fallen manna must have been like, but it was just a trick of the senses, as it was only dry, shining stone, without manna.

The entire congregation was assembled in a smaller chapel. Their church is a drafty old building with hard-to-heat high ceilings, but those high ceilings add to the acoustical qualities of musical “overtones” there. But the chapel’s carpeted floor did seem to make the sounds of speaker and singer closer, more “intimate” than the sonorous “rattlings” of their old home church.

“Wooden acoustics” bring back those long-gone sounds made by the similarly wooden floors and high ceilings of the demolished old two-story building of Granite Quarry School. There, I recall the third-grade with Mrs. Reba Overman, the sixth-grade year with Mrs. Roselyn Misenheimer, and the eighth-grade year with Mrs. Catherine Safrit (whom I also saw on Sundays at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church).

It’s sad that many of the old large churches seem sparsely attended, despite the large number of “congregates on paper.” At their home church, these people for whom I sang are sparsely strung out, separated by empty pews; but in the little chapel they all sat side-by-side, seeming more animated and vibrant.

It’s as if their being spread out before had diluted their religious enthusiasm and enjoyment of each other’s company. Seeing them there, I almost made a Scriptural paraphrase:”Wherever two or three are gathered CLOSELY together…”

My solo went well, the service was over, and I got in my car and pulled out of the church parking lot, heading home. I thought of having just witnessed that greater fervor brought on by more concentrated seating. I then glance at the extensive rise across the road, where, stretching to the horizon, another almost back-to-back assembly was configured; but as to this group’s “dynamic,” there was none.

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