Nashville religion

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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A few days ago, I watched the deeply moving funeral service for Whitney Houston at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J.

Listening to intimate personal memories, moving songs and heartfelt prayers of her friends, my mind could not help but travel south, where once I had been a member of a church with a similar sense of community and worship.

Nashville, then and now

My wife and I arrived in 1972 in Nashville, Tenn., where I commenced graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University.

When I first came to this home of country music, the road from Louisville, Ky., still wound itself through the Tennessee countryside, where numerous gaudy shops sought to sidetrack travellers into buying fireworks, pecan logs and candy.

Nashville's skyline was not yet marked by today's imposing high-rises, temples dedicated to the spirit of capitalism. When later I saw them from a distance, they reminded me of Gotham City.

Vanderbilt, my alma mater, now boasts a vastly expanded campus with adjoining medical centres and specialized health industries.

Church of Christ

The church we attended during my student years near the campus was Belmont Avenue Church of Christ, a congregation that was part of a uniquely American religious tradition.

That biblically focused movement, theologically not so far removed from the Baptist heritage of Whitney Houston, later divided theologically and sociologically into several factions that now range from the ecumenical Protestantism of the Disciples of Christ to the evangelical Christian Churches to the more "restorationist" Churches of Christ.

The Belmont Church I knew in the early 1970s was constantly redefining itself, but took its worship and service to the community very seriously. Located near several universities and colleges, with its open membership, it became the spiritual home of people from varying religious and educational backgrounds.

Social engagement

Belmont did not follow the general flight of urban churches into the suburbs, but consciously decided to remain in the area of its original location on Music Row and serve the people who had lived there. I liked that.

Social action outreach did not follow any elaborate theological or ethical theory, but had become almost habitual in Belmont's communal life.

An array of ministries ranged from Meals on Wheels to a farm outside town where inner-city young people could spend holidays in a camp setting.

Belmont often responded to immediate needs on the spot through special collections on Sundays beyond the regular collection. I remember well an elder of the congregation remarking to me, after a second collection, that, "If there is one more, I will have to throw in my credit card."

Such openness to the concerns of a wider membership also characterized Belmont's "open mike" policy, allowing people to bring spiritual or material needs to the attention of the congregation during a designated part of the worship service.

Races and generations had been successfully integrated in the life of this church. Older African-Americans who lived in the area remained members of the church and could freely practise their more vocally participatory way of worship.

Many young professionals joined former dropouts from conventional society, as well as students from neighbouring secular and religious colleges and universities in offering praise to God.

Elders of the congregation varied in age and vocation, but were mostly professionals, from district attorney to an insurance broker to a retired school superintendent.

Spectacular music

Worship was structured, but remained open to suggestions from congregants. There was exceptionally vibrant music which, in the tradition of this church, featured congregational singing without musical instruments. Music Row was palpably present, with several singers from the country scene and music majors from the nearby colleges in the congregation.

I remember well spontaneous Hallelujah Choruses led by a cultural arts administrator, with high notes coming effortlessly from a female singer from the music scene.

Belmont's association with music became even more intensive after we left Nashville for Canada, with no less a singer than Amy Grant making the church her spiritual home.

Belmont has since left its restorationist roots among the Churches of Christ and has become more decidedly a community church with a charismatic orientation. It is still an activist church that does much good in the community, although it seems to have adopted in the process some of the cultural habits of evangelical mega-churches.

The aged brick building we worshipped in can today no longer accommodate the church's 2,000 members and has been demoted to a "chapel" on a large "Church Campus" at a widened Music Square East.

Whatever its later changes, it was the old Belmont, as I knew it in the early 1970s, that flooded into my memory as I watched on television the congregation in which Whitney Houston had sung in the choir, directed by her mother, Cissy.

Hans J. Rollmann is a Professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by email at hrollman@mun.ca.

 

Organizations: New Hope Baptist Church, Vanderbilt University, Belmont Avenue Church of Christ Belmont Church

Geographic location: Nashville, Newark, N.J., Nashville, Tenn. Louisville, Ky. Tennessee Gotham Canada

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Recent comments

  • Marth Tolkien
    December 18, 2012 - 21:07

    Are there any religion colleges in newfoundland? It seems like there are a lot of them across Canada, but I don't know for sure. Thank you so much!

  • Rev. Barbara Minton
    February 29, 2012 - 10:19

    We worshiped with Belmont in 1974 and appreciated their encouragement when we returned to Switzerland for ministry. When we returned to TN in 1982 Belmont embraced us and we ministered with the congregation for the next 7 years. Thank you for the memories this article generated. Today my husband and I serve congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

  • Charles Stelding
    Charles Stelding
    February 28, 2012 - 10:31

    Hans, thanks for this article and bringing back fond memories when I attended Belmont about the same time.