“Praise Jesus!” The congregation of this black church in downtown Detroit was on its feet, shouting, arms raised. “Jesus! Jesus! Hallelujah!” In this atmosphere of joyous intensity, I, the one white and Jewish person in attendance, fought the temptation to join in the shouting. The excitement was contagious.
For about three years in the mid-aughts, I was a near-regular here. My long-ago family housekeeper and ever-after friend, Estelle Norfleet, had reluctantly stopped driving at age eighty-five, so I drove her to church on Sundays. The three-hour service was long, but it pulsed with energy. A large chorus sang with obvious joy, and a female soloist with a voice that hit the rafters initiated me into the power of Gospel music. We sang a lot of hymns, my favorite being “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” because, near song’s end, we took the hand of the person next to us and swung our arms together. For me, that person was Estelle.
The minister, an energetic middle-aged man, preached sermons that praised Jesus and warned of Satan’s influence when we turned to drugs, drink, or violence. One Mother’s Day, our minister reminded us of the many reasons to be grateful for our mothers, who cooked for us, nursed us, encouraged us in school, and above all loved us no matter what we did. Each reason was applauded. He paused, smiling, then added, “And if you can’t think of anything else, be grateful because you wouldn’t even be here without her!”
I remember this sermon because Estelle, divorced and childless, had become a second mother to my younger brother and me. During the terrible three-and-a-half years when our mother, suffering from breast cancer, was in hospital or in bed at home, Estelle had dropped her other clients and come to us full time. Sometimes she slept over.
The best student in her rural Alabama school, Estelle quit after the 8th grade to help out her large family. Later, in Detroit, she did childcare and housekeeping for suburban families like mine. She absorbed a lot of Jewish culture from our home and others, learning how to make latkes, attending bar and bat mitzvahs, and listening to Kaddish at my mother’s funeral, while holding my eleven-year-old brother’s hand. It seemed fitting that, in my middle age and her final years, I attended her church.
People were very welcoming. “She knew me before she knew herself,” Estelle told congregants who beamed at me. A couple of times, people had questions about my Jewishness, one woman asking whether Jews celebrate Thanksgiving. Another shyly asked me what Jews thought about Jesus.
“We think Jesus preached love and goodness,” I said carefully. “We don’t think he was the son of God.” She nodded. To my relief, she didn’t appear offended. Later, I heard this woman describe me as “Estelle’s Jew daughter.”
The one time I encountered a snub it was because of skin color, not religion. A well-dressed woman active in Detroit politics gave a short talk during the service, staying afterward to shake hands. When she saw me, her smile faded. She touched my hand briefly, and the smile returned as she greeted the next person.
While the congregation included a few families with kids, most regulars were over fifty, and the lack of new blood made them worry about the church’s future. They had other worries, too. Many of them scraped by on Social Security and lived in forlorn neighborhoods that middle-class residents fled years ago. The church provided community and practical help that went beyond its weekly food pantry. I heard people who couldn’t afford to get their broken-down cars fixed negotiate rides to doctors’ offices. Or maybe someone had a cousin or nephew who could fix your brakes cheaply. Their matter-of-fact attitude impressed me. They coped.
Our church visits stopped when Estelle’s once remarkable energy diminished, along with her mental clarity. About a year after our last visit, she died. At her funeral, held of course at her church, members greeted me with the friendliness they had always shown, and invited me to return to services.
A few months into the pandemic, I checked the church’s website, a new feature since my days there. It was streaming services! The minister I remembered had apparently left, but people posted comments like “Wow! Count it all joy!” Or “Hallelujah! Amen.”
I remembered the shouting and the raised arms. And I could almost feel Estelle’s hand in mine, as we sang “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”