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I was just 19 when I learned to ‘testify’

I once branded the whole business as snake oil. But that was before my teen marriage and a time on welfare and three children to feed by age 22.

John Fountain’s grandmother Florence Hagler, who was among the church’s “Prayer Warriors” who encouraged the young and the old to testify.
Photo provided by John W. Fountain

“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony…” Revelation 12:11

Testify!

The air inside the narrow storefront on Chicago’s West Side felt like hot maple syrup. Grandmother’s brown hands reached up toward the high white ceiling, the glowing globes and the cobwebs, as if trying to pull down heaven and touch God. “Praise yo’ name Je-sus!” one church mother shouted. “Hal-le-lu-jah,” intoned another.

It was Sunday service at True Vine Church of God in Christ, a weekly spit-spewing Pentecostal revival, sometime in 1982. After six days of enduring one thing or the other among the travails of life in the ghetto, “the saints” sought rejuvenation through these teary testimonials.

I once branded the whole business as snake oil, being of the mind that the spiritual powwows were no better than smoking weed or drinking cheap wine. But that was before my teen marriage and a time on welfare and three children to feed by age 22 led me to seek the intoxication of the Spirit.

Standing in front of the sanctuary, lifted up by the “uh-HUHs” and “amens” of my grandmother and the little old ladies of the church, I testified:

“Giving honor to God, to the pastor and his wife, to all the elders, saints and friends…

The congregation urged me on.

“I don’t know how I made it… But God sustained me.”

That is not an uncommon sentiment today among many who have endured over the last year countless sufferings, hardships and losses during the pandemic. Buried loved ones. Fought off COVID-19, lived to tell the story. The church boy in me can only imagine how much power lies in their testimonies, which might encourage those still caught in the storm.

Testify.

I was 19 when I first began to gravitate to the small Black congregation of mostly relatives. I was even younger when I learned to “testify.”

“Don’t let the devil steal your testimony,” the sweet, gray-haired church mothers encouraged.

Testimony service was a free-for-all period during morning worship when young and old were encouraged to stand and tell of some real-life trial, no matter how big or small, that the Lord had brought them through:

Healing their sicknesses, paying their bills, “making a way out of no way,” working one miracle or another.

We took strength from each other’s triumphs over tribulation. Found in the details of each other’s oral revelations solace for our own struggles as we transacted in this African-American church tradition that held for generations. Indeed the spontaneous testimony of a little old church mother often set the church on Azusa fire.

Although testimony service was as common as the ring of tambourines and the rev of a Hammond organ, it has since become a fading slice of African Americana amid the rise of professional praise and worship teams who lead Sunday service in a pre-scripted list of songs still deeply spiritual. I wonder, however, whether something hasn’t been lost.

I have surely witnessed songs move and inspire. Stir the soul. Lead a congregation to an emotional crescendo. But I have also felt the words of testimonies seep deep into my soul. Provide fortification for my faith amid my doubts and fears.

We were uplifted by the words of testimony. Not from the lips of biblical figures, but from the mouths of people we could see, hear, touch.

Here lately, amid the toll of a pandemic, amid social upheaval and the continued killing of our children, and myriad lingering uncertainties, I am reminded that there is nothing new under the sun. Reminded that we have encountered tragedy and difficult times before. Reminded that we can overcome them.

Reminded that there is still power in our testimony and that ain’t nobody mad but the devil.

Testify!

Author@johnwfountain.com

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