Maryland Group Trains, Supports Ushers as the ‘Doorkeepers’ of the Church

Usher Robin Price, left, treasurer of the Lady Usher Board, left, prays with the congregation while standing at attention during the Easter service at Grace AME Church on Winters Lane. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association. The ICUA is a historically African-American faith organization that trains church ushers. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)
Usher Robin Price, left, treasurer of the Lady Usher Board, left, prays with the congregation while standing at attention during the Easter service at Grace AME Church on Winters Lane. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association. The ICUA is a historically African-American faith organization that trains church ushers.
(Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

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.

The organization has its roots in early-1900s Baltimore, where three African-American churches set aside their differences to create an ushers association and school — one that still 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.

The Maryland chapter, one of 28 in America, turns 100 this year. Those who work with members say that at a time when church attendance is declining in the U.S., its mission retains a powerful resonance.

“Ushers are the ‘doorkeepers’ Scripture tells us about,” says the Rev. Howard Wright, pastor of Grace A.M.E. Church in Catonsville. “They set a tone of reverence with their friendliness. They take care of worshipers’ needs throughout the service so [pastors] can focus on God’s word.

“It’s a very, very important ministry.”

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.

In the beginning

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said the most segregated hour in America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. Decades before that, in the late 1800s, three devout men from this region chose to reach across another divide.

Elijah Hamilton and Charles Dorsey, African Methodist Episcopalians from Philadelphia, and a friend, a Baltimore Baptist named Henry Sorrell, found themselves wrestling with a question: Why did the major African-American Christian denominations have so little to do with each other?

Seeking common ground, they settled on a theme they saw running through the Old and New Testaments: ushering.

At the Baltimore unit headquarters, a brownstone in Reservoir Hill, Lucas recently met with fellow usher Sandra Arnette below several framed portraits of the founders, reeling off the men’s beliefs as though they were still alive.

“We consider God the first usher in the universe,” Lucas says. “Didn’t he usher in light and call it day? Didn’t Moses usher the children of Israel out of Egypt? And the star of Bethlehem guided the wise men, just as John the Baptist ushered in Jesus’ ministry.”

God even created the first usher organization, she adds, choosing one tribe, the Levites, to care for the tabernacles of Moses’ day. References to “watchmen,” “porters” and “doorkeepers” permeate the Bible.

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