For Every Mountain: A Young Man’s Spiritual Longing

It started with chills. Goosebumps.

It began when he walked through the church parking lot. For once, he didn’t stand out. He was just another new face, complete with a mediocre #2 haircut, scuffed dress shoes and slightly wrinkled khakis. He could be a one-time visitor, never to be seen again. He could be a future member, a young man who would grow and change with the church. For now, though, he was just another new face.

For waking me up this morning
That’s why I praise You
For starting me on my way
That’s why I praise You

The usher, a warm middle-aged man in good shape, directed his aunt and uncle into a row on the right side of the church, and he followed.

He thought he knew what would happen.

Already, he felt at home. On his way in, every man he passed shook his hand and said, “Welcome.” Five women had hugged him. As he settled into his row, an attractive young woman about his age glanced at him—or maybe it was at the wrinkles in his shirt. He couldn’t tell. He sat down next to his uncle, but then he realized that everyone was standing and singing.

You see so many times 
You´ve met my needs
So many times, You rescued me
That’s why I praise You

He stood up, glanced around the sanctuary, and started clapping along. He looked at the faces as he did so. 
He saw sturdy men in their fifties; teenagers–some shabbily dressed, others in their Sunday best; kids in athletic shorts; wives and husbands, grandparents and grandchildren, entire families together.

He looked to the front and saw the choir: twentyish smiling, intense faces swaying, clapping, praising.
Most of the faces, both in the choir and in the crowd were black—like his.
It started with chills. Goosebumps.

Actually, it had started before that, in his classes at grad school. In one of them, he and his classmates had read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” They read Langston Hughes’ short story “Big Meeting.” The professor had read aloud Hughes’ account of his own pretend conversion. Those three stories brought him here, he thought. He felt trapped somewhere among all three. The story of the black church, of the struggle for equality—it was his story, and yet it wasn’t his story at all.

The choir picked up the pace, and the congregation followed suit:

For every mountain, You brought me over
For every trial you’ve seen me through
For every blessing
Hallelujah, for this I give You praise

Murmurs and shouts of “Yes,” “Thank you, Jesus,” and “Amen” filled the sanctuary as the choir sang. All at once, he was no longer just a body in the sanctuary: the choir was challenging him. It was like they knew what had been on his mind.

For every mountain, You brought me over.

The tears began.

How he wanted to join in. If anyone had asked (and during the greeting time, they did), he was there because he was visiting his aunt and uncle. That was technically true, but really, he agreed to join them at church because he wanted to know what it felt like to blend in, to be just another dark-skinned face. At school—in elementary, in high school, in college and now in grad school out by the coast—he stood out. At work he stood out. In discussion section he stood out. In church especially, he stood out: the lone black face. Of course, sometimes that wasn’t completely true, but he was almost always in the minority. What would it feel like for him to be able to let his guard down?

For every mountain
You brought me over
For every trial you’ve seen me through

He lived a fortunate life, but lately, that was hard to remember. His mother, the person who knew him best, loved him most and whom he loved most, had died, a year and a half ago. A few weeks later, his college buddy and roommate died suddenly. He had picked up and moved halfway across the country to start a new adventure on the coast. He craved and feared connection, friendship, and love. He couldn’t sleep because he kept having nightmares about other people in his life dying: his siblings, his father, his long-time friends, and his new best friend. He felt broken, beaten down, and insert-other-cliché-about-sadness-here; as the song goes, he was tired, he was weak, he was worn. More than anything, though, he was lonely.

He wanted—no, needed–to feel at home somewhere. He thought back to when his mother was still alive. During college, trips home had meaning mostly because it meant that he got to hug her, have long conversations with her, and work in the yard with her. But where was home now? He thought of his religious communities: the one he grew up in, the church he went to during college, the worship group at school now. Each one felt like a best friend’s home—familiar, warm, he knew all the traditions, and he could open the refrigerator to make sandwiches without asking permission–but there was always that unspoken awareness that it wasn’t home.

Was it the race thing? He didn’t know. Maybe everyone feels like an outsider for one reason or another. He just knew that he wanted—no, he needed–to find out. He had a lot of “best friend homes” in his life, and he felt lucky for that, but he needed to find his home again.

The tears kept falling.

How he wanted to join in with the choir and the congregation. As they sang and praised, he felt something in the sanctuary. He felt connected to the people worshiping in the room. Almost.

For every mountain, You brought me over

The choir belted out the song’s refrain. The congregation repeated it, some murmuring, others singing, still others shouting. But he couldn’t sing along. A beautiful, dark-skinned woman in her forties standing three rows in front of him fell to the ground, her tear-filled face overcome with the Spirit. He was so sad, so pained, so tired. 

He wanted—no, he needed—to do the same, but he couldn’t.
Because he just.
didn’t.
have it.

He thought of his mother, who taught him to look for the Divine in everything and everyone. As a kid, he’d meditated with her every morning. He thought of his father, who taught him to take the teachings of Jesus and Scripture “seriously, but not literally.” The church he went to taught that Jesus was one of the greatest, wisest men in human history, but not the literal Son of God. He had always believed in some kind of higher power, but never in the kind that would interfere. All those nights in the hospital with his sick mother, and still he had never asked God for anything—because somehow, he knew different. Not better, just different.

He thought of Langston Hughes’ conversion story his professor had read to the class. The professor cried that day, and he did, too.  He, too, wanted to feel the Spirit, wanted to be truly included in this wonderful church and in this powerful feeling.

I want to thank You for the blessing
You give to me each day
That’s why I praise You
For this I give You praise

He needed a place like this; a place where people hugged and clapped, where they prayed and swayed, where they trusted in the community and Jesus to support them–to help bring them over the mountain. He inhaled books and scoured his favorite TV shows in search for answers to his grief, his loneliness. He read the Bible and watched sermons online, practically daring himself to believe, to submit. And finally, his pain had led him here, crying silent tears in a room of strangers who looked like him and weren’t afraid to love, to weep, or to hug a complete stranger.

For every trial
You’ve seen me through

The choir held the final line, and the shouts in the room reached a fever pitch. He could feel the congregation releasing its collective sadness and pain one by one. He saw pain from divorces, money problems, struggling children and more being sung and shouted into the waiting arms of Jesus and God the Father. He himself had so much to remove.

As the song ended and the building roared, he looked up into the portrait of Jesus behind the choir and made a decision. He didn’t really believe as (presumably) everyone else in the room did, but he would try, because he needed them. He needed a place like this. He saw his future, if only he would believe. He would have a place where he wouldn’t have to stand out or be the spokesperson for a group of people. He’d meet a beautiful, brilliant, black (or whatever; he didn’t care) Christian woman and they’d raise successful, God-fearing children. He wouldn’t feel so alone—he’d have church brothers and sisters, and people to pray with and to pray for. The sense of family and community overwhelmed him.

The song ended, and the pastor came to the front.

“God is so good today. Thank you, Jesus, for filling the choir and this hall with the love and mercy of God. This is the time in our service where we ask: who in this hall is ready to commit to a life following our Savior, Jesus Christ? Who is ready?”

A bespectacled woman in her late thirties stepped out into the aisle, and the sanctuary erupted.

His mind turned again to Go Tell it On The Mountain. If he just went out there into the aisle, he would have an experience, just like John, the boy preacher. He would succeed where Langston Hughes did not. He would be filled with the spirit and finally, finally, some of his pain would leave him behind.

He moved his left foot a fraction of an inch forward, ready to give it a shot, but–
He felt familiar eyes staring him down from right behind him. He whirled around.

It was his mother. His dead mother.

She wore her trademark church clothes: the dark blue sweater, and the long, flowy skirt; she also wore an uncharacteristic look of concern.
As the applause and cheers for the woman carried on, she leaned in and asked, “Son, were you about to—?“
“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t know what else to do.”

“I know you’re sad, Son, and I know you feel alone. You know that I always wanted you to figure things out on your own, so I won’t ruin the mystery about what happens when you die. But I have to ask…what are you doing?

“I need something or someone to save me from feeling like this. I’m so tired, and so lonely.”

“I know, Son. I know. I won’t tell you to become a Christian, or not to become one. But do notinsult these folks. Jesus is with them—don’t you dare move forward unless Jesus is really and truly with you, too. Just remember that the Divine is everywhere. It’s here, yes, but it’s in your church now and in the church I raised you in, too. I’m just going to tell you what I told you when you meditated with me when you were little.

Listen.”
“To what?”
His mother stared at him.
He stared back at her.
“What if I can’t hear anything right now?”

“Keep listening, Son. You will.”

She smiled an encouraging smile at him, and then turned around and walked past the newly committed woman, humming one of her favorite hymns, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” As she did so, his mother stopped, turned back around, and pointed up towards the choir. She winked and then left the sanctuary.

Three more people pledged their lives to Christ, but he wasn’t one of them. The tears had stopped, but he felt every bit as alone. He barely heard the call for prayers or the announcement letting people know that youth group would be meeting after the service. He was still straining to listen to his mind when he noticed that the choir had gone back up to the front and was twenty seconds into the closing hymn.

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light

Despite his sadness, he laughed to himself. He didn’t turn around, because he knew his mother had gone, but he understood: today wasn’t the day for answers. It wasn’t the day for conversions. Today was the day for struggle. There was only one thing to do.

He listened.

Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home.