A night for renewal

Churches offer time to reflect

Staff WriterDecember 31, 2009 

To many, New Year's Eve is synonymous with party time, an occasion for drink, dance and, some would say, debauchery.

But to many Christians, New Year's Eve holds a very different appeal, far from the glittery nightlife. It's a respectful and reflective time spent in church.

For black churches, the tradition of holding watch night services at which Christians kneel in gratitude for the year that has passed and recommit to God for the one that's about to begin goes back 150 years.

"The secular custom is to play into the new year," said the Rev. David Forbes, pastor of Raleigh's Christian Faith Baptist Church. "We consciously seek to pray into the new year."

So ingrained is the tradition of going to church on Dec. 31, that many African-Americans say they feel a tinge of guilt if they consider a worldly pursuit.

"If you're anchored in the African-American tradition, there's some part of you asking, 'What will I do on this night?'" said the Rev. Daphne Wiggins, associate pastor at Durham's Union Baptist Church. "This is how many say to themselves, 'God is first in my life.'"

Union Baptist, one of the largest churches in the Triangle, used to hold watch night services with three other mostly black congregations. But the church can barely accommodate its own members. This year it will hold two watch night services, at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Historical accounts say the watch night tradition dates to Sept. 22, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation declaring that on Jan. 1, 1863, slaves would be set free.

In the late hours of Dec. 31, 1862, also known as "Freedom's Eve," groups of African-Americans and white abolitionists gathered to wait for news that the Emancipation Proclamation would truly become the law of the land.

But watch night may go back even further, said the Rev. Joy J. Moore, associate dean for black church studies and church relations at the Duke Divinity School. John Wesley, the famous 18th century Anglican theologian, instituted covenant renewal services on the last day of the year, she said.

While some of Wesley's white followers - today called Methodists - still hold New Year's Eve services, black follower Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, made it a tradition called watch night in black churches.

Today, few blacks are aware of this history, as watch night has acquired its own, more modern traditions. Those include testimonies of members who have overcome adversity in the past year, whether illness, the loss of a job or an addiction. Many watch night services start with an hour of such testimonies accompanied by the singing of hymns.

At Raleigh's Body of Christ Church, the testimonies have already been videotaped and edited for time-saving purposes. Pastor Kelvin Redmond said he plans to preach about the biblical Joshua crossing over into the Promised Land.

Another watch night tradition is kneeling in prayer, often at the altar, shortly before midnight. In larger congregations, where it's impossible for hundreds of people to line the altar, participants pray in their seats.

Many churches conclude the service shortly after midnight with breakfast in the social hall. At watch night services, it's not uncommon for people to linger and socialize until 2:30 a.m. New Year's Day.

Perhaps the most standard watch night tradition is the theme of transition. Many pastors will quote from the prophet Isaiah: "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing. ... I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."

"It's a cleaning the house moment," said Wiggins, who described watch night as a time of new beginnings, the theme of which is, "I'm going to be a new person in 2010."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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