They’re expectant — excited, even. But having taken his grand seat, the reverend is initially passive. He cedes the lectern to another speaker and appears distracted, talking a bit to those closest to him, seemingly disinterested in what’s being said. The way he plays with a bottle of Gatorade during the other man’s testimony is frankly annoying.
But he can do what he wants — after all, this is his church: Reverend Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle, on the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee.
The other man finishes talking and one of the choir steps forward, launching into an implausibly enormous hymn. It starts slow and is irritatingly repetitive: “God is marvellous, so marvellous, marvellous, marvellous…” The pastor closes his eyes and starts to get into the groove.
After a few minutes, the on-stage band let the music build and the singer becomes more animated. Bigger and bigger the music grows and soon he’s doubled over, screaming, sweating, sobbing in rapture, his huge voice booming through the hall. The air conditioning is good in here, but the sound system is amazing.
At the height of this fervour, most of the congregation is standing, each desperately trying out-do his or her neighbour in a display of religious ecstasy. By a narrow margin, the winner is a gigantic woman in a purple frock who launches into full body convulsions, moshing in the name of the Lord.
Just a regular Sunday, then, in the church of Reverend Green (first name Al).
One of the most successful soul singers of all time, Al Green’s songs are endlessly repeated in bars and clubs up and down Beale Street, Memphis’s main entertainment artery a few miles away. Chosen by Rolling Stone as one of music’s greatest ever artists, Green made his name in the early 1970s as an overtly sexual R&B superstar, releasing a string of hits that included Let’s Stay Together, Tired of Being Alone and I’m Still In Love With You. However, in the mid ’70s, following a violent domestic incident with his girlfriend (she attacked him, then committed suicide), Green changed career, becoming an ordained pastor in 1976. Today his tabernacle is open to all comers, with the man himself personally welcoming each visitor.
The big hymn wilts away and its singer is guided off stage, almost completely undone by his own hysteria. The music rumbles gently as he’s seated: “Marvellous, so marvellous…”
But the show isn’t over. Reverend Green now steps to the side, the band picks up again and suddenly this man of God is transformed by the Holy Spirit. He runs out in front of the lectern and looks briefly ridiculous doing a lizard-in-a-desert quick step, as though the very fires of hell are burning his feet. The band breaks out with more soulful energy, the congregation becomes more boisterous than ever. It’s as much a gig as it is a sermon.
The entire thing goes on for about 15 minutes, after which everyone feels quite exhausted. Or almost everyone: “I know you probably got some of my CDs in your car — ain’t no shame in that,” laughs the reverend. “Heck, I got some of my CDs in my car, to remind me of the old me. To remind me of who Jesus saved! Somebody say ‘amen!’
“Testify! Sanctify! Can I getta witness?’” He screeches, he wails, he warns us that at any moment he may start speaking in tongues. He’s a sequins cape away from being James Brown in full flow. As though to underline the point, a Q&A with the audience is followed up with a brilliant, full-on funk workout.
Although he’s incredibly likeable, large sections of his subsequent eulogy are total nonsense. Even while reading scripture from The Bible, the reverend distracts himself, railing against credit cards, the government and mobile phones. There are no more songs; instead a collection plate is passed around. Even though he’s been doing this for over 30 years, at the end, I’m left with two questions: How much of all of this is genuine? And if it’s not, does it really matter?