GALEN HOLLEY: Visiting the COGIC headquarters in Memphis

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

I can almost smell the fried chicken and greens at Gus’s, and hear the sultry licks of the Beale Street Blues Boy.
From the pulpit here at the Mason Temple, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the most stirring piece of American oratory since the Gettysburg Address.
More than 2,500 empty seats lay before me, but on that rainy spring night, garbage men on strike filled the auditorium. They listened to their bellwether promise, just hours before he was assassinated, that they’d get to the mountain top. He couldn’t promise that he’d get there with them.
Mason Temple is the worldwide headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. The denomination’s founder, the Rev. Charles Harrison Mason, took the name from I Thess. 2:14: “For ye brethren became followers of the churches of God, which in Judea are in Christ Jesus.”
The COGIC has about eight million “saints” within its fold. They constitute the largest Pentecostal group in the world.
On my tour, I walk under the flags of 60 nations hanging around the perimeter of the sanctuary.
Part of the COGIC story takes place in Mississippi. Some of Mason’s earliest friends and collaborators were ministers in Jackson and Hazelhurst. One of the movement’s seminal revivals took place in Jackson in 1896. Today, northern Mississippi is home to some 200 COGIC congregations.
Standing at the lectern, I see Mason’s image emblazoned in a great stained glass window, just above the balcony in back of the sanctuary.
He’s wearing a blue suit, and his left hand is raised in the gentle, beckoning manner of the religious sage. There’s a Bible open in his lap.
Mason’s earnest appearance reminds me of a young COGIC minister from Aberdeen who came in the paper more than a year ago. He planned to host a community forum where residents could discuss everything from economic development to the misconduct at the electric department.
Although he was Baptist, King must have known he was in the bosom of Christian brothers in this holy place. It wasn’t a religious meeting he addressed that night, but God’s name was certainly on the lips of those who gathered in the name of justice.
The lectern is unremarkable, just laminated plywood, but when I rest my hands on it, I feel weak.
King was ill that night, but the crowd clamored for him, so his friends coaxed him out of his hotel room. He was staying at the nearby Lorraine.
He came in through the side door, probably with somebody holding a coat or an umbrella over his head, my guide tells me.
I have to join the congregation for Sunday worship, the guide insists, to understand why this place feels so remarkable.
galen.holley@journalinc.com