Around her worshipers from 11 area congregations swayed like seaweed in the tide, their hands stretched skyward, their eyes closed in religious surrender. Throughout the sanctuary of The Potter’s Wheel Church, black hands clasped white hands, with arms held out akimbo, swaying and falling in time with the beat.
Inside the little church in northern Lee County, if only for a few hours, there were no boundaries. Freedom was as close as a neighbor’s hand and as spontaneous and real as a child’s laughter.
Minutes before the service, Eldon Hulsey and his wife, Faye, took their seats on the eastern side of the church. The pews around them were as integrated as lines at the grocery store.
“This is just tearing down another wall,” said Faye, who along with her husband attends Anchor Holds Church in Blue Springs.
“When you get to heaven there won’t be a black and a white section,” she said.
A year ago the Hulsey’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Sanders, along with his twin brother and pastor of The Potter’s Wheel, the Rev. Mark Sanders, and a handful of their fellow ministers agreed to bring their churches together to worship on the third Sunday evening of each month.
“The church in the 21st century has forgotten what unity even looks like,” said Mark Sanders. “At Pentecost, the Bible tells us there was unity in diversity, and Christians shared all things in common.”
Most of the churches that eventually joined the fellowship identify as non-denominational, but their worship styles fall somewhere within the Pentecostal tradition.
Those churches include the Tupelo congregations of Faith Bible Church, Inner City Church and Grace Christian Center Church, as well as Gates of Praise Ministries in New Albany, Calvary Praise and Worship Center in Tremont, Church of the Living God in Thaxton, Love Alive Christian Center in Guntown and Mercy Fellowship in Pontotoc. Folks from Lighthouse Baptist Church in Oxford have also attended a few services.
A strong belief in the expressive power of the Holy Spirit unites the congregations, a conviction they live out in uninhibited, charismatic worship.
Sunday evening Gates of Praise member, LaToya Gilbert, electrified the congregation with a beautifully choreographed liturgical dance.
The Potter’s Wheel youth held everyone in rapt silence as, working to the song “How He Loves Us,” they quickly and skillfully painted black and white images of Jesus’ face, feet and hands on six-foot canvases. As a finishing touch, young Aaron Floyd splashed a swath of red paint across Jesus’ forehead. The steaks trickled down the savior’s face like the stigmata and the church leaped to its feet in praise.
The emotionality of the service prompted some reflection.
Dalisa Hall remembered a period when she was estranged from her faith and feared bad consequences. “I’d been away from church for a while, and I just had this feeling something awful was going to happen,” said Hall, who since she started attending services again has been a member at Love Alive Christian Center, across the road from The Potter’s Wheel.
Sunday Hall sat on the very back pew, where she could see her own church through the doors behind her.
“The enemy is up against us every which way,” she said. “Worshiping together in the Spirit, like this, keeps us in God’s will.”
Sylvia Lytal, a member of Faith Bible Church, said she’s felt starved at other churches, where the faces all look the same.
“There’s something different here, something exciting and nourishing,” said Lytal, who is white. “It’s like a chain of events has started. People are becoming more open minded.”
When the churches of the unity fellowship converge, they form a big crowd, and pastors say the crowd is getting bigger each month.
In November some 700 worshiped at Faith Bible Church, near the corner of Highway 6 West and Cliff Gookin Boulevard in Tupelo.
Because it has plenty of room, the Unity Broadcasting Network in Booneville also hosted a service last year. Next month the pastors are renting the BancorpSouth Conference Center.
“It’s like a revival atmosphere,” said the Rev. Mark Barnett, a Saltillo native and pastor of Calvary Praise and Worship Center.
“People said you’ll never see that in our area. You’ll never get blacks and whites together under one roof,” Barnett said. “Well, we’ve blown that right out of the saddle.”
The success of the unity service underscores that Pentecostal churches have long been among the most integrated in Northeast Mississippi.
As the Sunday evening service at The Potter’s Wheel wound down, Gates of Praise pastor, the Rev. Calvin Gillard, bound up one of his fellow pastors, the Rev. Gentry Salters, to illustrate a point.
“Animosity and prejudice, division and jealousy, they’re all like pythons, snakes that constrict you, choke the life out of you,” Gillard said, wrapping Salters tightly in a towel.
Where the Holy Spirit is unleashed, where it moves over the gathering like a mighty wind, Gillard said, freedom abounds.
“How many of ya’ll came to church tonight to get free, amen,” Gillard asked as he released Salters, descended the podium and walked the aisle of the church.
“If you’re ready to release your snakes tonight. If you’re ready to leave church saved and free, let me hear you say ‘Amen.’”