Black Pentecostal women’s labor at the altar.
By Judith Casselberry
Working around the altar . . . that’s really a labor of love.
—Mother Grayson, altar worker
It’s a particular talent to break the yoke and help someone come through.
Many don’t know how . . . . If God gave you the gift of tarrying for souls,
you must use it.
—Bishop Cook, pastor of True Deliverance Church
“If you need a prayer this morning, come. If you’re sick in your body, come. If you want to be filled with the precious gift of the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues as the Spirit of God gave utterance, come. If you want to stand in the gap for someone, come.” As Bishop Cook closes his sermon, by calling congregants to the altar, Mother England and Sister Holmes position themselves on either side of the center aisle at the first pew, creating a “gateway” to the five ministers who have come down, from the dais to the floor, to pray for those in need. Supplicants form a “prayer line” down the center aisle of the sanctuary. Deacon Highland anoints each head with oil. As congregants reach the gateway to the altar, Mother England and Sister Holmes direct each to an available minister for personalized prayer. With prayer, some congregants come under the anointing—contracting, bending, jerking, whirling, running in place, “shouting” the holy dance, crying out, and speaking in tongues. Others move forward to the curtained railing separating the raised pulpit from the altar area, where they remain deep in prayer; some “tarry”—spending concentrated time praying specifically for spirit baptism by the Holy Ghost. Others immediately return to their seats. As the altar becomes populated, four additional altar workers make their way to the front, attending to individual worshipers as needed.
After Minister Clark prays for her, Veronica stays at the altar, joining about twenty other worshipers. She prays, crying, with arms outstretched and palms up. The last in the line has received prayer. Sister Holmes moves from her position at the gateway to Veronica and stands just off of her left shoulder at a diagonal. She plants her feet about a foot from Veronica and leans her upper body forward, speaking into Veronica’s left ear. Never touching, Sister Holmes’s body comes as close as one can without making contact. She rocks slightly, in and out, so that her body and voice create physical and sonic waves. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “Call His name.” “He knows your heart.” “Praise Him.” “He’s right there.” “Oh, Hallelujah!” Tears and perspiration stream down Sister Holmes’s face as she urges and prays. After about fifteen minutes, Veronica’s intensity diminishes and she emerges from her prayerful state. They embrace. Veronica returns to her seat; Sister Holmes wipes her face and neck with a paper towel, moving to another supplicant. At the front of the altar, just off the base of the raised pulpit, Mother England is bending over a teenaged girl who kneels, “tarrying” for the Holy Ghost—crying out to Jesus. Soon Mother England kneels beside her.
It nears 3 PM, and both Mother England and Sister Holmes have been in church since 9:30 that morning, Mother England to teach the New Converts Sunday school class and Sister Holmes to attend adult class, then lead devotional, the congregational singing service that opens 11:30 AM worship.1 How long they remain in the sanctuary depends on the “move of Spirit,” the souls that need encouragement. After altar work, they’ll retire to the downstairs social hall for dinner and relaxation until 4 PM, when an hour of corporate, kneeling prayer commences in the sanctuary. They’ll stay for Sunday evening service, which runs from 5:30 to 7:30 PM—depending on the move of Spirit and the number of souls who come to the altar. God willing, before the long day is over, someone will elect to be water baptized or push through to Holy Ghost anointing—”speaking in tongues, as the Spirit of God gave utterance.”
An altar worker performs a kind of dance, winding in and out of praying and anointed congregants, impelling each to “go deeper” and “praise Him.” She knows how long to stay and when to shift to another soul. When a soul comes under the anointing, the woman must stay just close enough. Sometimes placing her hand lightly on the back or arm, she moves in the rhythm of the embodied Spirit. When a worshiper is “slain in the Spirit” and falls, the job requires quick reflexes and strength for altar workers to catch and ease the woman to the floor. Altar work is physical and spiritual labor that yields individual and communal rewards—bringing souls to Christ, honing the altar worker’s missionary skills, building the church, and building the Kingdom. This essay explores Black Apostolic women’s labor, harvesting souls for Christ, in a New York–based denomination.
True Deliverance Church of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. (TDC), in Queens, New York, is one of five hundred national and international ministries belonging to a Harlem, New York–based denomination, the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. (COOLJC).2 Founded in 1919 by Robert C. Lawson, COOLJC traces its beginnings to the early twentieth-century Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, California, yet distinguishes itself as a classical Oneness, or “Jesus Only,” Pentecostal organization. COOLJC asserts one person in the Godhead, practicing immersion baptism in the name of Jesus, instead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.3 The denomination recognizes speaking in tongues as the only evidence of spirit baptism; however, divine healing and other gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy and visions, may also be bestowed on converts.4 Women and men alike enjoy spiritual authority through Holy Ghost anointing; nonetheless, church doctrine promotes a male-headed hierarchy that excludes the female majority from formal authority. Women do not perform water baptism, “preach,” pastor, or serve as deacons, and ordination is prohibited.5
Women’s exclusion from structural power, however, does not dampen their religious passion. Similar to other churches within COOLJC, at TDC women make up 80 percent of the adult membership, populating daily 6 AM and noonday prayer, evening services on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, and, of course, Sunday morning/afternoon service. Although not compelled to take part in church activities, women’s individual religious convictions, desires for a strong church community, and pressure from male leadership converge to impose tremendous demands on their time and energy. Women serve the church community in almost every way; specifically, they usher, lead choirs, teach Sunday school and weeknight Bible classes, head auxiliaries, organize special services and group trips, cook Sunday’s 4 PM community dinner and clean up afterward, and, of course, harvest souls for Jesus.
As we will see, altar work is a type of emotional and caring labor that depends upon networks of women who pass along practices through an apprenticeship model, cultivating new generations to take up the mantle of harvesting souls, for the benefit of the individual seeker, the altar worker, and the institution of the church. These practices tie church members to each other while bolstering allegiance to the church’s community and doctrine. While my research focuses on COOLJC, examining conversion processes as emotional and caring exchanges offers new analytical possibilities for exploring Pentecostalism’s global expansion, as the religious movement attracts millions of followers—75 percent of whom are women—across geopolitical, economic, ethnic, and religious terrains.6 In efforts to deepen our understanding of individual and communal religious identity, Pentecostal scholars give us numerous perspectives on what motivates neophytes to convert. Two key queries drive many studies: what are the circumstances under which people convert; and what are the implications for subjectivity, community, and society?7 Here, I depart from previous studies by asking a third question: what are the contours of women’s emotional and caring labor as altar workers, in bringing neophytes to Pentecostalism?
Embedded in my question are particularities about Apostolic Pentecostal conversion that may not be present in other forms of Pentecostalism. Specifically, full conversion into Apostolic Pentecostalism requires being born of the water (full immersion baptism “in the name of Jesus”) and being born of the Spirit (“speaking in tongues as the Spirit of God gave utterance”). Saints, as they refer to themselves in COOLJC, give accounts of spirit baptism in various situations: at home alone; at large convocations; in prayer service at church; during choir practice; during singing programs; or during altar call after worship service. Spirit baptism can be sudden or may come after long periods of seeking. For the most part, however, the faithful receive the Holy Ghost after participating in church activities and “tarrying,” that is, spending time in concentrated prayer, often at the altar. Although church members, as opposed to seekers, overwhelmingly populate the altar at most services, I have learned from my conversations with altar workers that they pay particular attention to bringing new souls to Christ. My opening narrative revolves around Veronica, a yet-to-be-saved seeker, and the work carried out by Sister Holmes, Mother England, and others possessing the “talent to break the yoke,” attending to seekers, and helping them to “push through” to Holy Ghost anointing.
Like the vast majority of Pentecostal churches, worship services at TDC have an ideal arc that builds toward the sermon, which precedes altar call. Bishop Cook’s invitation, to “come” for prayer, healing, spirit baptism, or “to stand in the gap for someone,” opens the way for congregants to move into the “holy of holies” within the sanctuary space, to receive personal prayer and a touch from a man of God. Saved and unsaved alike bring joys, burdens, prayers of gratitude, and petitions for relief to the altar.
Altar call is a common occurrence across Pentecostal communities, though it can vary in form and significance. Writing on South African Pentecostal women, Maria Frahm-Arp divides the worship service into “preliminaries” and “the main event,” which is the sermon. The altar call follows, attracting “anyone who had been moved by the sermon” to join group prayer.8 In these churches, altar call appears to be less significant than in COOLJC churches. This can be attributed to a theology that does not require speaking in tongues as evidence of conversion.
In St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, at Church of God in Christ (COGIC), speaking in tongues is part and parcel of religious practice, yet instead of a prayer line, the congregation, en masse, “kneel[s] or stand[s] around the perimeter of the lower pulpit . . . and [prayer] is directed more specifically at healing.”9 Peter D. Goldsmith names this “the intervening time” between the sermon and benediction. In a familiar academic stroke, both Frahm-Arp and Goldsmith interpret altar call as an incidental segment of worship that is catalyzed by the sermon. But I would argue that, within COOLJC, altar call and altar work are important components of worship service and worthy of in-depth investigation in their own right. Even beyond its proximity to the sermon, the significance of altar call, and thus altar workers, can be better understood by looking at specific approaches to African American sermonic practices.
Gerald Davis identifies a temporal thrust operating within African American sermons that is activated through the “circularity principle.” The circularity within sermons (and other elements of worship service) is generated by call-response, a “basic [non-linear] organizing principle” of African-derived cultural expression.10 A sermon’s success rests on the circularity principle in which the outcome is “related to temporal circumstances beyond . . . the immediate circumstances of [the sermon].”11 The temporal thrust (of anticipatory call-response) extends the sermon, as it flows into altar call, thereby making altar call critical in evaluating the sermon’s efficacy. Davis’s expanded temporality also helps us to reframe a conventional micro-view of the supplicant’s trajectory to the altar (and thus salvation) as catalyzed by the sermon (invitation to the altar, and minister’s prayer at the altar). Making the sermon central can obscure both the multiple pathways and the guides who are bringing people fully into the religious community.
Sister Holmes, Mother England, and their co-workers carry responsibility for realizing sermonic effectiveness, as its intent reverberates from the pulpit to the altar and beyond.
By looking at the cumulative intent of Sunday morning worship and Sunday evening evangelical services, Diane J. Austin-Broos details a wider range of processes by which Jamaican Pentecostals bring new members into the fold. Bible lessons, group “vocal prayer,” a sermon, congregational singing, and testimony engage the unsaved in the religious milieu. Altar calls conclude both morning and evening services, which give saints the forum to pray for members, seekers, and visitors. “Though the pastor is prominent here,” Austin-Broos notes, “so also are other saints.”12 While souls saved at altars in Jamaica, West Indies, and Jamaica, Queens, New York, may, most certainly, be the direct result of a preacher’s sermon and altar prayer, here I want to delve deeper into the “other saints” laboring in close proximity to the sermonic event—altar workers. Sister Holmes, Mother England, and their co-workers carry responsibility for realizing sermonic effectiveness, as its intent reverberates from the pulpit to the altar and beyond. Moreover, they serve as links throughout the week, keeping seekers connected to the church’s mission, Sunday to Sunday, week to week.
Altar workers in COOLJC are, usually, church mothers or missionaries. “Mother” is an official title granted to older churchwomen who have exhibited years of consistent spiritual and organizational dedication. Church mothers wield a great deal of power within local congregations but have no organization-wide representation. Missionaries have their own department, which COOLJC established soon after its beginnings in the early twentieth century. While there is an international component to its work, the Missionary Department, within the local context, oversees the spiritual health of the church. The department was created to “make an opportunity for the missionary women to be helpers together with our ministers and pastors in bringing souls to Christ,” as well as visiting the sick and needy and “teaching” younger women the ways of holiness. Not all mothers are missionaries, and missionary work is carried out by women of all ages, some beginning as junior missionaries in their teen years.
Mother England is vice president of missionaries, president of the Ministers’ and Deacons’ Wives Guild, and, as mentioned earlier, teacher of the New Converts Sunday school class. She grew up the oldest of three girls, in Harlem, next door to Refuge Temple, the mother church of COOLJC. When she was seven, her parents began sending the girls to church; her sisters were four and five at the time. Both parents had been raised in church but, as adults, Sunday became precious time. Her father endured a six-day weekly work schedule, and her mother cared for the family and took in children for extra income. Each Sunday, when the girls returned from church, the family would gather at the kitchen table, where her parents expected them to explain what they had learned from Sunday school and the sermon. The parents accompanied the girls on the “big days,” Easter, Christmas, and if they were in a play; this arrangement continued for seven years. At fourteen, Mother England decided to be water baptized and within the year received the Holy Ghost, which seems to have been a catalyst within the family. One of her sisters also decided to be water baptized, and both parents joined the church and were water baptized. Her mother also received the Holy Ghost and joined the choir.
When Mother England was coming up, in the 1940s and 1950s, altar workers, by all accounts, provided the organized, day-to-day push to salvation. Mother Grayson attended Harlem’s Refuge Temple during that time and, like Mother England, was saved during her teens. She recalled: “My Godmother . . . she was lame. One of her legs, [it] stayed straight. She could never bend it. But that didn’t stop her; she was in church every time the door was open.” In addition to the grace and mercy of Jesus, Mother Grayson credits her godmother with bringing her to Christ, because “Godmother would always come and tarry with me at the church.” She recalled that her godmother didn’t work a “job,” but “she always took care of the children. It seems like that was her ministry,” she said, “helping whoever had troubles.” The children in her godmother’s care came from both church and wider community networks. “I remember Willamina and Katherine,” Mother Grayson recalled. “They stayed [at Godmother’s] with me. Willamina’s mother was abused.”
Mother Grayson lived with her godmother between the ages of six and eleven, because her own mother’s “trouble” was being a single parent with a work schedule that made childrearing near impossible. According to Mother Grayson, back then, everybody worked, and women did “day work and stuff.” Census data tells us that as late as 1960, African American women’s wage labor was concentrated, with more than 62 percent working as domestics in private homes and institutions (like hotels) and another 15 percent working in manufacturing.13 Workers with low-wage, long-hour, and long-week jobs depended on neighborhood women like Mother England’s mother and Mother Grayson’s godmother to survive. At the same time, Mother Grayson’s godmother attended both to the spiritual well-being of children in her charge and to building the institution of the church because, according to Mother Grayson, “if you stayed with her, you were going to church!”
The church, however, limited the participation of unsaved young people. Mother England recalled: “[Without the Holy Ghost] you couldn’t usher, you couldn’t sing. All you could do is come to Young People’s service and Sunday school, morning service and Missionary service.” Youth for Christ Service was held on Saturday night from 7:30 to 10 PM, and afterwards the Saturday night prayer band gathered and would stay all night with seekers. Mother Grayson explained that’s how she got the Holy Ghost, “right after the Youth for Christ Service, Godmother and Auntie and all those prayer warriors. . . . It was mostly women and more missionaries than mothers, they would line you up across the altar.” Altar workers would sit in metal folding chairs with their backs to the altar, and a seeker would kneel in front of her, “on a one-to-one basis.”
This ‘labor of love’ of the saints sits on the margins of private/public, as theorized by scholars of emotional labor.
To be an altar worker, according to Mother Grayson, a saint must have “a love for souls and a desire to see souls saved. . . . Working around the altar . . . that’s really a labor of love.” This “labor of love” of the saints sits on the margins of private/public, as theorized by scholars of emotional labor and caregiving. Increases in service-based economies have expanded scholars understanding of skill, away from nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of strictly craft or manufacturing work, to include emotional and caring labor.14 Emotional labor studies consider relational aspects of work (worker to worker, worker to client, and worker to management); unremunerated, yet required labor; unseen and unacknowledged work; organizational benefits of employing skilled emotional workers; and gendered and raced expectations in emotional labor. Emotional labor has become integral to how we understand the requirements of service-based work.15
Caring labor studies fall under the rubric of emotional labor, with greater inclusion of task work, as well as potentially longer-term relationships. Labor theorists’ interest in, and institutional validation of, emotional and caring labor as areas worthy of study simultaneously speaks to the power of the market and the marginalization of feminized labor. According to Evelyn Nakano Glenn, on the one hand, historically, white women’s obligatory care work within the family has been “mythologized as love, rather than labor . . . and . . . natural to women.”16 Familial obligations in the private sphere distanced women from obligations of citizenship in the public and, by extension, made them unfit for participation in social and political arenas constructed as male. On the other hand, Glenn argues, women of color have lived a long history of extracted care labor in other people’s homes. It is clearly labor, yet relegated to the private domain, outside the purview of legislative or juridical protections.
From a history of care work across family, church, community, and society, Mother Grayson and other saints understand full well the complexities and depth of meaning in the phrase “labor of love.” While she spoke of her godmother’s devotion to the religious development of those in her charge (noting, “she would always come to church and tarry with me”), Mother Grayson linked caring labor to the mission of the church. “I think [altar work is] the most serious job in the church,” she declared, “because those are souls. You tryin’ to win them to Christ. . . . They need somebody to help pray them through. . . . And if nobody takes time to work with them, . . . they’re never going to come through.” She expanded on what it means to “take time to work with” seekers. “You can’t rush,” she said. “A lot of people, they don’t want to bother with the altar because it’s time-consuming and it takes a lot out of you, because you’re praying for a soul.”
But, as Mother Grayson points out, it takes more than patience and stamina. “Altar workers have to have know-how,” Mother Grayson said emphatically, “to know what they’re doing, . . . to know about praying. Some people might think you keep yelling in the person’s ear. [But], you’re there to encourage that person. You know [and here her tone became blanket-like, soft and warm], press your way. I know you can do it. Say Jesus.” “Know-how,” as she described it, is just that—knowing what to say and how to say it. She then went on to describe the ways in which altar workers must be attuned to the dynamics of tarrying. “Once they get to a certain point,” she explained, “you have to know when to stop telling ’em to say Jesus and just encourage them to just start praising the Lord. You know, start praising, say, Thank you, Jesus! And you know, it’s different little words you say, just to encourage, because some of them get tired. They want to give up. You keep saying, Press your way. He’s almost there. You know, Come on. Let him on in. It’s different little phrases that you could use working with souls.” She selects “different little phrases” based on her ability to read a soul spiritually (directing the move from calling for Jesus to thanking Jesus) and to read a soul physically (encouraging them past moments of fatigue).
Intergenerational apprenticeship provides the most common method for acquiring the skills of patience, stamina, know-how, and precision, but a saint moves into altar work because she ‘has a love for souls.’
In addition to love, patience, stamina, and “know-how,” Mother Grayson’s emotional and caring religious labor demands precision because “[You have to know when] . . . to make those shifts. [You only know that from] working with people, from experience,” she stated. “You train first and then you get to experience, from doing that.” Mother Grayson’s statement that she knows what to do from “working with people” at the altar would indicate that experience is the training. While saints talk about altar work training and experience in a cyclical fashion, one entry point for the beginning of training can be found in their narratives, describing the ways in which, as younger converts, they emulated older saints. Mother England and Mother Grayson “sat under” founding missionaries and mothers of Refuge Temple. Intergenerational apprenticeship provides the most common method for acquiring the needed skills of patience, stamina, know-how, and precision, but a saint moves into altar work apprenticeship because she “has a love for souls.” Mother Grayson said she was “always interested in souls being saved,” a desire born out of “watching the missionaries I came under. You know, I really stuck to them, like glue.”
Sister Holmes, who labored with Veronica at the altar in the opening narrative, also spent her early years “stuck like glue” to her godmother, Mother England, and the England family. Sister Holmes represents a younger generation of church workers, having come of age as an altar worker in the 1980s, when she was in her late teens. “I started right after I was saved,” she recalled, because she, too, “had a love for souls.” A third-generation Apostolic Pentecostal, Sister Holmes is a member of both the Missionary Department and the Ministers’ and Deacons’ Wives Guild (her husband is a deacon), and she directs the choir at TDC.
Sister Holmes compared the altar worker to “the midwife during the birthing process,” explaining: “It’s preparing, pushing out, nurturing, soothing, comforting the mother who is about to give birth to a baby. The altar worker is responsible for that same experience for the person [seeking].” In addition to encapsulating the qualifications expressed by Mother Grayson and other older saints—love, patience, stamina, know-how, and precision—midwifery carries a particular history of caring, religious labor within African American communities.
From the late 1800s into the 1980s, Black midwives asserted religious connotations of their work, reporting, “God called them [to midwifery] through a vision or dream.”17 Midwives and altar workers operated in equivalent spiritual registers. In fact, women crossed over between being spiritual leaders in church and midwives, so that “the ability to summon the Holy Ghost [was] apparent in many of the midwives’ practices.”18 Midwives were known to “maintain communication with spiritual forces,” praying, laying on hands, and using oil to consecrate a mother’s belly.19 Both the altar worker and the midwife prayed to ready themselves for the job at hand, trusting a successful outcome was due to God’s power. Midwives, like altar workers, relied on intergenerational training in which mothers, grandmothers, or other elders, “encourage[d] particular women to join them,” creating women-controlled networks of recruitment and training—a practice which resonates with Mother Grayson’s experiences with her godmother and Sister Holmes’s experience as Mother England’s goddaughter.20 These types of apprenticeships trained “traditional” or “direct-entry” midwives.
The first half of the twentieth century witnessed a decline in traditional midwifery nationally. Yet the practice did not see a major decline in the South, where most Black people resided, until after the 1950s, just as Black women’s primary wage work remained concentrated in domestic services until the 1960s.21 Nationally, into the 1930s, physicians denigrated midwives, and at the same time, they represented pregnancy and birth as dangerous and complex events that required specialists, while midwives continued to treat childbirth as an everyday, natural occurrence. The campaign against midwives proved successful; doctors, however, could not service all the women needing birthing care. The shortage of birthing attendants led to institutional midwifery training that produced a new category of “nurse-midwife,” distinct from the traditional or direct-entry midwife.22
Soon after the demise of traditional midwifery’s last bastion—Black and rural southern communities—America witnessed the rise of the home-birth movement. The convergence of feminist political movements and consumerist culture, in the 1960s and 1970s, reintroduced direct-entry midwifery as a “natural birth” choice for middle-class women and their families.23 As a result of medical thinking that has labeled women’s care of each other’s health as unskilled, when compared to male-dominated institutional training and licensing, midwives continue to operate on the margins of professional and unprofessional status within mainstream medical systems and public perception.24
Like the working relationship between nurse-midwives and doctors, altar workers are both closely aligned with, yet distinct from, preachers and pastors. Within COOLJC (and in the wider public), each domain—altar worker and preacher—is gendered and carries distinct meanings of status and professionalization. By and large, the church community recognizes altar workers’ significance and expertise, while scholarly focus on structural (often male-headed) leadership obscures both the altar worker’s centrality to the church’s spiritual and economic well-being and the contours of her labor.
While she would acknowledge the importance of ministers’ sermons and prayers in “bringing people through,” Sister Holmes’s midwife imagery not only reinforces altar work as women’s work, but also represents spiritual transformation in gendered terms. As an altar worker, it’s her responsibility to “work people out of the intensive contraction when they’re thinking about their past lives, and if they’re worthy to move into this next phase of their spiritual life, if they’re ready to release.” She continued, “[Sometimes I think it’s like an expectant] mother who’s never had a child [thinking], I’m no longer going to be this person without a baby. Now I’m going to have something else to take care of. They [may wonder if they’re] worthy of this spirit that they’re trying to get to come inside of them.”
Sister Holmes points to another level of consideration. Who is this seeker? When she likens the parishioner to a first-time mother, facing new responsibilities on the horizon, she describes someone who has some feeling for what’s in store. She’s preparing for “the next phase of [her] spiritual life.” There’s concern, but it’s a planned pregnancy, if you will. However, that’s not always the case. Sister Holmes also describes the person who comes to the altar during her first church visit, “like a teenage mother [who] has no idea what she’s about to get herself into. Some people [have] this amazing, life-altering experience because of what has happened before the altar call,” she explained. “The music has moved them, the words of the songs, the preached word, and then they get to this place where they’re feeling repented and broken. And they don’t know what that is. . . . The altar worker’s words and/or temper will comfort them and move them from . . . the way they came in, to the process of birthing, . . . where they will receive the spirit of God. . . . The altar worker is moving the parishioner through that process.”
In the end, however, Sister Holmes handles new and returning supplicants in similar fashion. “I don’t have to know what the tears are representative of,” she said, “because everybody has their experience, and whatever that thing is that has led you to where you are now, the altar, you’re working through it. . . . It’s just a soul who is crying out for something. I don’t know if it’s help or comfort. It could be an expression of joy. I just want to be there to support you and be the midwife that moves you through the journey. . . . I just want you to land safely and feel knowledgeable while you’re landing.”
Once in the hands of altar workers, petitioners descend into a transitional realm managed by physical, emotional, and spiritual caregivers. Altar workers harness particular emotional and caring techniques—moving in close physical proximity; breathing soft and warm words and sounds of encouragement in the ear; bearing witness to praying, weeping, and wailing—to smooth the way for spiritual transitioning. They labor in direct relationship to, yet independent of, the preacher and his sermon, powering the church’s mission by way of intergenerational networks for training and spiritual upkeep.
Without women’s emotional and caring labor, the social-spiritual reproduction of the church community is unimaginable.
Caring work in the church falls disproportionately on women, just as it does in today’s global economy. Evelyn Glenn points out that low-paid, caring work by women benefits “global capital . . . and men as a class, who on average carry less of the burden and enjoy more of the benefits of caring work.”25 In COOLJC, altar workers talked most readily about their labor benefiting the “soul” who had come through and the Kingdom. I have noticed, too, that women’s narratives demonstrate the ways in which altar work is self-satisfying. These women experience the pleasure of seeing someone through, the pleasure of being needed, the pleasure of creating positive intergenerational social-emotional bonds, and the pleasure of moving into deeper communion with God. I would argue that the preparation for and execution of altar work also shows women’s deep understanding of the ways that emotional-caring labor undergirds spiritual-social reproduction and institutional well-being. Without women’s emotional and caring labor, the social-spiritual reproduction of the church community is unimaginable.
Female-majority Pentecostal churches abound, especially in the global South. My studies of COOLJC altar work as caring labor provide a new analytical perspective that incorporates the feminization of certain religious work and how the gendered dimensions of work shape and are shaped by the ways in which both the institution and the women conceptualize the task at hand. Examining women’s religious work through the lens of emotional and caring labor may prove to have wide applicability. However, it is particularly significant for understanding those who spend a great deal of time and energy doing religious work. So, when we see (or hear, or read about) a “Mother England” or a “Sister Holmes” “assisting” the ministers who pray for the people, we will have a better understanding of the parameters, conditions, expertise, and physical and spiritual exertion—the full extent of their effort: the labor of harvesting souls.
- Devotional is participatory singing that “ushers in the Spirit.” It begins at 11 AM on Sunday, setting the tone for the service. During this time congregants gather in the sanctuary, preparing for service. Many who do not attend Sunday school arrive just prior to and during devotional. Songs are congregational style and part of a body of literature that is well known to the “saints.” The Praise Team, a group at the front of the sanctuary, has a leader; she will most often raise the songs and determine how long each one is sung, based on her ability to spiritually discern the needs of the congregation.
- The organization’s website boasts congregations in the Leeward Islands, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Grenada, Trinidad/Tobago, Guyana, Venezuela, Canada, England, Germany, and India.
- Members regularly use both the acronyms TDC and COOLJC (“Cool JC”).
- For the doctrinal distinctions between Charismatics, Pentecostals (Classical and Neo), Holiness-Pentecostals, and Apostolics, see: Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (W. B. Eerdmans, 1997); Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century (Da Capo Press, 1995); and Allen Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- Preaching remains the province of men. Women’s orations, regardless of expertise in biblical exegesis and style of delivery, are understood as teaching, not preaching—lessons, not sermons. For explication of COGIC women’s teaching and preaching activities, see Anthea D. Butler, Women of the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Also, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes discusses power dynamics in sanctified women’s teaching sites and practices in her book, “If It Wasn’t for the Women . . .”: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Orbis Books, 2001).
- See Joel Robbins, “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 117–43.
- For an overview of literature across disciplines in the field of Pentecostal studies, see André Corten, “The Growth of the Literature on Afro-American, Latin American and African Pentecostalism,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 12, no. 3 (1997): 311–334. For a study of the religious movement’s history, with particular focus on its late twentieth-century development, see Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Maria Frahm-Arp, Professional Women in South African Pentecostal Charismatic Churches (Brill, 2010), 81.
- Peter D. Goldsmith, When I Rise Cryin’ Holy: African-American Denominationalism on the Georgia Coast (AMS Press, 1989), 119.
- Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (Wayne State University Press, 1986), 104.
- Gerald L. Davis, I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know: A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 30.
- Diane J. Austin-Broos, Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Orders (University of Chicago Press, 1997), 129.
- Teresa Amott and Julie Matthaei, Race, Gender and Work: A Multi-Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States (South End Press, 1996), 158.
- See Ronnie J. Steinberg and Deborah M. Figart, “Emotional Labor Since The Managed Heart,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 561 (January 1999): 8–26.
- See Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press, 1983).
- Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Caring and Inequality,” in Women’s Labor in the Global Economy: Speaking in Multiple Voices, ed. Sharon Harley (Rutgers University Press, 2007), 48.
- Susan L. Smith, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890–1950 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 120.
- Linda Janet Holmes, “African American Midwives in the South,” in The American Way of Birth, ed. Pamela S. Eakins (Temple University Press), 277.
- Ibid., 276.
- See Molly C. Dougherty, “Southern Midwifery and Organized Health Care: Systems in Conflict,” Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 6, no. 2 (1982): 113–126; and Smith, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.
- Smith, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired, 119.
- Lara Foley, “Midwives, Marginality, and Public Identity Work,” Symbolic Interaction 28, no. 2 (Spring 2005), 190.
- Gertrude J. Fraser, “Modern Bodies, Modern Minds: Midwifery and Reproductive Change in an African American Community,” in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, ed. Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (University of California Press, 1995), 54, 55.
- See Robbie Davis-Floyd, Stacy Leigh Pigg, and Sheila Cosminsky, “Daughters of Time: The Shifting Identities of Contemporary Midwives,” Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 20, no. 2-3 (2001): 105–139; and two articles by Lara Foley: “Midwives, Marginality, and Public Identity Work”; and “How I Became a Midwife: Identity, Biographic Work, and Legitimation in Midwives’ Work Narratives,” in Gender Perspectives on Reproduction and Sexuality, ed. Marcia Texler Segal and Vasilikie Demos with Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld, Advances in Gender Research, vol. 8 (Emerald Group Publishing, 2004), 87–128.
- Glenn, “Caring and Inequality,” 58.
Judith Casselberry is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College, teaching courses on African American religious and cultural movements, with particular attention to gender. For the 2012–13 academic year and fall 2013, she was a research associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) at Harvard Divinity School, completing an ethnography, “Justified by Works: Gender, Faith and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism.” This is an edited version of the WSRP lecture she delivered on that research in April 2013. She is also working on a project examining the transnational Pentecostal roots of Grace Jones.