Mount Zion Baptist Church in Milwaukee-Wisconsin Ushers in the New Year with Prayer and Praise

The faithful came Tuesday night.

Cora Joyner (left) and Genevieve Fitzgerald (standing in red) sing as they join members at Mount Zion Baptist Church celebrating watch night, an event that dates to 1740 and has historical significance in the black religious community.
They sang all three verses of "O Come All Ye Faithful" at the start of watch night services at Mount Zion Baptist Church. And they thanked God for the joys and sorrows of 2013.

For more than 150 years in black churches across America, parishioners venture out on New Year's Eve to give thanks for the blessings of the past year and to pray for more blessings in the next.

But it's much more than that.

It's a tradition that dates back to 1740 when Methodist Church founder John Wesley started watch night to encourage people to spend New Year's Eve in church singing and praying, rather than in taverns imbibing different spirits.

Watch night has additional significance in the black religious community because of its history.

On New Year's Eve 1862, free black people and abolitionists gathered to pray for Abraham Lincoln, who was scheduled to sign the Emancipation Proclamation the next day. When Lincoln stayed true to his word and signed the historic document on Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud in many churches.

"It was born out of waiting for word of the emancipation of slaves," said Pastor John W. McVicker Sr. of Christ the King Baptist Church in Milwaukee. "In contemporary churches it's more of a gathering and worshipping to God that we've gotten through the year."

The combination of history and spirituality is part of the black church experience. Many black churches were established because African Americans were prevented from attending the same churches as whites.

Though details may differ depending on the church, watch night services typically start at 10 p.m. and end at the stroke of midnight with parishioners kneeling in prayer.

At many churches, people are encouraged to give testimony about the past year and their hopes for the future.

"Historically, it's standing room only," said McVicker, though he worried that inclement weather Tuesday night could affect turnout. He has been pastor at Christ the King for 28 years.

At 10 p.m. at Mount Zion, folks warmly greeted each other -- hugging, shaking hands and wishing friends and strangers a happy new year.

Members of St. John United and Calvary Baptist churches were invited to join in the service at Mount Zion, 2207 N. 2nd Ave. in Milwaukee. 

Source: The Journal Sentinel | Meg Jones
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