A month ago, the president of Goshen College hugged U.S. Senator and preacher Raphael Warnock. That was before she realized she wasn’t supposed to.Every year, President Rebecca Stoltzfus takes a trip with her sisters, Tina and Melinda. This year, they went to Atlanta for a few days — and although there was “so much to do” in the city, Stoltzfus said one destination was a must.
“The one thing that we wanted to do for sure was go to the Ebenezer Baptist Church,” she said. The church in downtown Atlanta — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father preached, and Sen. Raphael Warnock preaches now — has a rich history, and Stoltzfus knew it would be a wonderful service.
The three sisters showed up on Sunday morning and immediately felt welcomed into the congregation. They were greeted by “terrific” music as they joined the two to three hundred people in attendance. “The congregation was just so organized and hospitable,” she said.
The sisters were not expecting to see Warnock, as busy as he is on Capitol Hill, but as the clergy walked in, Stoltzfus said she was pleasantly surprised to see Warnock among them. Warnock led the service with a sermon on Nicodemus, a Pharisee who visited Jesus in the dead of night to discuss Jesus’s teachings.
Warnock used the scripture passage to talk about how Christians should follow Jesus in the daytime and confess their faith in public — Stoltzfus said “it was great how he built the energy” — and punctuated his message by asking people who wanted to follow Christ to come to the front for an altar call.
Stoltzfus had experienced altar calls before, at the Mennonite and Methodist churches she grew up attending, as an affirmation of Christian faith. With the congregation’s energy peaking, Stoltzfus embraced the spirit of Warnock’s message and told her sisters, “I think I’m going to go up!” Tina followed her, while Melinda stayed behind.
The two were met with a big hug from Warnock himself, who instructed them to next speak with a deacon. The deacon told them to sit in pews at the front of the congregation, and after the service, they would come by and collect their information. Stoltzfus was a little surprised, but she gladly accepted.
Yet, as she sat down at the front, Stoltzfus started to wonder why her information needed to be collected. She had thought the entire congregation was going to go to the front — but Rebecca and Tina were two of just 20 people there.
As the realization dawned on her, Rebecca turned to Tina and said, “I think we’re about to become Baptists!”
Her thinking was confirmed when Warnock turned to the congregation at the end of the service and asked for a big round of applause for all the “new members” of the church.
Rebecca turned to Tina and said, “First of all, you’re my big sister. Secondly, you’re a pastor. You’re gonna get us out of this.”
At the end of the service, Tina explained to the usher that the two were members of College Mennonite Church, and while they had deep respect for Ebenezer Baptist, they had no intent of transferring their membership.
As Stoltzfus put it, a smile from the usher went “a long way” — and the two rejoined Melinda and left chuckling at the misunderstanding.
Overall, Stoltzfus said, it was a positive experience. “It just felt like a cross-cultural misunderstanding,” she said. “We went with the flow, and we misunderstood, but it was all OK!”
“There was so much Black joy in the space,” Stoltzfus said, “and it just felt like a privilege to be a part of that.”
The misunderstanding of the meaning behind the altar call didn’t tarnish the visit at all to Stoltzfus — it not only gave her an opportunity to witness a new faith tradition, but she also hugged Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Now, Warnock’s not the only prominent U.S. senator that the Stoltzfus sisters have met on their annual trip … but their run-in with Mitt Romney last year is a story for another time.