The Choice Watch Night Services Presents for Black Churches


The saints will tell you: as one year turns into another, there’s simply no better place to be. A number of black churches throughout the city will open their doors for the long-held tradition of Watch Night, the service where worshippers count down and celebrate the new year together.

For many millennials and churched-up blacks, Watch Night is more than a righteous spot on the calendar. It presents a choice, with loaded connotations. Start times for Watch Night services vary, many begin around 10 p.m. And typically, they don’t linger too long past midnight. Service, the scene… or both?

Jay Shaw II, who is a member at Monumental Baptist Church in West Philly, opted to do both for a few years, starting when was around 19. He’s 32 now.

“It was tradition for my family,” he explained. As he grew into a young man, his mother knew he wanted to go out too. “My mother’s words were ‘Get home before sunrise and stay out of trouble.’”

He’d be there for church, stick around a bit if there were refreshments, “then roll out and go to whoever’s house.” After the house party, maybe he’d even grab breakfast with friends before sliding home. “I was trying to walk that fine line— giving honor to God and being human at the same time,” he said.

Courtney Williams-Stotts, a friend of mine and pastor’s daughter, has noticed that more younger twentysomethings in her church aren’t stretching their schedules to praise first and party later.

“I think they feel the pressure [to be in church] but it is different. They have more freedom,” she said in a text. Williams-Stotts is the young adult choir director at Nazarene Baptist Church, in North Philly. “I think we did [a lot] because there was more of a requirement and accountability when it came to church, so to ease our conscience and to show God we loved him, we did both.”

Through-midnight church meetings are not unique to the black church. Some experts point to the early years of Methodism as the origin of such services, and reporters have noted that a range of cultures observe New Year’s Eve in houses of worship. It holds deep significance for African-Americans, though. The first black church Watch Night is believed to have occurred at the end of 1862, as blacks gathered in “jubilees” to await the Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln issued it on January 1, 1863. A common story is that slaves came together that night, but some historians have noted that it was highly popular with freed blacks in particular. Frederick Douglass went to service with fellow abolitionists in Boston, for example.

“Watch Night services have typically been a powerful part of church heritage,” one Baptist pastor explained to the New York Times. “For so many people, you grew up in it — you don’t want to get away from something that’s been such a part of history and heritage of the church.”

It’s not ubiquitous across congregations— not all black churches offer it. Prominent larger ones often do. Bright Hope, Enon, Mother Bethel; that’s a yes for all three. Marquita Scott isn’t quite sure if she’ll be attending service tonight, but if she does, it’ll be at Sharon Baptist Church, near Wynnefield.

“Last year I went to church; year before that, I went downtown,” she said. “It goes back and forth.”

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Source: | Cassie Owens

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