I hear it’s Al Green’s birthday. I repost a classic article in his honor. This has been by far the most popular and frequently viewed item, now on my third website.
Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church
787 Hale Road Memphis, TN 38116| 901-396-9192
Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle on Hale Rd, Memphis, TN
After cementing countless encounters with a voice that speaks directly to the genitals, in 1976, Al Green found Jesus. While Green reports his conversion happened after a visit to Disneyland, local rumors link his conversion to an incident reminiscent of the death of Henry IV, involving an adolescent boy, and bathtub, an angry woman, and a pot of hot grits (a.k.a. “Memphis Napalm”).
He started his Pentecostal Baptist church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in 1979. The Full Gospel Tabernacle houses a small but enthusiastic congregation in South Memphis, about a mile south of Graceland. Any given Sunday brings about 60 church members and twenty tourists together for some of the most exciting gospel in the city, usually fronted by the greatest vocalist in the city, The Reverend Green.
The low-tech church is built in the round. It has simple stained glass windows. Most memorable is a twelve foot mural of the rapture (painted well before 9/11), featuring the Memphis skyline with planes crashing into its skyscrapers, burning cars, and terrified souls. Jesus benignly floats over the mayhem. The service is almost entirely sung, relatively free-form, and always entertaining. The choir is small but enthusiastic. Deacons sit in nogahide chairs on the podium. The Reverend always comes late.
A tag-team preaching style predominates, with deacons preaching and leading songs until the Reverend shows up. The best of the warm-up preaching can be inspired, like an acrostic-style oratory which discussed 26 different sins: one for each letter of the alphabet.
When the Reverend enters, he crackles. He has Bill Clinton’s charisma. And Green’s voice is almost as good as in his prime, which means he’s still a better singer than almost any one else in creation. Backed by two electric guitars, drums, and bass, the gospel according to Al Green sounds an awful lot like secular Al. The band is talented and tight, and the worship is fierce, though not raw. Fans of Green who mourned his turn away from secular music have always found plenty of comfort food at Full Gospel. Green reworks his secular hits during the services: He’s “Full of Fire for Jesus” and asks Jesus to “Come and Take me.” Green makes Jesus sounds sexy.
When we attended the Tabernacle’s twentieth anniversary service, in 1999, the offering was collected not in baskets, but instead brought up, person by person, and laid in a basket at the Reverend Green’s feet. He raised me up, hands on both my shoulders, and said “I love you.” I believed him. He meant it more to me than he did to my sister.
Normal services don’t, however, involve the laying on of hands, although services do get physical: This is a pentecostal congregation. That means lots of falling out and speaking in tongues., especially among women, and especially, in my experience, in the summer, when everyone is a little heat-crazy anyway. Fans handed out from the Ford Funeral home help, and certainly add to the ambiance, but the church was un-air-conditioned at last check, so if you tack the visit on to your August Memphis pilgrimage to Elvis Death Week, dress skimpily.
Service starts at late, so you can nurse the Friday night hangover from the juke and have a real breakfast (or lunch) to sustain you through a positively athletic experience. Prepare to introduce yourself: visitors are always asked, at some point in the service, to stand and say where they’re from. Sunday Morning Service begins at 11:30 am, but in traditional pentecostal fashion, things don’t get swinging until later, and the Reverend never shows up on time. Stop by at 12:30 and you won’t have to wait long for Al, and you’ll have another 2 hours or so of service to swing to. And check his touring schedule– he’s not always in town, and if you call, they won’t tell you whether he’ll show or not (and really, they may not know).
Sunday Morning service 11:30 am Sunday Evening Worship (as scheduled) | 4:00 pm Wednesday Night Bible Study | 7:00 pm Thursday Night Choir Rehearsal 7:00 pm