— Arnelious Crenshaw made sure to rub the stump.
Before preaching the gospel at the Apollo Theater — the renowned venue known for launching the singing careers of icons such as Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Michael Jackson — Crenshaw brushed his hand across the famous hunk of a tree.
“I want you to know, man, I rubbed the stump,” a chuckling Crenshaw told a crowd at the Harlem theater, where African-American singing stars and Amateur Night contestants have turned to the “Tree of Hope” for good luck since the 1930s.
But on this recent Sunday morning, Crenshaw urged the 1,100 worshipers to look above for real power and salvation.
“I know we’re at the Apollo Theater, but I want to worship God like I’m at home,” said Crenshaw, minister of the Northeast church in Oklahoma City. “The Lord ought to be center stage.”
The 95-year-old theater, which has hosted so many top jazz and soul musicians, became an a cappella assembly hall during the 28th annual Northeastern Lectureship.
“Though I had walked and driven past the Apollo many, many times, this was the first time I had ever been inside,” said Beverly Pierce, a member of the Third Street church in Mount Vernon, N.Y. “It was almost surreal.”
Pierce sang that Saturday evening with the group Redeemed — one of several a cappella choruses that took the stage at the Apollo.
That night’s event also featured special recognition of Eugene Lawton, minister of the Newark, N.J., church, honored with the Minister of Tenure Award for 45 years of service to Churches of Christ in the Northeast.
On Sunday morning, lectureship participants lined up an hour before the worship assembly — beside a wall covered with handwritten memorial messages for Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop — to get seats in the theater.
As a young man, church member Ken Brown saw James Brown perform at the Apollo.
But the Godfather of Soul’s flashy, flamboyant show could not compare with Christian voices praising God and singing “I Really Love the Lord” and “I Love to Praise Him,” Ken Brown said.
“There is not a drummer, guitarist or pianist in the world that could have made those songs any more meaningful to me,” said Brown, a member of the Echo Lake church in Westfield, N.J.
Bettie Brown, 64, a member of the Harlem church for 51 years, remembers the only other time members of Churches of Christ worshiped at the Apollo.
About 25 years ago, W.F. Washington, longtime minister of the Golden Heights church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., preached a crusade at the Apollo. The Excellent Excellos sang.
Most of the Excellos, including Bettie Brown, reunited at the lectureship and performed for the first time in years.
“This is a very special occasion,” Bettie Brown said. “I cried throughout the worship all this morning. It was all just very moving to me.”
‘THE CHURCH OF CHRIST LOVES YOU’
The four-day event began that Saturday with open-air preaching and singing in the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, down the street from the Apollo.
“You know what, New York City? The Church of Christ loves you,” Harlem minister and lectureship director Olu Shabazz said, loudspeakers blasting his voice to hundreds of people walking along West 125th Street, Harlem’s main corridor.
“Amen!” said a sea of Christians gathered in the plaza.
“Lord, have mercy! You see what can be done with young people?” Shabazz said after a performance by the Easternaires.
Founded in 1969, the a cappella singing group is comprised of more than 80 teenagers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. It’s directed by Dorothy Wells, wife of R.C. Wells, Harlem minister emeritus.
At a nearby street corner, Eli Lucas, a member of the Harlem church, distributed lectureship fliers promoting “The One True Church.” Lucas, wearing a black T-shirt with “ONE GOSPEL” emblazoned on the back, described himself as a new babe in Christ, baptized in 2006 through the influence of his fiancée, Gwenna.
“Basically, I’m out here spreading the gospel,” said Lucas, 32.
New Yorkers on their way to buy jeans at Dr. Jay’s, examine mattresses at Sleepy’s or just indulge in a latte at Starbucks gave him a mixed reaction.
“It’s New York, so I’m expecting a lot of blank stares,” Lucas said. “But I’m getting a lot of people who are smiling and taking a flier. … It’s better than I thought it would be, but it’s still New York City.”
Just down the street, fellow Harlem member Helen Wattley flashed a smile after persuading resident Lawrence Brizan to study the Bible.
Later in the morning, the plaza crowd cheered when Tony Roach, minister of the Minda Lane church in Abilene, Texas, took the confession of a woman who studied the Bible and decided to be baptized.
“Yvonne Bettis, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of the living God?” Roach said over the loudspeakers.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Take her somewhere to be baptized for the remission of sins. Amen!”
‘THIS TIME, JESUS WAS THERE’
The Apollo venue helped infuse interest and energy into the lectureship, which had suffered from declining attendance in past years, organizers said.
The lectureship’s final two nights took place at Symphony Space on Broadway.
Besides drawing high-profile black ministers and song leaders, the lectureship attracted participants from Alabama, California, Oklahoma and other states, Shabazz said.
Moreover, the street preaching and theater assembly helped Harlem members reach residents who might not step foot in the church building, he said.
“It gave us an opportunity to demonstrate that we are community-minded and not just a church that works within the confines of our own doors and never goes outside,” Shabazz said. “We had a lot of people to walk in off the street to be present in the worship service Sunday.”
The Harlem church also used the weekend events to express its commitment to stopping gun violence.
With state Sen. Bill Perkins at his side, Shabazz announced the creation of an anti-violence initiative called STOP — Stop Tormenting Our People. The church also has applied to be a gun buy-back location for a New York Police Department program aimed at reducing the number of firearms on the streets.
Jimmy Stokes II and five other members of the Tau Phi Kappa ministerial fraternity at Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, drove more than 1,500 miles to the lectureship.
“We rented a van and came 26 hours just to spread the gospel,” said Stokes, whose father preaches at the West Looxahoma church in Senatobia, Miss. “People say New York City never sleeps, but that’s a good thing for evangelism.”
As for the Apollo Theater, it may never be the same, he said.
This time, the stage “became a pulpit — a place to preach the word of God,” Stokes said. “This time, Jesus was there.”