On September 10, Kanye West brought his Sunday Service series to the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, where he joined the congregation in worship for their 69th anniversary.
Kanye first expressed interest in converting his Sunday Service into a real church in April 2019, continuing the evolution of the series. When it began in early 2019, it was initially perceived to be a music listening party of sorts that incorporated both hip-hop and gospel elements. As time went on, though, it shifted to more of a spiritual celebration, calling on a massive church choir to deliver renditions of music from Kanye’s discography, as well as gospel songs by Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, and more. Now, he is migrating the experience from grassy fields in Calabasas to actual congregations.
Kanye’s fans and critics are still uncertain of his motives and where he plans to take his Sunday Service next, so Aurelia Daniels, Fellowship’s social services and community outreach manager, shared some insight on the experience. Here’s the story of how Kanye brought his Sunday Service experience to the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.
Can you tell me a little about the background of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church and its relationship with music?
We were established on September 10, 1950, and we were founded by Reverend Dr. Clay Evans. He has always been at the forefront of gospel music, as well as civil rights. When Dr. King came to Chicago back in the day and they needed a place for him to go, all the preachers [would not] allow him to in the pulpit to preach, and our founder Reverend Evans allowed him to preach in his pulpit. Reverend Jackson assisted our pastor in getting funding, and he actually co-signed on the loan and became the associate pastor for the fellowship at that time. So there is a long history with Rev. Evans and Rev. Jackson, and them working together to do civil rights things. We've always had a rich history with music. Our current pastor Charles Jenkins is also at the forefront of gospel music and has several songs out. Our current single is “Keep the Faith.” He's always been very open to different ways of experiencing God.
Normally, there are 353 people in service. This week when Kanye was here, there were 1,203 people.
How did the church get in contact with Kanye?
Our pastor [Charles Jenkins] is due to retire at the end of the year. On his road to retiring, a lot of people have been wondering what is he going to do and where is he going to go. Earlier this year, he was at one of Kanye's Sunday Services, because he is familiar with the director. He and Pastor Jenkins are close, and when the pastor found out they were coming to Chicago, he asked Jason White if they would stop by the church. When he went to Kanye's Sunday's Service a few months back, they had a conversation. Pastor Jenkins basically talked about what he was trying to do with these Sunday Services. Kanye said that he was trying to spread hope and love to people. Of course, our pastor is all about those things and he was inspired by the Sunday Service. So when he found out that he was coming to Chicago, he just invited him. Graciously, Kanye decided to come.
It was supposed to be a surprise, but you know when you tell one person, then everyone has that one person that they tell. It was buzzing around that Kanye was coming, but it was never confirmed. It started buzzing around Saturday, and members were calling each other. We had a lot going on because it was our actual anniversary Sunday. Pastor came up and started talking about how he had met with Kanye at his Sunday Service. Then Kanye comes up to the stage. Folks are like, “Oh, my God, he's actually here!”
How was the service overall?
The service was great. The choir was just so worshipful and I was looking at some comments online about whether it was for publicity or whatever the case may be. I totally disagree. Our service was filled with the Holy Spirit. The energy there, like the choir, sang with such conviction. They were crying during their worship time. Literally, there was a moment there where the director was directing a really pure song. Then there was a moment where he was just like, ‘Let's be still and feel the presence of God.’ Tears were falling down from the choir and the people who are experiencing it. The choir was standing at the altar. It wasn't like they were standing on the stage. The choir was also mixing into the crowd. So, we have some choir members in the balcony and then some that were sitting amongst the members. They were dressed like regular people. A lot of people didn't even know they were choir members until they started singing. Some of them came up to the front of the church, and they were at the alter singing.
How was Kanye during the service?
It wasn't about him. When Kanye came out, we had a graphic for him with his picture on the screen. The first thing he did when he saw that, was take it down. You could tell that it was a moment of: it’s not about me. The whole time, he wasn’t at the forefront. It was about the singing and the praising. Every now and again, he would step in and say, “Listen to the director,” about certain songs or a different part that he wanted to reiterate.
There was a point in the service where he got the mic and the people shushed singing the words of the song they had just finished, and he was just having a moment with God: personal time, repeating the words. He was just singing the words of the song and having a personal moment with God. For me, it made it seem like he’d been told things about Sunday service and things of that nature. He’s allowing us to come along on the journey with him of his way of being able to go to church and experience God.
The original lyrics to “Jesus Walks,” are about how he isn’t here to convert atheists into believers. But at the end, he’s like, “I'm here to turn atheists into believers.” It was just his moment of making sure people are about Christ. Of course, you know that Kanye doesn’t do anything conventional. I love that unconventional aspect of praise that he was bringing to the gospel industry. He’s also giving us and Christians and believers a chance to reevaluate how dearly we hold these traditions. Are we able to experience God outside of the norm, or are we so fixated on tradition that we are not able to experience him outside of what we assume church should look like, or what Sunday Service should look like?
When Kanye came out, we had a graphic for him with his picture on the screen. The first thing he did when he saw that was take it down.
Do you have a count of how many people normally come to you twelve o’clock service? And a count of how many people showed up when Kanye came?
Yes, we actually have a count. Normally, there are 353 people in service. This week when Kanye was here, there were 1,203 people. We normally see that number for the whole weekend and we saw that for one service.
Some critics are saying Kanye’s Sunday Services aren't genuine. After being there on Sunday, what would you say to those critics?
God is not obligated to show up in a way that is comfortable for us. You have to be open to the unconventional move of God. He doesn’t have to move the way that you expect him to move. Sometimes he’ll even break the rules so that he can get other people blessed. So, you can’t be so tied up in rules and regulations.
I have to just say that [Kanye] is not just serving God by singing gospel songs, when people are saying Jesus in spaces where Jesus’ name wouldn’t be mentioned. I was at the actual Sunday Service [held at Chicago’s Huntington Bank Pavilion]. There were people smoking weed behind us. Those people who may have never been served before, were there to see Kanye, but he didn’t make it about himself. It's not like he's out there singing random songs. All the songs are faithful songs. They were singing real gospel songs. They even changed [Ginuwine’s] “So Anxious” into a gospel song, and it was so powerful. The lyrics, if you were actually paying attention to what they were singing, are gospel. They’re literally saying the name, Jesus. They’re literally re-singing regular gospel songs and mixing in revamped secular songs.
While they were here for Fellowship, Kanye never even did the whole part of what you see during Sunday Service. He was kind of in the background, just listening to them sing. It wasn't like he made it about him or made it about his songs. It was all about Jesus.
Aside from having Kanye as a special guest, did the service continue as usual? Did the service still include a prayer, sermon, offering, etc?
Our 8 a.m. service went normal as planned. Our 10 a.m. service, we had oration of the deacons, so we had a lot going on there. At 12 p.m., it was Sunday Service, but prior to Kanye coming up, we had James Fortune open up with a song. After Kanye left, they opened the doors of the church and we had two people join. We still opened the doors of the church, still took offering, and everything we would normally do. But when the Sunday Service started, that was our time of worship.
Kanye was kind of in the background, just listening to them sing. It wasn't like he made it about him or made it about his songs. It was all about Jesus.
Are there any plans for Kanye to continue Sunday Service at Fellowship?
I do not know, but the hope is that it will happen again. I know our doors will be open to Kanye coming. We’ve had several celebrities come to the fellowship. I can’t even begin to name all of the people from gospel and secular music who are affiliated with Fellowship. So, we are always open to guest artists, if we could in any way repay him for what he did. It was literally him coming to share what he had. There was no way we could compensate for him coming. We are extremely grateful that he allowed our members to experience it.
It was awesome, too, because he was the perfect artist to host. We had some food for them and Kanye actually came downstairs in our fellowship hall and ate the food that our members had cooked. Imagine a random church-cooked chicken, and Kanye comes down and takes some pictures with the members and our kitchen staff. Our singers were down there, and they were interacting. It was just like Kanye came to church. He was not trying to be something like a super important type of person. He was so excited. I never saw him try to puff himself up. Like I said, there’s nothing we could give Kanye to repay him for this.