Lift Every Voice
Martha “Mama” Freeman has but one rule for her unusual church services: “Anybody can sing if they want,” she says.
Freeman, 80, is the pastor of Alpha & Omega Ministries in Milwaukee, a modest storefront Baptist church next door to a barber shop, that she founded in 2002.
Every Sunday, around 30 to 45 congregants of all ages filter into Alpha & Omega for a style of worship Freeman describes as “open.” A former teacher, she believes understanding comes from dialogue and encourages her parishioners, most of whom are black and low-income or unemployed, to interrupt the service with testimony and, especially, song.
Freeman believes that singing is akin to praying; she points out that the lyrics of many hymns are psalms from the Bible.
In many ways Freeman’s Sunday morning service is like any other; it opens with a prayer, and there’s group singing and a Bible lesson for the kids. But unlike at other churches, where people are usually expected to sit quietly and listen, during a service three or four people might get up to spontaneously sing a cappella solos or duets. There are musical instruments on hand—a piano, a guitar—but they don’t usually get played. Songs are chosen by the singer according to their whim, and are always religious and never pop, although Freeman and her congregation may put a little “beat” into a group rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Before dismissing Sunday service, Freeman and her congregation sing a final song together and pray.
“It’s open to ask questions, it’s open to express yourself,” she explains. It’s an inclusive format that she says helps draw people who may not otherwise attend church.
Freeman believes that singing is akin to praying; she points out that the lyrics of many hymns are psalms from the Bible. She believes that Alpha & Omega parishioners are moved to choose songs that embody what they’re feeling on any given day. Someone in turmoil, for instance, might sing the hymn “He Will Hide Me,” which includes the lyrics I will seek a place of refuge, in the shadow of God’s hand.
Joyful singers tend to pick songs like “Thank You, Jesus” (Grace that flows like a river, washing over me, fount of heave, love of Christ, overflow in me) and “God Has Smiled on Me” (God has smiled on me, he has set me free, oh).
“This person is feeling troubled and needs a hiding place, needs to get away,” Freeman says.
Freeman has always been deeply involved in Milwaukee’s Garden Homes neighborhood, where her church is located, since she moved there in 1969 as a 30-year-old. She used to bring her television set out to the porch of her house so local kids could watch movies al fresco while snacking on the popcorn and peanut butter–and-jelly sandwiches she made them. Today, Freeman dispenses free bread and doughnuts from Alpha & Omega, and has a reputation as a local peacekeeper—she’s de-escalated more than one neighborhood dispute, once even stepping in to break up a fight where one man pulled a gun on the other. Occasionally, she’ll drive over to a nearby street that the city honorarily named after her and sit in her car to make the drug dealers scatter.
Freeman herself sings at every service. One of her favorite hymns is “I Love You (Lord Today)”—I love you, I love you, I love you, Lord, today; because you cared for me, in such a special way.
“I can feel his presence when I sing that song,” she says.
When people sing, Freeman says, they are choosing a song because its lyrics express their inner feelings better than words can.
“Take, for example, when people sing ‘Amazing Grace,’” she says. “‘How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’” She pauses. “When I sing that song, I’m thinking about what kind of person I was before God saved me, before he came into my life and literally changed me.”