Lift Every Voice

Pastor Freeman, signing "Without Him" during a worship service in November 2016.

Lift Every Voice

There’s usually singing at a church service. But Milwaukee has a church where everyone, not just the choir, is invited up to the mic.

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.

After worship service outside of Alpha & Omega Ministries on 27th Street & Atkinson Avenue, Milwaukee, in September 2016.
Freeman believes that singing is akin to praying; she points out that the lyrics of many hymns are psalms from the Bible.
Looking through Alpha & Omega's front window in May 2019.

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.

 

Semaj, handing out Bibles to the congregation during a worship service in January 2017. 

“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).

 

Minister H. W. Adams, a.k.a. Brother Wayne, opening afternoon worship with a hymnal in November 2016.
“This person is feeling troubled and needs a hiding place, needs to get away,” Freeman says.
This past April, Dailynn Taylor sang "God Has Smiled on Me" during Easter service.
One of Pastor Freeman's many Bibles that show years of use and consideration. This particular Bible, photographed in October 2016, lies open to a lesson plan, "Pigs in the Parlor: A Practical Guide to Deliverance.”
Israel Freeman, leaning against the church's sole piano in October 2016, pretending to play along to a worship song.
A visitor to Alpha & Omega sings during a Sunday morning service in March 2017. Pastor Freeman welcomes the public to attend Sunday services, so new faces can often be seen and heard.

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.

 

This past Easter, during a rare service with a keyboard player present in the congregation, Minister H. W. Adams, a.k.a. Brother Wayne, sings "Good Morning Jesus, Nice Having You Here" along with other members of the congregation.
Pastor Freeman comforts a mother within the church congregation during prayer in October 2016. 
Although musical instruments and sheet-music stands can be found at A&O, the church no longer has an official band. Much of this equipment goes untouched and, instead, the congregation sings a cappella.
Cynthia Hunt, who has helped Pastor Freeman with different community events, sings worship during a Tuesday night prayer service this past April. 
“I can feel his presence when I sing that song,” she says.
Deacon Moss, Pastor Freeman's eldest son, leads a worship song after service in November 2016. 
Israel's prayer journal, written during a 2016 Wednesday night Bible study. 
Betty Campbell, a loyal longtime member of A&O's congregation, sings "His Eyes on the Sparrow" in February 2017. Campbell passed away in November 2018.

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.”

 

Johnnie Steel, singing worship after a service, January 2017. 
Daryll Hunt and his wife, Valerie, sit before an October 2016 service.
Pastor Freeman is greeted with a kiss on the cheek by an old friend who visited A&O for a November 2016 Sunday service. 
Mother and daughter after a short and cold February 2017 worship service.
Mylaya Moss shows off her 2019 Easter outfit. 
Johnnie Steel before afternoon worship service in September 2016.   
Mother and daughter after a short and cold February 2017 worship service.
Mylaya Moss shows off her 2019 Easter outfit. 
Johnnie Steel before afternoon worship service in September 2016.   
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