Artist Frank Smith first told me about the amazing faith tradition practiced every Memorial Day weekend by the United House of Prayer for All People 10 years ago. On the Saturday before Memorial Day members of the church from all up and down the East Coast come to Washington for a parade past the home of church founder – Bishop Charles Manuel Grace, "Sweet Daddy" Grace.
As the host of a Jazz radio program for nearly 35 years now, I rush to witness this musical part of the church's worship. Like a joyful "Second Line" at a New Orleans funeral, the brass bands –
tubas, trombones, trumpets – literally blow me away each time I hear them. Like a tight high-school drumline, the snares, the bass, the cymbals, keep my head bobbing and my feet tapping. They bring the swing.
They make a Joyful Noise. Praise the Lord.
I also appreciate the accessibility of this part of their worship services, not to mention the unity they practice all year round, the juvenile delinquency prevention that membership in the marching bands affords the boys and girls who grow up in the church; and of course the generous spirit taught by Sweet Daddy Grace, who was known for spending a good portion of his income on his congregations, supplying apartments, pension funds, burial plans, and free food to the faithful. The first Black "Mega Church" was born nearly 100 years ago, and it's called the United House of Prayer [UHOP].
Bishop Grace – Sweet Daddy Grace – founded his first church in West Waltham, Mass., around 1919. By the mid-1920s he had moved South, and was holding large, popular revivals and tent-meetings around Charlotte, N.C. In 1927, with an estimated 13,000 followers, Bishop Grace incorporated The United House of Prayer for All People of the Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith. The church grew rapidly and soon included branches all along the eastern seaboard, claiming some 500,000 people in 100 congregations in 67 cities.
Charles Manuel Grace was of mixed African and Portuguese descent, born in the Cape Verde Islands around 1882. His family came to the United States during the first decade of the 20th century. In the Cape Verdean communities of New Bedford and Cape Cod, Mass., the young Charles Grace worked as a short-order cook, a cranberry picker, and a sewing machine and patent medicine salesman, before giving his life completely to his ministry.
Bishop Grace was said to have been a showman, but he was always a generous benefactor. He sponsored bands and parades, and tossed candy to his followers – that's how he became known as "Sweet Daddy" Grace – and to this day UHOP marching bands and steppers travel up and down the East Coast in bright, shiny, dream-mobile-looking buses where they perform at various congregation meetings and rallies.
Daddy Grace dazzled with his long hair, multicolored robes, and colored fingernails. His followers believed he had the power to bless such ordinary items as soap, coffee, and eggs, and many believed that buttered toast from his plate had the power to heal. Although Bishop Grace did not claim the divinity that his followers assigned to him, neither did he deny it. "I never said I was God," Bishop Grace once clarified, "but you cannot prove to me I'm not."
I was first acquainted with the church when I attended the funeral of Bishop Grace's successor, Bishop Walter McCullough. It was as joyful and raucous a home-going service as I have ever seen. Sharon Pratt, then mayor of Washington even delivered a eulogy.
I am also glad that the church stood firm against maybe the most persuasive force of gentrification and urban renewal ever faced by any inner-city church leader, the encroachment into the church's residential neighborhood by the construction of the new Walter E. Washington Convention Center. To his eternal credit, then presiding Bishop S.C. Madison did not yield an inch to the developers, not one apartment given up at Canaanland Apartments at 6th & M streets in Northwest. God Bless his soul!
The Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Washington's Union Temple Baptist Church and a co-chairman with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Million Man March, said of Bishop Madison: "He was a supreme example that churches can play a role in the housing and economic development needs of our community. He as well as the United House of Prayer, continued the historic position of setting up hospitals, banks and stores for the community, and it came out of the Black church. We need to emulate more of what he did," the Rev. Wilson told James Wright of the Afro-American newspaper.
Long live that great tradition and that Great Black Ministry.
The historic Memorial Day Parade by members of the United House of Prayer for All People will long be remembered like the Marcus Garvey Day parades nearly a century ago, as a special moment in Black History.