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MUHAMMAD: Sweet Saints Parade on Saturday

Askia Muhammad | 5/21/2014, 3 p.m.
Askia Muhammad

One of the country’s best juvenile delinquency prevention programs will strut its stuff Saturday in the District. It is the annual Memorial Day Saturday Parade by members of the United House of Prayer for All People, past the home in Logan Circle, of the church’s founder, the legendary Bishop Charles “Sweet Daddy” Grace.

This might be the grandest D.C. parade all year! It’s got marching bands and majorettes, and the music these young musicians make is absolutely “heavenly.” It’s a cross between the Historically Black College and University “Drumline,” and the swinging New Orleans tradition of the “Second Line.”

My hat is off to the United House of Prayer (UHOP). May God be pleased with the faithful. Members don’t stand out from other middle class, “Raisin in the Sun” type, striving Black folks, they don’t change their names to “El” or “Bey” or Rashideen like some of us have done and still do. But there’s nothing like their exuberant musical tributes this side of Heaven.

They roll into town from cities all up and down the East Coast in a fleet of shiny buses, owned by the individual congregations. I’m told they have jamborees all year in various cities, but the annual Memorial Day Saturday parade is free and open to the public. Just show up along the route, or in Logan Circle Park, and enjoy.

The UHOP has to be the very first Black “Mega Church.” It was founded in West Waltham, Massachusetts, around 1919. By the mid-1920s it had spread south, and was holding large, popular revivals and tent-meetings around Charlotte, North Carolina. 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, Massachusetts, 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 would toss candy to his followers. That’s how he earned the sobriquet “Sweet Daddy.”

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,” he once clarified, “but you cannot prove to me I’m not.” OK.