Bishop Millicent Hunter began somberly, reading from the Scriptures about Jesus’ agony on the cross.
She raised her voice while addressing the endless temptation to sin.
By the time her sermon peaked, she was shouting into her microphone, bringing a well-dressed crowd of 1,200 to its feet.
“Shake your neighbor’s hand like you’re going to shake it off!” she cried, to hallelujahs. “Say, ‘You just touched a miracle!’ This is what a blessing looks like.”
Seven minutes had passed in the Good Friday service at Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church in West Baltimore, and Hunter — a prelate from Philadelphia — had completed her part of a religious event that has become a Baltimore tradition: the “Rush Hour to Calvary.”
She was one of seven bishops who took the pulpit in rapid-fire succession Friday morning, each to address a theme particular to Good Friday, the day on which Christians mark the crucifixion of Jesus on Mount Calvary two millennia ago.
Each of the faith leaders explores one of the seven sayings Jesus is said to have uttered — the so-called Seven Last Words — during the time he spent on the cross, and to do so in fewer than seven minutes each.
Skeptics who might question any preacher’s ability to speak his or her piece in such a short time should take note: Each of the seven bishops who spoke Friday stayed under the limit, and each left the overflow crowd cheering.
The service also included plenty of high-energy gospel from the 18-person choir and five-piece band known as the Calvary Chorale, yet the congregation, still buzzing with excitement, was out the door in a little over an hour and a half.
“That’s what I love about Rush Hour,” said Jan Fulwood, a retired nurse and a 50-year member of the church at Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street. “You can do your Good Friday worship and still have time to do your shopping, do your cooking, do whatever you need to do to get ready for Easter.”
Fulwood, 68, said she was elated when Penn Ave Church, as it’s commonly known, started the tradition 20 years ago this month, and not just for the sake of convenience.
She considers Rush Hour to be theologically effective as well.
“I always believed that if you speak for more than 15 minutes, most of what you’re saying gets lost,” she said. “People’s attention wanders. But if you say just a few things, and say them well, people can hold onto your idea and keep that. I always leave here on a high.”
Though it’s only two decades old, the Rush Hour tradition has spawned many imitators in the city. About 20 churches are thought to have offered their own versions Friday.
It also derives from more long-standing traditions within the African-American church.
The Right Rev. Dennis Proctor, a longtime former senior pastor at Penn Ave, says the Seven Last Words tradition has been a staple of African-American worship on Good Fridays in Baltimore since the mid-1800s, when some of the city’s more influential historically black churches were established.
By tradition, though, the services last three hours — usually between noon and 3 p.m., but often between 7 and 10 p.m. — in order to recognize the three hours Jesus suffered on the cross before darkness fell.
Traditional Good Friday services remain available at many churches across Baltimore.
The pastors who speak at those have nearly half an hour each to declaim, and the speakers bring many of their own congregants to the host church with them.
This created what some call the core appeal of the Seven Last Words tradition: a bringing-together of worshipers from across the city who normally don’t see one another, but who end up reconnecting on Good Friday every year.
That remains a feature of the Rush Hour services, and Paula Yarbough likes it that way.
Yarbough, 94, has worshiped at Penn Ave Church since childhood, and she has held just about every leadership position the congregation has to offer, but Good Friday services remain one of her favorite experiences.
“With all the people who come from other churches, it’s a time of growing together, of unity in fellowship,” she says.
As of the mid-1990s, Penn Ave Church had not hosted a Good Friday service of any kind in years. And when two young pastors from across town approached Proctor and asked him to start one, he was hesitant.
He’d always thought they ran too long for many modern worshipers.
“I said, ‘I’m not in the mood for the usual kind of Good Friday service,’” says Proctor, now a bishop of the A.M.E. Zion church. “The only way I’ll do it at my church is for one hour, and at 9 a.m.”
When the young pastors expressed skepticism, he pressed his case, telling them that a shorter service first thing in the morning would free up congregrants’ days, and that good orators, given a time limit, might even be able to deliver a more powerful message.
Two modern points of reference helped him sell the case.
“I figured it could be like the Oscars, where if someone goes on too long, the band starts playing,” he says, and laughs. “Or it could be like the old ‘Gong Show.’ The audience can let the speakers know when their time is up, and off they have to go.”
Proctor only recalls one speaker going overtime by much, and even then the Calvary Chorale did its job, starting a hymn at a politely low volume, then growing louder until the cleric got the message.
The first Rush Hour drew a packed house and has been a regular event at the church ever since.
As Friday’s service moved along at a brisk clip, the chorus performed songs including “At the Cross” and “Hosanna in the Highest.” In “He Would Not Come Down From the Cross,” solo vocalist Keith Matthews began slowly, almost inaudibly, and ended up bringing the house down with an almost unbelievably soaring tenor interlude.
“Hallelujah!” someone exclaimed as the crowd roared.
Hunter, the Philadelphia bishop, went fourth in the speaking lineup.
Her subject was the Fourth Word, when Jesus is described in two Gospel accounts as having exclaimed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Her shock of gray hair flowing, Hunter called it “the most staggering sentence in the Gospel record,” as it represents the only moment in Jesus’ life when he felt alienated from God — an experience he had to go through if he was to take on, and overcome, human nature.
Like most of her colleagues, she pointed to the blessings Christians believe are made possible through Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.
“It was a bad scene but a good Friday,” she said.
The speakers included five Baltimoreans, two women, and representatives from the Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal and prophetic Christian traditions.
Bishop Durant Harvin III of the Greater Immanuel Faith Temple in Randallstown went sixth, addressing the words Jesus is said to have spoken toward the end of his suffering — “It is finished” — and the Right Rev. John R. Bryant, a retired bishop of the A.M.E. Church, completed matters by exploring the words Jesus is said to have cried out before ascending to heaven: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit!”
Bryant followed the Rush Hour tradition of focusing on a single idea within his subject.
He asked the congregants to consider carefully in whose “hands” they place themselves, reminding them that Jesus had to place himself in unworthy hands during most of his 33-year ministry.
Then, at his peak moment of suffering, he triumphed.
“Just before death he used his transfer and went from man’s hands to God’s hands,” Bryant said. “Whose hands are you in?”
The Calvary Chorale kicked in with a version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Bryant raised his own above his head, and most of the congregation did the same.