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Practice makes perfect, as church ushers work on their skills

Church ushers practice their skills Saturday during a convention at Huber Community Life Center in Northeast Baltimore.
Church ushers practice their skills Saturday during a convention at Huber Community Life Center in Northeast Baltimore. (Jessica Anderson/The Baltimore Sun)

Colette McCorvey called out commands as she led a group of church ushers through their paces.

"When you're getting attention, grab the knot of your tie. Ladies, you have to pretend you have a tie," she said, as members of the group clutched their right hands at the neck.

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"Can I get a signal for ushers to take their stations?" McCorvey asked, prompting the group to make another gesture — brushing their faces with their right hands.

The session was part of the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association of Maryland's 67th annual convention being held this weekend. The group — the women all wearing white dresses, then men in black blazers, all of them wearing white gloves — was practicing the standardized signals ushers use at church services.

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The signals are used to communicate with one another as they quietly and discreetly direct crowds from the doors and into the pews. The 20-some gestures are painstakingly learned and practiced by ushers to communicate without causing distractions during services.

"We're the ones who control the atmosphere of the church," said Sandy Arnette.

She was among several dozen ushers from African-American churches across Maryland who came early Saturday morning to the the Huber Community Life Center on Loch Raven Boulevard in Northeast Baltimore to practice their skills.

There are about 400 people in Maryland and 15,000 in the nation who have been trained and certified by the National United Church Ushers Association.

On Saturday, they practiced proper procedures for signs and signals; service and prayer positions; ushering in the aisles; how to collect the offering; and duties and responsibilities of positions like the "doorkeeper" and "usher-in-charge."

The ushers take their jobs seriously because, they say, they are often the first connection people have with a church. A bad first impression, they say, can quickly turn people off. Often, ushers are the first face to greet those with serious issues.

"You don't know what problems or concerns people have coming through that door," said Vanessa W. Lucas, the Baltimore unit president.

She recalled the time when a man showed up at her church asking for someone to pray for him. He talked about committing suicide. She said she pulled him into the foyer and quickly got the minister.

Sylvia Graves, a member of Perkins Square Baptist Church who has been ushering nearly 20 years, said people who are struggling will often seek out a church for comfort or aid.

Sometimes, ushers are the ones who will help direct those in need to other services.

"We don't know the types of people we are going to meet," Graves said.

While many ushers are older church members, many of those practicing Saturday were children and teenagers.

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Brittney Spurlock, 17, has been ushering for about five years.

"I like serving God and helping people," she said.

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