Vanessa Lucas, an avid churchgoer, says she'd love for everyone to be as blessed by the Scriptures as she has been. So when a friend missed a half-dozen services, she decided to investigate.
The last time the woman had been to church, Lucas learned, an usher had handed her a program so rudely she decided not to return.
"She had one unfriendly experience at the door, and look how it changed everything," Lucas says.
If Lucas, 61, has a divine purpose these days, it's to keep such things from happening again. She's one of about 400 people in Maryland and 15,000 in the nation who have been trained and certified by the National United Church Ushers Association of America, a historically black education and service group that has preserved and passed along a "universal method" of church ushering for 96 years.
The organization has its roots in early-1900s Baltimore, where three African-American churches set aside their differences to create an ushers association and school — one that still grills its students on everything from greeting techniques to a complex set of hand signals with which to manage crowd movement, or even indicate an emergency in the making.
The Maryland chapter, one of 28 in America, turns 100 this year. Those who work with members say that at a time when church attendance is declining in the U.S., its mission retains a powerful resonance.
"Ushers are the 'doorkeepers' Scripture tells us about," says the Rev. Howard Wright, pastor of Grace A.M.E. Church in Catonsville. "They set a tone of reverence with their friendliness. They take care of worshipers' needs throughout the service so [pastors] can focus on God's word.
"It's a very, very important ministry."
At Grace one recent Sunday, Lucas and five others greet arriving worshipers with hugs and "good mornings." As gospel music begins to resound, they create a line and march down an aisle, leading the choir into position.
The lead usher takes a position up front and places a fist at the small of her back. The place goes quiet at the signal. The service has begun.
In the beginning
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said the most segregated hour in America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. Decades before that, in the late 1800s, three devout men from this region chose to reach across another divide.
Elijah Hamilton and Charles Dorsey, African Methodist Episcopalians from Philadelphia, and a friend, a Baltimore Baptist named Henry Sorrell, found themselves wrestling with a question: Why did the major African-American Christian denominations have so little to do with each other?
Seeking common ground, they settled on a theme they saw running through the Old and New Testaments: ushering.
At the Baltimore unit headquarters, a brownstone in Reservoir Hill, Lucas recently met with fellow usher Sandra Arnette below several framed portraits of the founders, reeling off the men's beliefs as though they were still alive.
"We consider God the first usher in the universe," Lucas says. "Didn't he usher in light and call it day? Didn't Moses usher the children of Israel out of Egypt? And the star of Bethlehem guided the wise men, just as John the Baptist ushered in Jesus' ministry."
God even created the first usher organization, she adds, choosing one tribe, the Levites, to care for the tabernacles of Moses' day. References to "watchmen," "porters" and "doorkeepers" permeate the Bible.
The job carries additional weight in an era when crime can invade the world of worship, from petty thefts to stunning tragedies like the one that unfolded in Charleston, S.C., last month when a man entered a black church during a Bible study and shot nine people to death.
"We are to be alert at all times. Even when going into prayer, our heads are bowed but we keep our eyes open," says Sylvia Graves, a member of Perkins Square Baptist Church and 17-year ushering veteran.
Sorrell probably never imagined such things, but he perceived a need. He assembled the leaders of three Baltimore churches — Sharp Street United Methodist, Ames United Methodist and Enon Baptist — in 1915, persuading them to form the State of Maryland United Ushers. By 1919, the Philadelphians had a similar group. Chapters in other states followed.
Sharp Street, Ames and Enon churches remain in operation. The Interdenominational Church Ushers Association of Maryland now includes 32 member churches in Baltimore and 92 in the state. All belong to a national association with chapters in locations from California to Maine.
Members coast to coast have adopted a passage from the Old Testament as a kind of mission statement. "I'd rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked," Lucas says, quoting Psalm 84. They share a passion for traveling to state and national conventions.
"It's wonderful Christian fellowship," Lucas says, adding that the subject of denominations never comes up.
Like many who catch the ushering bug, Ernest Wilson Jr., has been at it for a long time — in his case nearly six decades, making him one of the longest-tenured ushers in Maryland.
If church is a place where souls are saved, he reasons, what could be more important than getting people in the doors and engaging them?
"If you come in and nobody speaks to you, you carry that mood to your seat. So when people come in, I always look them, smile and say 'Good morning,'" says Wilson, 82, who began ushering at Perkins Square at 8, returned to it at Enon in 1957 and hasn't stopped. "They can focus their minds on what the pastor is saying."
The founders saw that kind of thinking as consonant with Christ's teachings, including his counsel to treat other people as you would like to be treated. And as the years passed, a code of behavior developed.
The man or woman at the front door (the doorkeeper) was "the connecting link between the inside and the outside of the sanctuary." The "usher-in-charge" led the other team in prayer before services, assigned everyone's roles for the day and directed communications. Aisle ushers filled pews and monitored guests.
A good usher, they said, planned for anything — a worshiper passing out, a child needing the bathroom, the pastor needing water — and provided.
Because noisy ushers would be distractions, leaders devised a set of hand signals that could be flashed in silence. George T. Grier, first president of the Illinois chapter, codified them in 1948, spelling out dozens in "The Universal Church Ushers Manual," a guide still in use.
A loose fist at the small of the back — the "service position" — means an usher is on duty. Arms across the chest means "prayer underway." If the lead usher moves the right hand to the base of the throat, three fingers up, it's a request for seats in aisle three.
A hand signal does exist for dangers such as fires or bomb threats — the usher drops an arm behind the back, raises both hands, then does a reverse brush of the head with one hand and drops the hands again — but nothing to flag suspicious characters like the Charleston killer.
Graves has written a letter to national leaders urging that they create such a signal and call for doorkeepers at all church events.
It's a dizzying system, but one ushers know well and use with reverence, says Arnette, leader of the Grace A.M.E. team.
"It's a ministry, not a club," she says. "It's about giving your best service to God."
With a smile
The Grace team can be a spectacle of motion, their gestures steering events as cops might work intersection traffic.
Guests slide into seats. Latecomers fill gaps. If worshipers seem overheated, cardboard fans appear.
The magic doesn't come easily. Students as young as 8 and as old as 88 learn the craft in a formal course that meets monthly, about three hours a day, between September and June, totaling 32 hours. They can take it in Baltimore or at any of five other sites in Maryland.
On the syllabus: a dress code (dark suits for males, white dresses for females, no jewelry), the signals, relevant Scripture and more, often served up with pizza and sodas.
The marching — a conga-like form of dancing by which ushers lead singers, dancers and ministers to their places — newbies must learn on their own.
The job isn't always pleasant or easy. Worshipers can be as rude as anyone else at times and don't always do what they're asked, says Graves, the chaplain of the Baltimore unit.
Some balk at the seats they're led to. Funerals can be a special challenge, with distraught people jumping rope lines, crowding aisles or exploding when turned away from a packed church.
Even in an era when studies show fewer and fewer Americans are identifying with any one religion, the organization has a steady supply of new members, Arnette says, many of them children. Units across the U.S. offer leadership opportunities for members in the junior ranks (ages 8-21), raise scholarship funds and sponsor pizza and sports outings.
Female ushers outnumber males by a 5-1 ratio these days, but that didn't bother Dorien Rich, 11, of Catonsville, who began admiring "the people who stood at the door" three years ago. He's now a regular usher at Grace A.M.E.
"It's fun to be a part of it, and it makes me happy to see everybody happy at church," Dorien says. "I think I might like to do this for a long time."
He sounds a lot like Wilson, a man who has loved ushering so long that when the Maryland chapter held its 100th anniversary banquet last spring, the 400 people in attendance, including Lucas and Arnette, gave him a lifetime achievement award and standing ovation, then demanded a speech.
Wilson, an object of reverence on the local scene, got to his feet, wept a little, gave a quick thank-you and sat back down. After all, he says, the mission isn't about him.
And like Dorien, he plans to keep at it for some time to come.
"Until my Master calls me home," he says.
Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.