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The role of church usher involves more than just guiding guests to an empty seat. It's serious business, according to officials of the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association.
Proper training and attitude are necessary for ushers to welcome visitors, set the tone for the worship service, carry out the pastor's directions, control the crowd, and defuse disruptions, association members said Thursday as they readied for this weekend's 72nd annual state convention at the Ramada Inn on Secor Road. More than 200 people are expected to attend.
Members of the association must undergo 32 hours of training through the George T. Grier School of Ushering, a program named for an Illinois usher who 60 years ago developed a uniform system of hand signals now used nationwide and who wrote the Universal Church Ushers Manual.
"Ushers are in the Bible," said the Rev. Cedric Brock, pastor of Mount Nebo Baptist Church on Detroit Avenue. "It says [in Psalm 84:10], 'I'd rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.' Ushers are very important because if your church doesn't have a greeters ministry, then the usher is the first smile that they see when they come into the church."
The ushers association, organized in 1919, has 15,000 members in 28 states. Member churches, mostly African-American, include most Baptist and Methodist denominations as well as Catholic churches, said Ken Lester of Cleveland, a member of the association's national board of directors and past Ohio president.
Ushers are taught to be "professional" in appearance and demeanor, Mr. Brock said.
Male ushers in the association always wear black suits, white shirts, black ties, and white gloves, said Ozie Roddy of Cleveland, a member of the Ohio board of directors. Women ushers wear white dresses -- never pants or hats -- along with white shoes and white gloves, she said.
Although ushers have a strict dress code, visitors are welcome no matter how they dress, Ms. Roddy said. "We're glad you chose to come to church and worship God," she said.
The ushers are usually friendly, Mr. Lester said, but if a problem arises, they are trained to deal with it.
"We believe that a church service goes better if order is kept. We believe that the pastor of a church can control things from the pulpit on back, but when you go back to the back of the church, that's our responsibility."
Mr. Brock said ushers will take whatever action is necessary. If someone is noisy, "the ushers will keep them quiet," he said. "The ushers will usher them in or usher them out, depending on the situation."
Ms. Roddy said ushers are trained to use hand signals to communicate with each other and the ministers, based on Mr. Grier's handbook.
Mr. Lester compared the usher signals to the signs used by a third-base coach in baseball. They tell ushers when to face the altar, for example, and when to let people into the service or to keep them from entering during prayer or Bible reading.
At the national convention, to be held in Orlando, Fla., July 30 to Aug. 3, teams of ushers from different regions compete in drills that test their training. Ohio is one of the leading states for ushers, Mr. Lester said. The entire competition is done in silence, with only hand signals allowed.
"Ohio has been noted as the best. When they talk about the best ushers in the land, they start with Ohio and they go down from there. We are very proud of that," he said. "I have been, and Ms. Roddy has been, part of the national award-winning teams over the years."
Nelda Browning of Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Nebraska Avenue is the chairman of the Ohio convention and first vice president of the Toledo chapter. She said Toledo hosts the convention once every eight years as the site rotates among cities.
"You've got to have a Christlike spirit to deal with people," she said. "You've got to love people and love your church. I don't care how much training you have, it's not going to work if you don't have love."
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.