The clock is winding toward midnight. Revelers begin the countdown, ready to tip back their champagne flutes and begin warbling an amateur version of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Or, perhaps, they bow their heads in prayer.
That’s the way Bishop Rance Allen has been spending New Year’s Eve for as long as he can remember. The Toledo pastor and nationally known Gospel vocalist recalls praying and singing his way through the last night of the year as a child in Monroe, Mich. When he began to pastor his own church in Toledo in 1985, he said it was natural to continue the tradition.
“Watch Night has always been, for me, a night given to the celebration of Jesus Christ,” he said.
New Bethel Church of God in Christ, where Bishop Allen serves as pastor, is one of several churches that will invite Toledoans to reflect on the outgoing and incoming years through a Watch Night service on Sunday. The late-night New Year’s Eve gathering reflects a long-standing tradition with deep roots among black church communities.
Watch Night is often traced back to Methodist John Wesley, who began holding annual services that invited his followers to reaffirm their covenant with God in the 1700s. Others hold that the origin of the service lies in Dec. 31, 1862, when the country anticipated the abolition of slavery that would come the following day under the Emancipation Proclamation.
A third theory blends the two ideas, suggesting that an already existing annual service took on particular and persisting significance in black communities in the 1860s.
Bishop Allen isn’t one to ignore the historical and cultural precedent for Watch Night. But, for him and others, the services held today are first and foremost spiritual. They come as a yearly opportunity to both look backward and forward, all while recognizing the centrality of God in what happened during the past year and what will happen in the coming.
“On the one hand, it thanks God for what we’ve accomplished,” Bishop Allen said. “On the other hand, it thanks God for what we believe will be a great future.”
The Rev. Cedric Brock, pastor of Mount Nebo Baptist Church, characterized the service similarly.
“We come together to celebrate the year of which we just came out and to put together a vision for the year to come,” he said. “It’s an exciting time where we express our sadness for the loss of those that we’ve left behind in the year that’s passed ... and we celebrate the good fortune that’s coming to us in the future.”
New Bethel and Mount Nebo will celebrate Watch Night in a joint service at New Bethel, 801 Vance St., beginning at 10 p.m. this year. The public is invited to attend.
The pastors said attendees can expect an evening of music, preaching, and prayer. The choirs of both churches will perform, as well Bishop Allen, who fronts the Grammy-nominated Rance Allen Group. (The bishop’s brothers, Tom and Steve, round out the group.)
Other congregations holding services this year include Friendship Baptist Church, 5301 Nebraska Ave., led by Bishop Duane C. Tisdale, and Phillips Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 565 Palmwood Ave., where members of several AME churches affiliated with the Methodist Minister Affiliation will gather.
The service at Friendship Baptist begins at 9:30 p.m.; the service at Phillips Temple begins at 10 p.m. Both are open to the public.
Watch Night services tend to be well-attended, according to church representatives. Pastor Brock likened the service to Christmas or Easter, in that community members who might not regularly fill the pews during the year often make a point to attend.
That covers all ages too, even with the pull of a New Year’s Eve out on the town.
“A lot of our young people might come to church first and then go party,” Pastor Brock said.
Alan Crawford Sr., 56, a deacon at Mount Nebo, remembers being one of those young people. He’s been participating in Watch Night since his 20s.
Valecia Nurruddin, 44, remembers it too. A youth leader at the church, she today makes sure young attendees play a role in the service through music, dance, or maybe just the responsibility to pass out the hats and noisemakers that congregants will want at midnight.
“I learned to compromise,” said Ms. Nurruddin, who has been attending services since she was a child. “My mom would make sure that I was in church first when I was of age, then after New Year’s and I hugged everyone, I could go visit with friends and spend the night at their house.”
Mr. Crawford and Ms. Nurruddin said the service builds toward midnight, not unlike any secular gathering on New Year’s Eve. The chime of 12 o’clock is a special moment inside the church; each said it is their favorite aspect of Watch Night.
“We all come together at the altar for prayer,” Mr. Crawford said. “Once the year goes over, we’re all already in prayer and giving our thanks and our praise to God. After the prayer, people have whistles, people have noise makers, everyone is celebrating and hugging and kissing and saying, ‘Happy New Year!’
“That’s my favorite part, right at midnight, when we’re in prayer and then it’s a big celebration,” he continued. “It seems like there’s so much energy in the room.”
“We almost feel like we’re not just connected to each other as a family,” Ms. Nurruddin said, “but we have that covering, a spiritual blessing going in to the new year.”
“That’s probably one of the best parts of Watch Night service.”
Watch Night at New Bethel will coincide with a coat drive. For more information on the service, contact the church offices at New Bethel at 419-241-3550 or Mount Nebo at 419-246-8561.
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