“Daddy Bailey Was All in My Room”: The United House of Prayer, Media, and Rejecting the “Zoom Church”
In the pandemic spring of 2020, restrictions on gathering compelled many religious communities to explore virtual platforms for technologically-mediated worship. Meanwhile, the United House of Prayer for all People (UHOP) decided not to live-stream their services, opting instead to suspend worship until restrictions were lifted. For many members of this predominantly African American Christian sect, it would be months before they were able to worship with others. Yet the suspension of services did not mean the suspension of members’ entire spiritual lives: they turned, instead, to a range of official UHOP products, including DVDs of past services, audio CDs of the organization’s unique shout band music, periodicals, and a range of blessed household products for the comfort and healing of the Holy Spirit. Issues of Bailey Magazine, the quarterly named for the sect’s current leader, Daddy Bailey, continue to brim with written testimonies to the healing capacities of these products. Some members even testify that listening to their own cell phone recordings of House of Prayer trombones bands expedited their recovery from COVID-19.
In this paper, I ask why the UHOP rejects a widely-embraced form of technological mediation – live-streamed religious services – while simultaneously and vigorously taking up other forms of mediation. Drawing on fieldwork at a House of Prayer in Harlem, NY and conversing with literature on technological mediation and Black Atlantic religion (Beliso-de Jesus 2015, Jackson 2013, Rouse et al 2016, etc.), I argue that distinctions between “liveness” and “mediation” are contingent and nested within particular “semiotic ideologies” (Keane 2007, 2018) and “sensational forms” (Meyer 2015). By attending broadly to the material repertoires through which UHOP members have long encountered spiritual forces and found healing, we may begin to understand why they rejected the “Zoom Church.”
Jesse Chevan is a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University researching topics in African American religious music. His dissertation fieldwork focuses on the trombone shout band tradition of the United House of Prayer for All People; in particular, the ways in which supra-linguistic sound facilitates direct encounters with the Holy Spirit. At the heart of this work is the intertwining of human and instrumental voices as worshippers distinguish the sacred and profane in sound. Jesse has also worked as a professional drummer and percussionist on the NYC music scene, performing a range of musics including New Orleans brass band, afrobeat, jazz, hip hop, and klezmer. At Columbia, Jesse has taught several semesters of Asian Music Humanities and is currently a Core Preceptor for Contemporary Civilization.