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Hooper: There’s a lot to be said about ushering in the new year at church

By Ernest Hooper
Sitting and watching fireworks is one way to welcome 2018. So is "Watch Night," a practice that dates back to the Emancipation Proclamation of attending church on New Year's Eve. [Times files]

For the first time in my life, I rang in the New Year in a church.

Iím still in a bit of disbelief about how it all came about.

You see, for most of my adult life Iíve dropped out of New Yearís Eve celebrations, unwilling to pay exorbitant prices and uninspired by party favors and paper hats.

One year, I bounced around to parties of Times readers as part of a column exercise, and at midnight I ended up at Beth Israel, the synagogue in Sun City Center. Iíll never forget how those folks treated me like royalty.

For the most part, however, Iíve spent the last night of the year in the driveway watching neighbors shoot off firecrackers they purchased ó in accordance with state law ó because they needed to "frighten birds from their agricultural works and fish hatcheries."

Whatever.

Last year, my friend Jamall Anderson asked me to come hear him preach at Highland Avenue Church of Christ in Tampa on New Yearís Eve. We had just co-authored a book about his life, The Best Bet, and it included tales of his teen days as a locally famous "junior preacher" at Highland Avenue. So I was excited to see him in a pulpit.

Plus, what did I have to lose? Another lackluster evening of fireworks and Ryan Secrest? I said, "Sure."

But let me note: Being Catholic, I thought he meant a New Yearís Eve Vigil at 4 p.m. I later learned the service was likely to start at 10 p.m. and run past midnight.

Wait a minute. Two hours? You do know Catholic mass rarely runs more than 55 minutes.

Too late. I said I would go. No big deal because I never do anything on New Yearís Eve.

After I committed, however, the weirdest thing happened. People started inviting me to have fun on New Yearís Eve. First, the company asked if I could attend a Times-sponsored New Yearís Eve party at the Florida Aquarium. But there would be no Aqua Eve for me.

"Sorry, I have to go to church."

Then, my friend invited me to join her and friends at the New Yearís Eve Lightning game. But there would be no NYE with Kucherov, Hedman and Killorn.

"Sorry, I have to go to church."

Then, my wife declared she was tired of staying home on New Yearís Eve and wanted to go out and paint the town red.

"Sorry, I have to go to church."

I may be the first husband in history who got in trouble for going to church on New Yearís Eve.

Had I not been raised Catholic, I might have known what I was committing to and the tradition of "Watch Night."

Many black churches trace "Watch Night," the practice of attending church on New Yearís Eve, back to the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln signed the historic law granting freedom to slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, so slaves and free men gathered in church on Dec. 31, 1862, to await the change.

According to the website African American Registry, blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Yearís Eve ever since, praising God for bringing them safely through another year.

Itís a nice sentiment, and I have to admit I heard a number of stirring sermons last year, including the message Anderson delivered. He spoke about Godís amazing love for sinners, and I felt like he kept looking at me.

Hmmm.

Minutes after midnight, however, I held no regrets about missing puck drops, posh parties and popping champagne.

Maybe I was where I was supposed to be all along.

I donít know if Iíll ring in the New Year in a church this year, but you know, itís a pretty good place to reflect on the most memorable highs and lows of 2017, and prepare for the dawning of 2018.

Thatís all Iím saying.