In the heart of Augusta’s black community, the Ushers and Usherettes Union of Georgia are preserving a religious tradition that traces its roots to 1946.
They dress in crisp uniforms – women in navy dresses with a white collar, stockings, short heels and pearl earrings; men in navy or black suits with a tie or bow tie. Hands are always covered in white gloves and shoes must be shined.
Each Sunday, the members serve at their individual churches. Several more times during the week, the Ushers Union joins together to answer the call from pastors and funeral homes to keep order in the congregation at large funerals, revivals and church anniversary services.
“In the Bible, it says I’d rather be a doorkeeper in my father’s house than to dwell in the wicked tents,” said Ed Lowery of Good Samaritan Baptist Church. “We are like the sergeant’s arm in the church.”
In 1946, usher ministries were common to many area churches, but the Rev. J.L. Little of Trinity CME Church suggested the various churches form a single group to foster a unified spirit within the congregations.
From that request grew the Ushers Union that exists today – a ministry of more than 250 ushers from 28 churches in Richmond and Burke counties.
The majority of the churches in the union are located in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. The board of directors meets in a beauty salon on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard owned by Leila Lewis, president of the Ushers Union since 1991.
Lewis’ father was a Baptist minister who reared eight children, instructing each to choose a role in church services. Some of her siblings chose singing in the choir, but Lewis was drawn to usher as a young child.
“We didn’t know anything else,” Lewis said. “Growing up in my home, everybody had to have a role to do.”
Beyond distributing programs and fans at the church door or delivering water and a handkerchief to the pastor, the Ushers Union helps sustain the traditions of black spirituality.
At a church service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, women and men marched up the side aisles at Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel. Stepping in sequence and gently swaying left and right, they sang an African spiritual while collecting the congregation’s money offering.
“Tell heaven,” they sang, “Lord, I’m coming home.”
The Ushers Union has its own praise team and choir that often start church programs with a devotional song. Its members also visit the sick and shut-ins, collect canned goods for the hungry and donate flowers or money for funerals.
Religious traditions haven’t changed much since Ruthie Jordan joined the union in 1976. Membership is strong, but it’s a challenge to attract new, young ushers, she said. Many of the ushers from her early years in the union have died or are too elderly to continue serving.
But its members insist the Ushers Union isn’t going anywhere as long as religious leaders in Augusta, such as the Rev. Larry Fryer and Bishop L.A. Greene, continue to invite the union to participate in services.
“When we’re coming, they know us by face,” Lowery said. “You’ll always see a friendly face at the door.”