Make a pilgrimage to experience the gospel of Reverend Al Green.

By Zoe McDonald
February 27, 2019

It’s a bright Sunday morning in Whitehaven, a neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, and inside the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, music begins to reverberate.

“Like a ship…” sings a voice from the pulpit. It’s The Reverend Al Green, and he’s singing “The Lord Will Make A Way,” a gospel song from his album of the same name. An energy spreads throughout sanctuary. The choir behind him sways and harmonizes while members and visitors in the pews become, one by one, moved to their feet.

For first-time visitors of the church, there will only be a few clues to what lies ahead when you arrive at the unassuming house of worship.

Behind the pulpit sit four brown leather armchairs, with one draped in an embroidered red fabric that reads “Bishop Al Green.” In a corner of the sanctuary, a band that looks and sounds like one you might find on Beale Street sets up under a smiling black-and-white portrait of the church’s leader.

Chandeliers hang above, and at the building’s corners are stained glass patches of greens, blues, and burnt siennas. Late morning sun streams in, meaning that it’s almost 11:30. The service is about to start.

A deacon begins, speaking to the church’s modest-sized congregation, plus a slew of visitors who have come to see the soul music legend turned man of God.

After a welcome message, the band picks up, and there, in white robes, appears Memphis soul singer, Grammy winner, and 2014 Kennedy Center honoree Al Green. His voice still sounds as velvety and full as it surely did at the beginning of his career.

This is no straight-backed church service. The groove is there for you to follow. It won’t be difficult, because these beats lend themselves to clapping and swaying. Rev. Green himself can’t keep from putting his hands together or closing his eyes and letting the music move him. He is known for his free-form, hours-long services, shared through a combination of singing, sermon, and prayer. From the pews, a chorus of “amens,” “hallelujahs” and “yes, Lords” pepper into the service. This is a component of worship at Full Gospel, where the Reverend’s sermon takes up an almost call-and-response format, and members of the congregation might even feel inspired to stand and share a profound story or prayer themselves.

Among the long-time church members and families are tourists who want to hear and experience Al Green’s gospel. On this particular day, Green noticed an unfamiliar face and asked where they came from to visit his church. “Ontario,” they said. Rev. Green chuckled, smiled, and welcomed the guest.

On almost every Sunday, for over 40 years, this is where you’ll find soul singer Al Green, who recorded “Let’s Stay Together” in 1971. He made a number of popular soul hits at Memphis’ Royal Studios before one day waking up reborn and pivoting to gospel music in 1977, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Upon this divine awakening, Green bought a church in the south Memphis neighborhood and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He established The Full Gospel Tabernacle on December 19, 1976.

Memphis is where Arkansas-born, Michigan-raised Green got his start in music. And, now, Memphis is where Green leads locals and visitors alike in worship, using the same rich croons and falsettos that originally brought him fame.

Thinking about making a pilgrimage of your own to worship with Al Green? He’d be glad to have you, he said in a 2016 interview with the Commercial Appeal.

“You might have come on your vacation—we get a lot of that. Well, we say while you’re here, why don’t we do a little bit of ‘Amazing Grace.’ It may help you along your way. I don’t take it as anything else but an opportunity. If God gives me this audience, I’ll preach the Word to them,” Green told the Memphis publication.

The Full Gospel Tabernacle is located at 787 Hale Road, just a few minutes from Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

Near the end of the service, Green provided a glimpse at why, so many years ago, he decided to lead this church.

“I am what God says I am,” Green said. “I wouldn’t be alive if God hadn’t chose to put me at this pulpit. Amen.”