The Rev. Brenda Iglehart is pictured in the lobby of the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick. Her congregation, First African Baptist on St. Simons Island, will host a Watch Night service from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 31 at the Ritz.

Each new year offers a chance to start over — to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. In the secular world, it’s often related to losing weight or letting go of a bad habit.

But for the Rev. Brenda Iglehart, the forthcoming year brings an opportunity for spiritually renewal and recommitment. The pastor of First Baptist African Church on St. Simons Island wants to offer her congregants and the community an opportunity to start off 2020 on the right foot.

“They always say whatever you’re doing on New Year’s Eve is what you’ll end up doing the whole year, so why not start off by praying? ” she said.

In African-American churches, there’s a lot of value and symbolism that accompanies the arrival of a new year. Historically, New Year’s Eve has also been referred to as Watch Night, a term that harkens back to the days of the Civil War. For slaves prior to the conflict, New Year’s Day was often referred to as “heartbreak day,” due to the number of families that were sold and separated.

But in 1862, everything changed. Slaves and abolitionists gathered together to await word of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was rumored to be coming from President Abraham Lincoln. They were “watching” for the news in the form of a telegraph message, a newspaper announcement or through word of mouth.

The wait ended on Jan. 1, 1863, when news of Lincoln’s proclamation arrived — all slaves were legally free. Since that time, African-American congregations have held services late evenings on New Year’s Eve, paying homage to their fore bearers.

Iglehart, who previously lived in Texas, says present-day Watch Night services have accumulated layers of meaning.

“There’s a lot of history, and it depends on where you’re from so I’m learning about history here that’s a little bit different than where we were. We did celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day though,” she said. “One thing I remember was we had a ‘watchman’ who would call out the time, kind of like a countdown to the new year.”

While her own congregation has kept in line with traditional services in years passed, this year Iglehart is looking to do something different. The church will hold its Watch Night service earlier — at 7 p.m. — and they’ve rented out the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick for the occasion.

“A lot of people don’t particularly want to come out that late at night — 10 or 11 o’clock — because of all the dangers now. At first, it was fireworks and firing guns, but now it’s gone beyond that. We’ve been having fewer and fewer people coming out,” she said.

“Many churches have been moving their services earlier to 7 or 7:30 p.m. and so won’t be gathering into the new year but in advance of the new year. But the whole gist of it is to celebrate what God has done and to close out the year with thanksgiving and praise, looking forward to the new year.”

Iglehart and her congregation are issuing an open invitation to the community to come and join them. The event, which will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 31, will include testimonies, prayer and songs.

“The inspiration came to me as I was praying over our Watch Night service. I thought it would be a great thing to just have a community gathering for those who could come ... for the ‘churched’ and ‘unchurched,’” she said with a laugh. “It’s just going to be a very casual, uplifting time of celebration for everybody. Let’s just come together to thank God for what the Lord has done thus far and look forward to a great new year.”

But she didn’t want to stop there. Iglehart wanted to create an outreach centered around the program.

“We often recite the Scripture — ‘we are blessed to be a blessing,’ which is from the Book of Corinthians. This is telling us that, whatever we have, whatever God has blessed us with comes so that we can bless someone else. We want to close the new year out doing that,” she said.

To that end, the church created “the last call,” which is a clothing drive for the homeless. They are collecting gloves, socks, hats and scarves, which will be packaged and distributed during the service.

“I know that people are giving all the time. In fact, we’re involved with The Well and Manna House. We just did our Angel Tree, ours is for the children of those who are incarcerated. But I read an article about people who are ‘in the shadow of the steeple.’ Those folks who are right around us and in need ... and we tend not to see those people,” she said.

“There’s a lot of concern for the homeless here, but I suspect they don’t show up in our churches. And probably won’t. But this is a time for everybody. So we’re going to issue a special invitation to those who are homeless, and we’re going to be a real community of faith.”

As the event ends, these special guests will be offered a gift of warmth as they depart.

“All of the homeless who come will receive one when they leave. No pressure — just come and be a part of the celebration and on the way out we will give you a gift of warmth,” she said.

While the event is the first of its kind, Iglehart is excited about the prospect. She feels that this type of program allows everyone the space to celebrate God’s gifts, whatever they may look like in one’s life. And, she feels, it will set a positive tone for the year to come.

“Those who don’t have houses still have something to celebrate. We still have life and limb — no matter our circumstances, God has still blessed us. I think we sometimes equate blessings with material things, when actually in the Bible, it’s very different,” she said.

“Being blessed has to do with being favored by God’s mercy, by God’s grace and His goodness. We want to share that. So whatever you have to celebrate, come on out and celebrate it with us.”

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