On Sunday morning, the pastor wore a Saints hoodie and his flock was decked out in black and gold.
The first Who Dat chorus came right after the announcements.
“It is a WhoDat Sunday! We know we’re going to have a victory celebration!” said Karmen McKinley, as she cued a tape of “Choppa Style” and led a chant from the lectern as feet danced and umbrellas twirled.
“Black and gold to the Super Bowl,” McKinley said. “Let’s go; let’s go. Who Dat? Who Dat? One more time — everybody in this building scream, ‘Who Dat!’ ”
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Welcome to “Saints Day” at Abundant Life Tabernacle on Franklin Avenue — a pre-game pep rally for the faithful, held before the New Orleans Saints faced off with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC divisional playoff game.
Across town all last week, people showed up at churches, temples, masjids and other places of worship decked out in black and gold.
The overlap between religion and Saints football in New Orleans dates back to the mid-1960s, when the team’s name was adopted with the approval of then-Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, who assured Gov. John McKeithen that he didn’t find the name sacrilegious, and then offered an invocation at the Saints’ first game in 1967.
But the Rev. Tyrone Jefferson, 45, took it to another level Sunday at Abundant Life Tabernacle, referred to simply as “The Tab” by its members.
The Saints Day service was Jefferson’s way of responding when his flock began leaving Sunday morning services early to join the Who Dat nation.
They were doing it politely, by pointing upward in what’s been called “the church finger,” a traditional signal for ‘pardon me.’ ” But they were leaving in increasing numbers over the past several weeks.
Jefferson shook his head. “No matter how high I was with the spirit, people would be looking at their watches and their phones. When it got close to noon, I’d see index fingers raising into the air and people would tiptoe out.”
It cut especially close to home for Jefferson, since the exiting crowd included his mother, Brenda King Smith, an ardent Saints fan. “Even in the middle of my preaching, I’d see an index finger raised point upwards and then she would leave,” he said. “And it wasn’t just her.”
“I was one of them,” said McKinley, the pastor’s assistant.
First, Jefferson decided to intensify and shorten his 10:30 a.m. service, to allow his congregants to fully worship but be home by Saints kickoff time. Jefferson, a true performer in the pulpit, gave his congregation a full, passionate sermon, and a call-and-response segment so moving that he began walking into the congregation, across rows of chairs.
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Then, as he mopped the perspiration from his forehead with a Saints-appropriate black handkerchief, he launched into a prayer for the team. “We thank you for unity. We thank you for the New Orleans Saints and every Who Dat fan,” Jefferson said before concluding, “We seek victory now, in the name of Jesus.”
Jefferson isn’t a huge gridiron fan himself, despite the influence of his mother and two Saints-loving grandmothers, Mildred Jefferson and Yvonne Duvernay. He particularly remembers on Sundays after church, how Grandma Jefferson would cheer loudly for the Saints as she cooked Sunday dinner and watched the game on a small kitchen TV.
“As a man of God, I have to pray that God’s will be done,” Jefferson said. “But I will express to the Lord that I want the Saints to win, because my people want them to win.”
McKinley, 42, said that her lifelong love of the Saints was made more meaningful because of the team’s notorious losing years, during which some fans wore paper bags on their heads. “I believe the rough times made us stronger,” she said. “It gave us a shared sense of belief in our city.”
As she left the service Sunday with her 10-year-old daughter, Taylor, Meisha Jackson said that the city feels different during Saints season.
For her, it made sense that Saints fans could seamlessly move from expressing love for God to showing love for their team. “It has the same flow, because it’s about being with the ones you love,” she said.
Plus, during Saints season, the term “loved ones” expands to include anyone in black and gold. “We come together,” Jackson said.
On Sunday, their love for their team was rewarded with a win.
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