Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church

Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church

by Samuel G. Freedman

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In the heart of an American city, in a neighborhood of such poverty, crime, and despair that a visiting mayor once called it "the beginning of the end of our civilization, a remarkable community has come together - a community that has daringly refused to accept a decline that seemed inevitable, a community that has taken command of its own destiny, a community that… See more details below


In the heart of an American city, in a neighborhood of such poverty, crime, and despair that a visiting mayor once called it "the beginning of the end of our civilization, a remarkable community has come together - a community that has daringly refused to accept a decline that seemed inevitable, a community that has taken command of its own destiny, a community that has come to experience miracles as everyday occasions. In little over a decade, Saint Paul Community Baptist Church has transformed one of New York City's most depressed areas into one that is vital, committed, and thriving. Under the leadership of its dynamic and controversial pastor, Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood, Saint Paul has successfully shouldered the responsibilities for not only its members' spiritual well-being but also their daily lives. It has built affordable housing, created a school, replaced brothels and numbers joints with family stores. And, through a series of innovative programs, it has rescued even those who have traditionally eluded the black church, from drug abusers to the neighborhood's youth and men. Here is a church that has found the divine in the pulpit and the streets, that has tested and tempered its spirituality in activism. In Upon This Rock, Samuel Freedman, author of the National Book Award finalist Small Victories, chronicles a year in the life of Saint Paul, a year of risks and rewards for the entire congregation. At the center of the narrative is Reverend Youngblood himself, an unconventional minister who confronts his public and private crises with a wisdom informed by worldliness, and who leads the five thousand souls in his care with equal measures of humor and passion. Among those souls we meet a sturdy grandmother who has taken on the care of many of the neighborhood's children; a former addict who uses his own near death as a foundation for guiding others through recovery; two women seeking justice for a senseless slaying; and the church's sole white memb

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A testament to how an individual and a group can be innovative, resourceful and brave—and achieve the near-impossible.
Kirkus Reviews
Freedman (Journalism/Columbia), author of the acclaimed Small Victories (1990), about the tribulations of an N.Y.C. English teacher, turns his attention to a Brooklyn minister and his can-do church—with riveting results. When the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood assumed leadership of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York—the most violent neighborhood in the city—his parishioners numbered 84. Fifteen years later, the church counts 5,000 members and a full-time staff of 51. What made the difference? Above all, Youngblood's skill in attracting African-American males, who traditionally drop off their women at the church door. Youngblood developed a ministry "that builds a nation by building a family, that builds a family by telling a man to act like a man." There were other innovations, too: tithing, buying up neighborhood buildings, establishing groups for ex-convicts and ex-addicts, etc. This is an activist ministry, bootstrap religion—and the results speak for themselves, in hundreds of reclaimed lives. Freedman, sensibly, lets Youngblood and his followers do all the preaching. Incredible stories abound, from that of a junkie who pulls himself into dignity to that of the church's only white member, who turns from despair to hope with Youngblood's encouragement. The minister, too, undergoes a redemption, acknowledging the son he fathered out of wedlock while a young man in New Orleans. Freedman recounts Youngblood's life history, as well as that of the church and the neighborhood, but all this is icing. The cake is the joyous, fighting life of the congregation as it sings, prays, begs, yells, and loves, proclaiming the message of liberation, which Freedmancalls the essence of African-American spirituality. The legacy of Martin Luther King in all its glory, and more proof that the struggle for social justice may have religion at its core.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Another Beggar

The first African slaves arrived in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1626. Some thirty-four years later, it is recorded, slaves appeared in the adjoining town of Brooklyn. Well before the end of the century, historical accounts tell of their presence in the expanse of flatland and estuary called New Lots, which someday would be subsumed by Brooklyn, as Brooklyn would be subsumed by New York.

Slaves tilled the soil for corn and potatoes and wheat. They built the mills along the salt creeks. They raised the horses their masters raced for amusement. On Sundays the Dutch, believing themselves enlightened, allowed their African captives to worship in church. Christianity would keep their minds safely centered on the next world.

Still, these Africans confounded their masters, the way they clung to such strange names as Kouba and Yaft, and commingled Christianity with belief in spirits, potions, and charms. There was even a rebellion in New Amsterdam in 1712, and nine whites fell beneath hatchets and knives. Not until 150 years after slaves were first sent to New Lots did one merit burial in the yard of the Dutch Reformed Church:

Sacred to the memory of Flora,
A colored woman, who died Jan. 5, 1826, aged 104 years
Strong faith, trusting in her Savior

One hundred sixty-three years later and seven blocks away, the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood mounts the altar of the Saint Paul Community Baptist Church to celebrate Christmas Eve. His step remains springy at the age of forty-one, his years betrayed only by a dusting of gray on each temple. He wears vestments trimmed with ebonyvelvet, its shade not much darker than that of his skin. Beneath the broad cedar beams of the roof, behind a lectern decorated with pin lights and evergreen sprigs, Reverend Youngblood's eyes flicker, and his high cheeks rise even higher. He is smiling at the faces before him that fill twenty-three rows of pine pews, back to the rear wall with its stained glass and tall chimes; he is smiling at the faces that stretch off to his left, claiming the metal folding chairs of the new wing. The assemblage today comes to one thousand worshipers, people who, like their pastor, descend from African chattel, who, like him, have lived against all adversity to see this holy day. Reverend Youngblood calls them "my folk."

He sees the ushers, the women in white dresses, the men in navy suits, each adorned with a medal of brass and enamel, seating the stragglers. He nods toward the wings for his childhood friend, Eli Wilson, to strike the organ chords of "For God So Loved the World." He hears from behind him the choir, bedecked in gray robes with lavender piping and a treble clef across the chest, lifting their voices into a great graceful arc. He feels on his shoulder the strong hand of Douglas Slaughter, the young minister he discovered waiting tables in Atlanta, and who now is his prot‚g‚.

And after the hymn subsides, Reverend Youngblood prays. He prays for friends and family and health; for Saint Paul is a place not only of faith but of hope. There are clipped shrubs on the lawn and poinsettias in the windows and a neon cross that bears the promise jesus saves. There are a school and a bookstore and a computer system all beneath its roof. Where only eighty-four worshiped when Reverend Youngblood first was called, fifteen years ago, now the rolls tally close to five thousand. Why, in the last year alone, Saint Paul has seen the joys of 12 weddings, 16 conversions, 68 baby blessings, 275 baptisms, 620 new memberships.

But as he continues, head bowed and eyes closed, Reverend Youngblood prays also for the "enemies who give us reason to pray." Of these, too, God has provided an abundance. Around the oasis that is Saint Paul sprawls a landscape of tenements and housing projects, of vacant lots where factories once stood, and locked and barred bungalows where decent people still try to live. It is not the places or their people that are the pastor's foes, but rather the forces of poverty and racism and industrial decline that created them, and perhaps most of all the crime that feasts upon them. In the slum called East New York, which stands on the bones of the Dutch settlement of New Lots, the last year counted the greatest concentration of violence in all New York City--90 murders, 102 rapes, robberies and assaults by the thousand. Only hours earlier on this blessed morning, a nine-year-old boy died in the neighborhood hospital, shot through the window of his aunt's apartment by a drug dealer who had mistaken his silhouette for that of a rival.

The police in this precinct wear T-shirts that say the killing fields. Even Saint Paul must guard its entrance with electronic surveillance and surround its parking lot with a chain-link fence topped by razor wire. Despite the activities during the week, the choir rehearsals and Bible study classes and myriad ministries, even the brawniest men would sooner double-park outside the church than turn a corner beyond its view.

It is not merely Reverend Youngblood's vanity to believe that Saint Paul is the best thing for blocks around. In the program each worshiper receives this morning, on the page labeled "Updates from 'The Paul,'" there are notices of adult education classes and sales of a videotape of a recent choir concert and the upcoming appearance by the church's youth group in a dance competition. So full of good news is the column that for one of the rare Sundays it omits Reverend Youngblood's request that parents lend him their children's report cards so that he can read their grades from the pulpit. In ways both obvious and ineffable, Sunday redeems all else.

"This is a party, y'all," Youngblood now tells the congregants, and Eli Wilson carves the deep groove of the gospel song called "Jesus Is the Light." Across the stage, his assistant, James Jones, answers on grand piano. The choir sways from side to side, hands clapping and shoulders shaking. Reverend Youngblood bounces forward on his feet, and pounds the beat into the air fist after fist, like a fighter working the heavy bag. Even the ushers, instructed to hold one hand at their sides and one behind their backs, quiver against the impossible ideal of restraint.

"Now I know we got a 'small' ensemble in the choir loft," Eli says teasingly, as he drops the volume and wipes his brow, "and I can see by the looks on your faces out there, I know what you're thinking. You think we've just come to entertain this morning. Don't you?" He lets the phrase linger. "Well, we didn't. Just because the small ensemble is in the choir loft doesn't mean you're off the hook. We came to worship. Amen?"

"Amen," one thousand voices shout.

"All right?"

"All right."

Eli has a voice from an oaken cask, a voice that can inflate a bare room without effort. But now he leaps up from the organ, pulling the microphone with him, and begins to rip and tear through the song. He turns its melody into an obstacle course of grace notes and minor keys, erupting into phrases of praise, reeling back from the mike to narrow his eyes and clamp his lips in resolve, and finally pitching forward again into a fervent, shamanistic kind of call-and-response.

I know He'll show up
In me
I know He'll rise up
Rise up
I'm gonna praise Him
Praise Him

In the pews, arms swing and tilt like saplings in a strong wind. Heads bob by the score, heads in African kufi hats and Jamaican dreadlocks, in Madison Avenue mink and Fourteenth Street felt. Whatever the style, it is almost certainly the most elegant its owner can afford. Appearances at Saint Paul deceive. The man who wears pinstripes on Sunday may own no other suit. The woman in silk may have saved for months to buy it at the outlet mall in Reading. Yes, there are doctors and lawyers and executives, but more commonly there are packers and mailmen, secretaries and mechanics. The clue is in the hands. Saint Paul is a church of coarse hands, of oddly bent fingers and callused palms and broken nails with bruises beneath the polish, for even those hands that can now linger over a balance sheet or a computer keyboard in childhood probably picked tobacco in the Carolinas.

Normally, following the song, Reverend Youngblood would declare that each member "share the good news with your neighbor," but today the congregation needs no such cue. Instantly the sanctuary resembles an immense indoor square dance as people hug, kiss, and clutch, all the while stepping in cadence with the song. From opposite ends of the room, siblings or spouses or friends fall together in embraces so desperate and enveloping they look like newly united survivors of a shipwreck. By threes or fives, others sink to their knees in communal prayer, the urgent sound of "Bless you" rising like steam from their midst.

Steep swells of music wash forward and back. Somewhere in the maelstrom a tambourine beats. Somewhere an old man dances a jig. Somewhere a voice cries, "Thank you, Jesus." And before the last "Hallelujah" has faded, Reverend Youngblood shoots Eli a glance, and Eli deflects it toward the choir, and the next spiritual commences its slow, inexorable ascent. Upon This Rock. Copyright © by Samuel G. Freedman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Alex Kotlowitz
"This elegantly written book reawakens us to the fullness of the human spirit."

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