Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Churchby Samuel G. Freedman
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In this widely acclaimed bestseller, the author of Small Victories tackles another explosive issue, this time race in America, by taking an in-depth look at the pastor of a thriving black church in one of New York's most desperate slums.
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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.
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
I know He'll rise up
I'm gonna 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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Samuel G. Freedman, who has won numerous awards for investigative reporting and feature writing, is a former reporter for The New York Times. He has written frequently for Rolling Stone and has taught in the Columbia University Graduate Departments of Theater and Journalism. He lives in New York City with his wife, Cynthia.
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