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Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church.

Put me in a house of worship, any house of worship, and I'm usually as antsy as a grown-up Holden Caulfield. The feeling is pretty much the same whether I'm sitting in an Episcopal church, my nose made twitchy by whiffs of incense, or reeling and rocking with the gospelers of good feeling, or mumbling transliterated Hebrew prayers in the spirit house of my ancestors. I want deliverance, not from my awful ways but from all the smothering pietism.

That's why I had decidedly mixed emotions when I picked up Samuel Freedman's Upon This Rock, an account of the Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in East Brooklyn and its pastor, the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood. From Small Victories, his earlier book, I knew that Freedman was a writer with an ambition to tell all the stories, that he could produce a tale whose meanings reverberate beyond its particulars. That book delivered an account of life in New York City's Seward Park High that described daily heroics without ever slipping into hero worship - tellingly, its central character wound up giving up on teaching - which situated the grind of daily school life in its larger context, showing with an accumulation of lacerating specifics that this society gets exactly the schools it deserves.

It's one thing to crouch in the classrooms of an urban high school, though, and something altogether different to sit through endless Sunday morning epiphanies. There were moments when I was jittery reading in Upon This Rock about those impassioned sermons in not-Sunday-best Nikes, those testimonies of redeemed lives read from carefully folded pieces of paper. Yet for all my instincts to distrust, I was more often moved by what I read. What persuaded me - what sometimes made me weep - was not the power of the gospel but the individual struggles to rebuild wrecked lives, sheltered and pushed by a loving institution and a minister whom one parishioner calls "our Moses." In prose whose richness and texture matches its subject, Freedman shows how a community gets created in the kind of place conventionally doomed to failure, out of the kinds of people - dope fiends and street hustlers and girls who are themselves mothers - whom society has mostly written off. It's a remarkable book.

There are no second acts in American lives, it is conventionally said, but there have been as many acts in the lives of those at Saint Paul's as there are in the Ring Cycle. Take Tom Approbato, the only white member of the congregation, who grew up with the idea of becoming a Catholic priest but drifted away from religion - who first came to Saint Paul's because he fell in love with a blackwoman from this congregation, who stayed on after the relationship ended to sing in the choir and teach night school and, eventually, to enter the seminary himself. Then there is Robert Sharper, a carpenter who spent the better part of his life hooked on liquor and heroin and cocaine, who cleaned himself up and later started a group for addicts called the Wounded Healers. There is Kathleen Wilson, Gram to everyone, whose latest reclamation project is a boy with a touch-and-go chance of getting off the streets; and a mildly retarded boy named Randy Murphy, who holds onto the handwritten list that enumerates "My Goals" and dreams of living on his own. Circling through the narrative are the episodes that make up the life of the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, who has remade not just a dying church and a bombed-out neighborhood but himself as well - who during the course of this account reconnects both with a father he had walled off and a boy he had refused for years to acknowledge as his own son.

These powerful accounts are not offered as miniature profiles in courage, homages to "small is beautiful." In Upon This Rock, as in Small Victories, Freedman means to link the personal with those structures - social, economic and political - in which the personal is necessarily embedded. Almost everything that matters starts with individuals, the book intimates, and is sustained by institutions. While Freedman never says this straight out - his predilection is to show and not tell, to envelop the framework of argument in the masonry of detail - the stories from this "Church Unusual" make sense only in their contexts.

The gospel according to Saint Paul's is not aimed at the afterlife. The sermons - on the unhappily pregnant Mary; on the consequences of leaving, then getting "resurrected" - say as much. Instead, it is a matter of here-and-now justice for an embattled community. That means delivering an education for the children of the neighborhood, buying up nearby businesses to drive out the rackets, coaxing money from parishioners to burn up the mortgage on their church, working with local merchants to push for police protection, organizing the congregation to testify to the character of a longtime parishioner gunned down by an off-duty policeman, embarrasing politicians into supporting a church-run project that is building housing for 5,000 families - all in the name of a God ordinary people can feel and touch and smell.

Saint Paul's is no heaven on earth. The Reverend Youngblood set out to bring black men back into what had been a female-dominated institution; yet the way he has done so, by creating an all-male Board of Elders, effectively disfranchises the women. The church risks confusing God and mammon with its demands for "love offerings." And its model of the good life excludes many: There is a place for the addict who wants to be cured but no distribution of clean needles to addicts not ready to give up drugs, a home for the pregnant teenager but not for the gay teenager.

Some of these are conscious choices, others are reminders of the venerable prejudices of the church. But there can be no end point to this process of definition, no moment when Saint Paul's and the Reverend Youngblood can take things easy. With the tiger always at the gate, that kind of self-satisfaction would mean something like soul death. The chastising that Youngblood regularly and deliberately submits himself to at the hands of a Saul Alinsky-style community organizer shows this refusal to rest. The account of how Saint Paul's struggled to resolve the case of a church elder accused by a 10-year-old girl in the congregation of fondling her shows the pain and persistence of the tests from within.

Saint Paul's was a rotting-away building with a handful of parishioners when Johnny Youngblood was named its minister a generation ago. It has come alive since then, increased its membership rolls to 5,000, taken on missions that matter, through the rigor of sustained thought, the power of emotion and the impress of shared action. That is a gospel worth spreading.
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Author:Kirp, David L.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 26, 1993
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