Salvage Mission for the Inner City

IN "Upon This Rock," Samuel G. Freedman's moving account of the extraordinary ministry of the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood and his congregation at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., a former drug addict testifies to the church's effect on his life.

"The first time I came to St. Paul," he tells the congregation, "Pastor Youngblood had preached on how God was in the salvage business, takin' and repairin' cars what was used. I thought he was just talkin' to me. 'Cause I needed a complete overhaul."

The salvage metaphor is only one of many in Mr. Youngblood's repertoire designed to awaken the congregation - residents of one of the most forsaken inner-city neighborhoods in the United States, the author says.

In a sermon called "Christmas in the Raw," Youngblood paints Mary as an unwed pregnant mother and Joseph as a guy whose faith helps him endure the taunts of the guys on the corner that he has been cuckolded. In "Lazarus and the Black Man," the minister makes a connection between the Biblical Lazarus and the black man - both seemingly forsaken by God. In the Bible, Jesus comes and revives Lazarus. Youngblood is trying to help his congregation understand that God will show up for them, too.

In Freedman's first book, "Small Victories" (1990), nominated for a National Book Award, the former New York Times reporter wrote about a New York public-school teacher and her poor immigrant students. In "Upon This Rock," he has again found a story of an inspiring leader and of triumph over adversity.

Part of Youngblood's appeal to his congregation, which spans those from wealthy to struggling, is his ability to connect the church and spirituality to their daily lives. He eschews the more traditional wait-for-deliverance-in-the-promised-land brand of rhetoric for an approach committed to change in the present.

His ministry is about healing, about becoming whole. To build a nation, he tells his "folk," as he calls them, they must first rebuild themselves and their family relationships. His first step was to see God, not as the stern, angry, Southern Baptist deity he and they had grown up with, but as a loving and forgiving God.

He also demanded that his parishioners salvage the world outside their door. In 1974 he instituted the Biblical tradition of tithing and used the money to build a school on the church site, to purchase nearby businesses, and to pay college fees for children in the congregation. He began a controversial ministry that pulled black men back into the church. By co-chairing a community organization called East Brooklyn Congregations, he helped build 2,300 single-family homes in the neighborhood.

These accomplishments, both internal and external, are told in moving personal narratives by church members.

Tom Approbato, the congregation's one white member, is inspired by the minister to seek the Roman Catholic priesthood; Robert Sharper finds purpose by forming the Wounded Healers support group for addicts; Annie Nesbitt is saved from despair after losing her husband to senseless violence.

Youngblood's own story is told with candor. From accounts of his childhood as a boy preacher, through his spiritual crisis at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, to recent travails in acknowledging a long-denied son born out of wedlock, we see the genesis of his theology. We learn that his search for a relationship with a God who accepts a flawed man is the key to the unique ministry he calls "Church Unusual."

"With Rev. Youngblood, scriptural exegesis carried with it painful autobiography," writes Freedman. "In exposing his own flaws, in annotating his own therapy, Rev. Youngblood sought to heal by example, leaving others in their personal lives to follow his model."

By joining forces with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which has helped form more than 30 organizations of the working poor around the country, Youngblood expanded his vision. The chapters on the work of East Brooklyn Congregations in breaking through bureaucratic gridlock and institutionalized racism to fix schools, clean up supermarkets, and get houses built provide a window on the creation of grass-roots power.

Strangely, Freedman barely mentions the riots between blacks and Jews in nearby Crown Heights, nor does he explore the political battles Youngblood must have fought to accomplish what he has. Seeing the clergyman negotiate these hurdles would only strengthen his example.

But Freedman is more interested in people than in polemics. He writes lyrical, emotional narratives, not proscriptive diatribes geared to provoking debate.

At a time when most of the nation has written off the possibility of revitalization of our inner-city neighborhoods, "Upon This Rock" provides a route back to hope for all readers.

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