"Brother, are you crazy?"
Daki Napata says he hears that question a lot these days. People can't believe that he would want to open a new church at Gold and Division streets in West Baltimore.
"It's a dangerous area, all right," Napata admits. "It's practically an open-air drug market. But that's where there's need for community, affirmation, interaction, regeneration. When people want to know if I'm crazy, I just tell them, 'If God is for us, who can be against us?' "
A local activist for social, racial and peace issues and an assistant to the Rev. Vernon Dobson at Union Baptist Church, Napata will lead inaugural services at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday at the church he has dubbed Minister Malcolm X New African Baptist Church.
In addition to being a mouthful to say, the name of the new church reflects important influences on Napata and the black community in general, he explains.
"You take the Islam of Malcolm, the self-awareness of people involved in New Africanism and the deep roots of the Baptist church, and you find a common thread running through all of it," says Napata, 39. "That thread is the way God can use anybody for good. There's unity in the fact that Malcolm's father was a Baptist minister. And there's unity in how all these traditions have concern for the outsider. To me, that is the best of faith."
Napata, a native of Norfolk, Va., says he first had the notion to start a church about two years ago, when he walked from Baltimore to Washington to call attention to the plight of the then-imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela.
"During that whole journey, I was on a spiritual high," he says. "I heard an inner voice from the creator. I just got this showering down of energy. I'd describe it as a mystical experience."
But not until recent months did Napata start the concrete work leading up to Sunday's opening of the church. Services will be held at a meeting hall/artist's studio owned by a friend of Napata's, at 2149 Division St.
"As I get older and reflect on life and death, and lately as I walk all over the city, I see that pain is so evident," he says. "You see more evidence of homelessness, poverty, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. It's painful to see, and seeing it made me move faster to start up this church."
Napata is not an ordained minister, but he says there are other ways a person can be "authorized" to lead a congregation. He cites his work with various outreach ministries at Union Baptist, his years as a community activist and his experience counseling U.S. soldiers in Vietnam during the early 1970s for problems ranging from drug addiction to "Dear John" letters.
In all his work, he says, he has tried to generate "a sense of community." That's why, when asked if the world really needs another church, he answers, "I'm not looking at this so much as the old idea of 'church,' but as the idea of community. I always think of church as community. Church is more than ritual and doctrine; it's interaction."
The new church will be officially dedicated at the 3 p.m. service on Sunday. Among those expected to be on hand to lend their moral support and blessing are Dobson; the Rev. Frank Ellis Drumwright Jr., the director of a campus ministry at Morgan State University; Napata's wife, Deena, and their three children; his mother, Louise Ford; and his sister, Idame McCormick, a minister at Hemingway Temple African Methodist Episcopal in Cherry Hill.