In the story of a church, a look at inner city life

February 14, 1993|By Diane Winston

UPON THIS ROCK:

THE MIRACLES

OF A BLACK CHURCH.

Samuel G. Freedman.

HarperCollins.

384 pages. $22.50.

Toward the end of "Upon This Rock," a book about a black Baptist congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y., Samuel G. Freedman describes a 1981 meeting between leaders of a church-based community group and local political leaders. The group, modeled on Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation (which inspired BUILD, a similar organization, in Baltimore), wanted to see if the politicos shared their agenda for community revitalization.

" 'What is your vision for Brooklyn?' Reverend [Johnny Ray] Youngblood asked.

"Golden [Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden] appeared confused.

" 'Vision?' he asked. 'What do you mean, vision?'

" 'Vision,' Reverend Youngblood repeated. 'How do you see the future of Brooklyn?'

"Golden turned to Towns [Edolphus Towns, a black member of Golden's organization], his racial interpreter.

" 'What is this? Vision? Is this a religious thing?' "

This interchange, as revealing as it is droll, points to the many virtues in Mr. Freedman's chronicle of a year in the life of St. Paul Community Baptist Church. Not only is the reader in the hands of a writer who can tell a good story, but he is also in the midst of a poignant blend of religion and politics, hope and despair, vision and human frailty.

Juggling all these elements in a narrative that intertwines individual testimonies, the life of the church, and the realities of inner-city black Americans, "Upon This Rock" has an ambitious scope. It aims to tell many stories. Among them are the personal journeys of St. Paul's members: a white congregant studying for the ministry; a former drug addict committed to recovering his African heritage; a hard-working grandmother who takes in stray

children. Binding these tales together is the odyssey of the church's pastor, Johnny Ray Youngblood, who, in the course of the year Mr. Freedman spends with him, makes amends both to his estranged father and the son he sired out of wedlock.

The minister's story enables Mr. Freedman to explore the struggles facing black men today. While Rev. Youngblood is eloquent on the need for men to take responsibility for their actions, the difficulty he himself has -- in accepting his father and acknowledging his son -- underscores the complexity of acting on good intentions.

Rev. Youngblood, who is undoubtedly a stirring preacher, a sensitive pastor and an exemplary role model, does suffer under the strain of so much sensitivity. He is always trying to do the right thing -- whether engaging in 8 a.m. soul-searching sessions or empathizing with the struggles of an African chief in Ghana. It would have been reassuring, and more believable, if Mr. Freedman had occasionally depicted him off guard.

Nevertheless, Rev. Youngblood's mix of sensitivity and street savvy makes him an apt guide for this tour of inner-city life. He sees and deals with it all: decaying neighborhoods, random violence, teen-age pregnancy. More to the point, he has solutions. He has made his church and his ministry relevant: by acknowledging the reality of teen-age mothers by reminding congregants at Christmas that Mary was one, by helping merchants and citizens lean on local police for more protection, and by organizing an interracial, interfaith coalition to revitalize devastated neighborhoods.

Rev. Youngblood believes the church must respond to community needs. Eager to bring men into the congregation, he begins by acknowledging men at services, organizing a men's study group and reconstituting church leadership into an all-male governing board. His strategy works: St. Paul's becomes a magnet for boys and men.

Any reader seeking to understand the issues facing black Americans would do well to start with this book. It personalizes the realities behind headlines and offers a hopeful scenario for self-help and community empowerment. Mr. Freedman engages all the dimensions underlying the contemporary scene.

He discusses black history, black religion and the sociological dimensions of current problems. But he does not lose sight of how Rev. Youngblood and his church address those problems. Most inspirational are the descriptions of what people united by a common vision can accomplish -- in particular, Project Nehemiah, a public-private housing partnership started by the church-based community group that Rev. Youngblood headed.

In the scope of a short book, Mr. Freedman cannot fully flesh out all the issues and all the stories he begins. Consequently, a reader may wish to know just what happened to that aspiring white minister or the kindly grandmother. Similarly, a reader may want to know more about issues, events and organizations the author mentions -- whether it's the plight of the black man, the Alinsky organizational model or the role of the black church. For those readers eager to push ahead, Mr. Freedman does include an extended bibliography to guide further study.

Ms. Winston, a former Sun reporter, is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Princeton.

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