Where the Hope Is
Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church.
by Samuel G. Freedman.
HarperCollins. 373 pp. $22.50.
The Manhattan Institute, a conservative public-policy organization with a particular focus on issues affecting New York City, has since 1987 sponsored an annual lecture named in honor of the financier Walter Wriston. A black-tie affair attracting leaders from the worlds of politics, business, academia, and the arts, the Wriston Lecture has become a noteworthy event in the city’s cultural life. In recent years the Institute has offered its podium to the likes of Tom Wolfe, Milton Friedman, V.S. Naipaul, and Rupert Murdoch. But the 1992 Wriston Lecturer was a comparatively unknown figure—the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
Reverend Youngblood’s ministry among the predominantly black residents of a troubled New York City neighborhood is the subject of Samuel Freedman’s new book, an account of a year spent observing closely the various undertakings of the church and its pastor. Freedman provides a sympathetic and occasionally quite moving portrait of the moral and cultural universe created and sustained by black American Christians in the midst of the maelstrom that contemporary inner-city life has become. His book should be read, not so much for its prose, which is adequate to the task though seldom more than that, but rather for the window Freedman opens onto a world little known to outsiders.
Upon This Rock takes the reader on an unforgettable journey into the heart of black civil society—a society which, from the time of slavery, has been dominated by the black church. It reveals the depth and power of the personal commitments held by a legion of believers from every social background, to their God of course, but also to their fellow human beings of all races. In so doing, it makes clear why it is possible to hope that revival, physical and spiritual, may yet come to our blighted urban communities.
“Where the Hope Is” was, in fact, the title of Reverend Young-blood’s Wriston Lecture, presented just days after the 1992 election. The ironies, and the dangers, of the juxtaposition created by his invitation from the Manhattan Institute were clearly not lost on the speaker. Here was a black Baptist minister, a product of a New Orleans ghetto, a child of fundamentalist church upbringing, a man with a political sensibility forged by the biblical example of prophetic denunciations of injustice, an African-American keen to affirm the dignity and integrity of the black cultural heritage. He was standing before an establishment audience of elite power brokers, in a secular forum, speaking to representatives of “the system” at the behest of a conservative organization, just days after the election (for the first time in nearly a generation) of a Democratic President who would come into office with a mandate to address the central domestic ills of our society. What forces had conspired to bring about such an event? How could the speaker be true to his deepest convictions, political, racial, and spiritual, while making constructive use of the occasion?
The ironies of the event extended beyond the personal. If Reverend Youngblood had never imagined he would one day be speaking before such an audience, it is also likely that, until quite recently, many in the audience would not have been particularly interested in hearing from him. Similarly, ten years ago an account like Freedman’s would in all probability have been limited to a readership with a special interest in the sociology and theology of black religious life. But the profoundly threatening problems of urban social decay, together with the apparent failure of various programmatic efforts to fix what ails our cities, have forced those who lack an unshakable faith in the power of government to look in unusual places for hope.
For blacks, too, the cultural politics of the 90’s has made, or should make, strange bedfellows. As the political analyst Michael Barone has recently noted, whereas feminists set the dominant tone at the Democratic convention last year, the sentiments of religious traditionalists prevailed at the Republican gathering. In view of the indisputable cultural fact that vast numbers of black Americans believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried, and then literally raised from the dead so that we sinners might have eternal life, a reflexive support by spiritual leaders like Reverend Youngblood for the liberal political agenda has become increasingly difficult to justify.
The resulting tension between cultural politics on the one hand and the desperate need to find mechanisms of revival in the black ghettos on the other has created consternation among some early reviewers of Upon This Rock. For many liberals, blacks in their victimized state have been archetypal emblems of the need for a more “progressive” politics in American public life. But what is a good liberal to do if these very same victims, when acting as subjects of their own renewal rather than as objects of state-sanctioned relief, create institutions which embody culturally conservative principles, like the legitimacy of male governance of the church, or the righteousness of the age-old sanction against homosexuality?
When the principal expression of black religiosity reaching the public forum was the social gospel of Martin Luther King, Jr., liberals could take comfort in the authority being thus lent to the forward march of political reform. But when blacks, faced with the implications of astronomical out-of-wedlock birth rates and the virtual disappearance of male figures from positions of authority in the home, reject feminism for a more traditional perspective, then some liberals seem to feel it a duty to decry that people of good intentions should have stumbled upon such reactionary means to address their problems.
Thus, the writer Anthony Heil-but panned Freedman’s book in the New York Times Book Review, seeing Reverend Youngblood’s concern with the standing of men in his community as a disturbing “obsession.” Heilbut belittled the pastor’s opposition to abortion, found his sexual politics “disquieting,” and claimed that his efforts to salvage black fathers was taking place “at the expense of their wives and gay sons.” Similarly, the generally favorable reviewer of Freedman’s book in the Washington Post Book World worried that he was insufficiently critical of male dominance among the governing councils of St. Paul Community Baptist Church.
The point is not that Young-blood, or Freedman, is above criticism. But against the backdrop of what is being accomplished at St. Paul’s, the concerns of these reviewers seem bizarre. The black male as an “endangered species” is a perennial topic these days at liberal conference gatherings; how then can one reject as sexist a ministry which is successfully resurrecting precisely this endangered species? I have yet to hear the wives and children of these reclaimed husbands and fathers complain that the methods employed by Youngblood and other Christian practitioners engaged in similar efforts around the country are offensive to them. At the very least, apostles of “tolerance” owe inner-city black congregations respect, not derision, for the autonomous cultural choices they make.
Nor, it should be stipulated, does Youngblood’s position in this area make him a political conservative: no one attending his Manhattan Institute appearance last November, or reading Freedman’s book, could be confused on that point. Youngblood is an agitator; he uses the first-person plural when talking of people at the bottom of society, savagely defending their dignity, their right to the presumption of equal humanity, from the predations of elitists of all political persuasions. In his sermons, some quite eloquently and artfully captured by Freedman’s eyewitness account, he offers sharp criticisms of conservative political neglect. At the same time, he stuns a group of white seminarians with an unapologetic indictment of their abstract, philosophical stance of solidarity with the poor when there are so many opportunities to serve these same poor which are going unexploited.
But Youngblood also recognizes that respect for inner-city blacks will not come about as a result of legislative initiatives, or increased program budgets. To a former drug addict, habitual felon, or prostitute, politics cannot bring the sense of fulfillment and personal worth which is to be had through the hard and dedicated work of redemption and reconstruction. “Why do we rebuild?” he rhetorically asked his audience last fall. His answer: “We rebuild ‘that we no more be a reproach.’ We rebuild for our own dignity.”
The deepest scars of the victims of racism and oppression are worn, Youngblood understands, on the inside; the problems of their lives are often as much the manifestations of a spiritual vacancy as the evidence of a societal failing. He recognizes that to say this out loud is to risk being misunderstood by whites looking for an excuse to be rid of their social responsibilities. At the same time, he sees a Faustian bargain in the seductive temptation to remain silent.
As freedman paints him, Youngblood is a model of spiritual and moral leadership. Perhaps this is why some observers find it so hard to accept the message which flows out of his success, and that of his congregants. For the ultimate irony is that this success, achieved by deeply convinced believers in the face of the worst devastation our society seems capable of producing, may just point the way toward a recovery not only of the ghettos but of the country.
Teen pregnancy has risen astronomically among whites as well as blacks. The ravages of drugs know no racial or sociological barriers. The problems of our schools, and our seeming inability to meet effectively the challenges of foreign economic competition, are warning signs that all is not well with the American soul. Could it be that, in defiance of the dictates of political correctness and post-modern relativism, the struggle for survival and dignity among America’s traditional outcasts might yet point the way toward an ecumenical, multicultural salvation?
Such, at any rate, is the possibility suggested by a reading of Upon This Rock.