Hearts and Souls

For more than 100 years, Ebenezer United Methodist Church has survived as a spiritual beacon and social landmark

NW 36th Street in Miami. Action Muffler, El Patio Body Shop, an old warehouse transformed into En Espiritu y En Verdad evangelical ministry. Jackson High School stands secure behind an imposing iron fence. Across the street, protected by its own fence, Ebenezer United Methodist Church looms over all, the church's walls painted the color of honey, its bell tower soaring seven stories above the dust and debris of Allapattah. A marquee in the Ebenezer parking lot advertises: "The church where there's always a warm welcome."

The Rev. Dr. Jimmie Brown arrives at Ebenezer already prayed up. It's his military background, no doubt. The man twice toured Vietnam as an air force police officer, earning a bronze star on his second stint for busting a plasma-smuggling ring. As a Metro-Dade cop, he rose from street patrol straight up to the rank of chief, ultimately overseeing the Special Investigations Division. While pursuing a doctorate in administration he put five kids through college and graduate school and watched as one of them, his middle boy, won a Super Bowl ring playing for the Denver Broncos. All the while he pastored part-time at two different churches in Broward County. Two years ago he retired from the police department and accepted a full-time assignment to Ebenezer. And as it is Sunday, and as it is ten minutes past eleven o'clock in the morning, he is alone in his office. He is not proofreading his second sermon of the day. He is not jotting down a last remark for the opening call to worship. He arrived, as he likes to say, prepared for kickoff.

Brown picks out a robe to wear over his pastoral collar. If this were the first Sunday of the month, he would probably don a white robe with red trim symbolizing the blood of Christ. During Black History Month, he wears only the kente cloth of a proud black man in charge of a proud, 103-year-old black church. On Graduate Appreciation Day in June, he wears no robe at all and lets a student give the sermon. This Palm Sunday he opts for what he calls his all-purpose robe. As he strides through a courtyard on his way to the sanctuary, Brown is a swirl of white cotton accented with clean black piping.

"Reverend Brown!" calls out a boy of eleven or so, earning a pat on the head as Brown breezes past. An elderly man holds out a hand, which Brown grasps firmly with both palms. Sometimes a politician, maybe state Sen. Kendrick Meek or former state attorney candidate Al Milian, will loiter in the courtyard for a chance to catch the pastor before he addresses his congregation. Brown usually shares a smile and a hug, but there's no time to be lobbied, and little interest anyway. It's kickoff, brother. There are souls waiting to be saved.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I'm found,

Was blind but now I see.

A choir of twelve opens the Sunday service. Eleven women and one man stand behind the altar, all wearing white suits, all swaying in time -- left foot, right foot, and back. A giant oak crucifix levitates behind them, floating in front of a deep maroon velvet curtain. Above the cross and curtain, sunshine filters through a large round stained-glass window. Brown sings along with the choir as he slips into his throne to the left of the rostrum.

From his seat Brown can see his flock of about 100 people, a fair turnout. They sit in blond pews padded with cranberry cushions. Ushers in crisp white uniforms police the red carpet that bisects the pews. The church walls are whitewashed, as is the ceiling four stories overhead. Aluminum air-conditioning ducts dot the ceiling in two neat rows of four. High on the walls, sunshine pours through small pairs of stained-glass windows, each pair arched to resemble fruit-colored angels' wings. The view is impressive. Former Miami City Commissioner Richard Dunn, upon a visit to the sanctuary, called Ebenezer "Miami's Notre Dame Cathedral."

The directory of The Gospel Truth newspaper lists 135 black churches in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Only two of those churches are Methodist. Although the United Methodist Church has been historically friendly toward blacks ever since church founder John Wesley baptized his first black convert in 1758, African Americans make up just a slim fraction of the church's 8.4 million members nationwide. When Reverend Brown goes to church conferences in Florida or elsewhere, he often finds he's one of only two or three black men in the room.

Methodism is a sensible religion. Church doctrine advocates self-discipline and social responsibility. The United Methodist Church is pro-choice. Homosexuality is accepted. Organ and tissue donation is promoted in a special Sunday service held once a year. Tobacco use is discouraged, though Reverend Brown admits an addiction to Vantage cigarettes. Methodism is a religion he fell into.

"I got involved in the Methodist Church when in high school down in Goulds," he explains. "At the time I was staying with my great uncle and aunt. She was Baptist. He was Methodist. Baptist folks stayed in church a long time. Methodist people didn't. They didn't make a lot of noise. So I would go to church with my uncle because we could go and be out and then go back and pick up my aunt later on."

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