Hearts and Souls

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

"Lord, we pray for the saints. Those who wanted to be here but because of illness and all kinds of calamities they're not able to be here -- have mercy upon them. And we, we're so thankful, God, that you're not a God limited by time or space, so reach out and bless them. I pray for young people. I pray for those of us who were called to lead them. Guide us, strengthen us, bless us so that we will be the role models that reflect the image of Christ. Have mercy today.

"For the sick, for those whose hearts are heavy because the angel of death came by, bless them and comfort them. Have mercy upon them.

"And Lord, we want to praise your name, but we can't do nothing until you come by -- send your Holy Spirit! So that whatever song the choir sings, whatever act of kindness that an usher does, whatever words you give your servant will be a blessing to somebody's life."

Ebenezer United Methodist Church (top) stands sentinel in a neighborhood that has changed around it, but devoted members like Tim Smith (above) provide stability
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Ebenezer United Methodist Church (top) stands sentinel in a neighborhood that has changed around it, but devoted members like Tim Smith (above) provide stability
William Francis, whose family has been attending Ebenezer for generations, commutes to church from his home in Pembroke Pines
Steve Satterwhite
William Francis, whose family has been attending Ebenezer for generations, commutes to church from his home in Pembroke Pines

Brown backs away from the podium. He dabs at perspiration with a handkerchief he holds in his right hand. He says nothing for ten seconds or so as he calms himself down. Finally he returns to the microphone, speaking in his natural, relaxed baritone. "Hear our prayers," he says. "Accept our thanksgiving. For we ask and we offer in the only way we know how, in the name of Him who made it all possible, the same Jesus that taught us to pray."

Four black families founded Ebenezer in 1898, two years after Miami incorporated as a city. The original wooden sanctuary stood in Overtown, a neighborhood popularly known as Colored Town, where a series of pastors guided the small church through the lean times facing blacks in what was then the segregated Deep South. Yet even through the Great Depression, the pioneer families dared to dream not only of surviving but of building a glorious spiritual home.

William Osborne Bartley got the new sanctuary built. Bartley was a high-profile pastor, virtually a celebrity, his generation's equivalent of Bishop Victor Curry, the modern-day radio personality, political activist, and leader of North Miami's New Birth Baptist Church. After Bartley took over Ebenezer in 1933, he increased membership tenfold. Weekly donations and tithes quadrupled. Attendance skyrocketed.

The pastor's appeal spanned color lines. At a time when blacks were so persecuted they couldn't even visit Miami Beach without a pass, Bartley somehow persuaded the all-white bus drivers of the Miami Transit Authority to "help Reverend Bartley build his church," as the drivers would cry, jiggling ten-cent bags of peanuts as riders stepped on to their buses. The fundraising helped Bartley reach his goal. On June 27, 1948, the Ebenezer congregation marched from the union hall where it had been holding services to the new church at 1042 NW Third Ave. The new building was a beauty, a Gothic Revival with a recessed entrance and lancet windows. Yet even in the larger sanctuary, Sunday visitors overwhelmed the balcony and forced late arrivals to sit in the aisles on rickety folding chairs.

Bartley left Ebenezer in 1950 for reasons no one seems to remember. That he had reached the Methodist Church's mandatory retirement age for pastors may have had something to do with it. Whatever his reason for leaving, he took half the congregation with him to a different church. Those who stayed out of loyalty to Ebenezer were forced to endure the brief tenures of two merely mortal pastors, men who failed to inspire the way Bartley had. In five years the congregation dwindled from more than 1000 active members to a scant 175.

Thank God for Rev. Aaron Hall. His "old-time gospel style of preaching," as it has been described, reinvigorated the church. When Hall took over in 1955, wayward Methodists began returning to the Ebenezer fold. For the next 33 years the church thrived, through desegregation and then through the urban renewal that decimated Overtown. When the construction of I-95 tore the neighborhood asunder, Hall transplanted his congregation to Allapattah and to the current structure, which Ebenezer took over from an Anglo congregation actively engaged in white flight. In the Allapattah sanctuary, Ebenezer membership returned to the four figures.

Hall retired in 1988. Attendance immediately plummeted, just as it did when Bartley left. A subsequent pastor quit in a huff over national church policies, taking some of the congregation with him to start a rival church. Another pastor followed with great ideas and great motivation but an inability to heal the wounds inflicted by his predecessor's split. A third pastor ran out of spirit after a strong start. By the end of his tenure, Sunday service at Ebenezer came to feel about as lively as a college library during spring break. The only people there were those who believed they absolutely had to be there. And they weren't particularly excited by their decision.

During the last two years before Reverend Brown took over in 1999, membership dropped to a frighteningly low 150. One Sunday only nine people showed up for the main service. The men's group disbanded. Operating budgets were cobbled together via a series of rallies, such as a Mother's Day rally, a baby rally, and a men's day rally -- the church rallied around anything that might generate a few desperately needed dollars.

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