Hearts and Souls

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

"I wouldn't have come to Miamuh myself if it was like this in 1946."

After hesitantly approving Brown as the new pastor, the Ebenezer trustees crossed their fingers and prayed he would revive their flagging congregation. They didn't have to wait long. "From that very first sermon, it was like he'd always belonged," recalls William Francis, a member of Ebenezer since birth. "I can't remember the name of the sermon, but the way he came across, it was like he'd been there the whole time."

His impact was not limited to sermons. Brown ordered an array of physical improvements. In the sanctuary the two wooden pulpits were replaced with glass ones etched with the Methodist cross and flame. Brown installed the "warm welcome" sign on 36th Street, ensuring a different inspirational message appears on both sides to catch commuters coming and going. In an attempt to raise Ebenezer's visibility, he began sending the choir on weeknight tours of churches all over South Florida.

"He has me doing more work for the church than I do at my regular job," moans Valerie Thomas, a choir soloist.

The parking lot is now paved. Sunday sermons reverberate through the sanctuary on speakers that no longer crackle or hiss. In the Fellowship Hall, where the congregation sometimes gathers after the 11:15 service to share meatballs, fried chicken, and lemonade, Brown installed small round tables to foster intimacy. A new air conditioner cools a conference room reserved for the men's group, which Brown reconstituted.

That men's group is run by William Francis. When Francis returned to Miami two years ago from a 30-year hitch in the army, Brown personally asked him to revive the dormant service organization. Francis is a member of the oldest Ebenezer family. In 1948, when Ebenezer moved into its new Overtown sanctuary, congratulatory programs featured a back-page advertisement for the Francis Funeral Home, owned by William's father. Twelve members of the family were pictured in the ad. William -- William Osborne Francis, after the legendary pastor -- wasn't even born yet. Some 50 years later, only William and one of his brothers remain active in Ebenezer. The rest of his five siblings live in North Miami-Dade or Broward and attend other churches.

According to new U.S. Census data, the number of blacks living in the City of Miami fell by thirteen percent over the past ten years. So strong is the pull north that Ebenezer held its annual picnic last year at a tree-shaded pavilion in C.B. Smith Park -- in Pembroke Pines. Francis lives in Pembroke Pines himself, in a gated community built around a lake with an illuminated fountain spraying water twenty feet into the air.

"My daughter picked out this place for us," Francis elucidates during a tour of his complex. "We told her what we wanted: a place not too crowded, quiet environment, pretty peaceful. This is what she selected. If you look at the news, you see that everybody's moving out of Overtown and Liberty City. I don't know why. It can't be the crime, because crime is way down. I can't put my hand on it."

Under Francis the men's group is doing better. Membership has increased. The regular Monday meetings are more popular, if only slightly. One Saturday each month Francis and his men cook up eggs, grits, and selections from the Methodist hymnal for a morning prayer breakfast. On the Friday before Mother's Day, the men's group rented the Caleb Center and threw a banquet for all the church mothers and their daughters.

There remains much room for improvement. In April the men's group sponsored the construction of a Habitat for Humanity house. Only three Ebenezer men showed up to help build it, and one of those volunteers was Reverend Brown. As much as Francis wants the men's group to thrive, he wonders if his efforts will ever really amount to anything.

"People are moving further and further out," he articulates. "The way the economy is, they may feel it costs too much to travel back and forth to the city, to church, and to meetings. We might have quite a few former members that now go to church closer to where they live.

"The biggest thing, like Reverend Brown says, is to get membership back up. I don't know how much more we can do. I mean, we've generated a lot of publicity for Ebenezer. We've had a lot of functions: bake sales, revivals, seminars. We had a mothers-and-daughters banquet, which we never had before. We had Greek color day, where fraternity and sorority members from other churches were invited to worship with us -- something that never happened before. We get all these people in church that we never had before. Then next Sunday rolls around, and we get the same membership."

When Brown arrived at Ebenezer, he was amazed at how old the congregation was. Many members are in their eighties or nineties. Inexorably they are starting to die off. A large number of those still living are so weak they can't make it to church even when offered a ride on the free Sunday shuttle bus. Once a month Brown tries to pay a visit to these people.

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