Hearts and Souls

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

On the Saturday morning one week after Easter 2000, he slipped behind the wheel of his late-model Nissan Maxima, cream color with tan leather seats. In the back sat piles of cassettes and videotapes of his sermons, along with a stack of church bulletins. Brown was dressed in black slacks and a purple shirt with a pastor's collar. He finished the outfit by pulling down sunglasses from the visor and slipping into his self-described Stevie Wonder look.

As he drove away from the church, salsa music danced from the open windows and garage doors of neighboring homes. Brown glided past a man washing a car adorned with a Dominican-flag front license plate. Near Jackson High he passed the Wilfredo Vasquez boxing gym, named in honor of a Puerto Rican champion. Brown crossed 36th Street and then slid under the State Road 112 overpass and up into Liberty City, a neighborhood that remains predominantly black.

The sun already was broiling by 10:00 a.m., an unpleasant harbinger of a tropical summer. Only a few days earlier a six-year-old refugee named Elian Gonzalez had flown off to Maryland, from where he would ultimately return to Cuba. The forced removal of Elian from the home of his Miami relatives barely registered at Ebenezer. Reverend Brown has a policy of avoiding politics during Sunday service. He'll slip in a caustic jab at the Bush brothers every so often, and he holds no love for county Mayor Alex Penelas, but these are usually glancing blows, mere passing comments. On the day after Elian was seized, for instance, Brown's Easter Sunday sermon tracked through a long list of things to be worried about: rent payments, car payments, sick relatives, bad bosses. "Some of you," he continued, pausing for effect and glancing back at the choir to let them know the punch line was coming, "are even worried 'bout little Elian!" It was the laugh line of the day. The topic never came up again.

"I have too much respect for the congregation to tell them how to think," he explained as he drove to his first home. The Gore-Lieberman campaign asked to open an office in one of the church's empty conference rooms. Brown declined the request, even though Gore buttons hung on almost every lapel in church the Sunday before the presidential election. "I don't much like politicians anyway," he said. "I like them only for the ways in which they can help me help my people."

While Brown kept quiet on Elian in church, the boy was a popular topic on the Hot Talk radio program he hosts. On the air Brown generally keeps his opinions in check, preferring to let his listeners rant and release. Most callers cheered Elian's removal and vented against the Cuban-American community, which many accused of arrogance. One Sunday a brave Cuban American phoned in a dissenting opinion. Brown lost his cool.

"A caller calls up and says I wouldn't understand, that Cuba is a Third World country," he recalled. "I said, ďGirl, what chu talkin' about? I'm a black man in America. I know exactly what it's like to be in a Third World country.'" Thinking back to the call, Brown gripped his steering wheel a little more tightly. For more than a minute he seemed on the verge of saying something. Finally, as he pulled up to his destination, he broke the silence: "How you gonna call a predominately black radio station and tell me that Cubans are in slavery?"

Brown rang a doorbell at a house with giant awnings shading the windows and pink bougainvillea blooming in the yard. The homeowners, a middle-age couple, had been watching Saturday-morning TV shows when Brown arrived. He was led to a bedroom where a frail and very old woman, a former teacher, lay on a bed, her body curled into a fetal position. Brown pulled a blanket from her waist up to her shoulders. "How are you?" he whispered.

It took time for the woman to muster the energy to speak. "I feel bad," she finally replied, her voice trembling.

The pastor sat on the bed and leaned over so he could use his fingers to comb her shock of white hair. He took her left hand in his. With his right hand he began caressing her thin wrists and elbows. "Praise Him," he instructed, his eyes shut. "Praise Him, praise Him, yes, yes. Bless Him, bless Him, bless Him."

Brown opened his eyes. He stepped away from the bed and reached for his briefcase, which contained communion wafers and small plastic vials of red wine. He poured some wine into a tiny disposable cup. "Do you want to take communion?" he asked. The woman coughed painfully, the eruption causing her to shake the blanket off her stockinged feet. Brown replaced the blanket.

"All right, then," he said as he poured the wine back into its container. "You get some rest. I'll be back on Tuesday, when you're going to be strong enough."

A balcony hovers over the back of the sanctuary. Five rows of pews await overflow crowds that rarely arrive. On the rear wall, above the balcony pews, a kaleidoscopic window showcases a white Jesus sitting on a throne, a stained-glass legacy from the congregation that built the church.

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