Hearts and Souls

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

One of the first things Brown did upon arriving at Ebenezer was transform the balcony into his broadcast center. He records each service on both video and audiotape. A coil of cables snaking down from the ceiling connects to a cockpit of tape decks, amplifiers, and a mixing board. A video camera remains frozen on the pulpit. Two teenage boys -- Edward Brookins and Jack Smith (Tim's grandson) -- man the controls. Throughout the 11:15 service they fiddle with the dials on the mixing board to maintain sound quality. Every 30 minutes one of them flips over the master audiotape. At one point this morning, Brookins drops an empty can of Sprite soda, causing a clank that sends both boys ducking below the bank of tape decks. After ten anxious breaths, their heads rise up as slowly as deer hunters stalking game.

The only other person who regularly sits in the balcony is Sonja Dellmar, a new member of the church. She arrives each week with her hair styled a different way. Some Sundays her hair cascades in long soft curls. Other weeks it is kinked, or maybe brushed back from her forehead in sweeping waves. This Sunday her hair is pulled back in a bun. "That's just the femininity in me," she says of her changing looks.

Sonja works as a photographer's assistant in Liberty City, a good job for a person who has been taking pictures her whole life. Every week she comes to church toting a Nikon camera and a substantial flash. She'll be sitting quietly up in the balcony when, suddenly, she will see something below that inspires her to race downstairs to start taking pictures. Baptisms, communions, a cute baby -- anything. A week later Sonja distributes the photos to her subjects, for free. "I just thought you'd like a picture of yourself," she'll say. "Send it to your mother. Send it to your girlfriend. You look too good in this picture for me to keep it for myself."

Eighty percent of the people who join a church do so because of family or friends, Reverend Brown says. (Only an estimated six percent do so because of the pastor.) Sonja first visited Ebenezer at the request of her daughter Courtney, a statuesque fifteen-year-old dancer who inherited her mother's zeal for creative hairstyling. Her godmother, who is a member of Ebenezer, encouraged the girl to share her dancing talent with Ebenezer's youth group.

Youthful members give Ebenezer vitality, Brown believes. He formed a "step" dance troupe where girls in combat boots stomp through dance routines with military precision. Following Brown's encouragement one rail-thin boy from the Redland began performing mime at a few services, wearing white gloves and white makeup as he silently interpreted prerecorded songs. In just one year, eight other kids decided to join him in forming a mime troupe. When Courtney began dancing during Ebenezer Sunday services, Sonja began showing up to watch.

Sonja doesn't call much attention to herself, sitting alone in the balcony as she usually does. Even when she's taking pictures, she tiptoes around her subjects, striving for invisibility despite her bulky camera and flash. Reverend Brown is at the pulpit preaching about the pain in the world. "Yes!" Sonja calls back to him suddenly, causing the sound crew to snap around in surprise. "Yes, there is!"

All her life Sonja was never closer to anyone than her father. He was, she says, a "real man." Arthur Dellmar moved down to Miami from Camilla, Georgia, to work as a carpenter. On the weekends he liked to fish or play dominoes. When he cooked up a dinner of candied yams and fried fish, the aroma drew neighbors eager to sample the most mouthwatering soul food they ever tasted. Sonja remembers when she was young how she would lay her head on his chest just to feel the soothing rise and fall of his breath.

Her father's health faded as he aged. Diabetes cost him one of his legs; then, in time, the other. When Sonja visited his nursing home, a trip she made almost every day, she would often joke with him, saying, "Daddy, Daddy, move over, move over! You've got to make room for me." As she recalls those visits her face softens. "I felt so close to him," she says

Arthur Dellmar died on the last day of April, 2001. He was 74 years old. His funeral was held at his home church, New Hope Missionary Baptist on NW 103rd Street. Sonja attended the funeral with camera in hand, asking everyone she saw to smile and pose for a picture. Friends recalled fishing trips they took with Cap, the nickname by which everyone called her father. Courtney danced in his honor, tears streaming down her face and onto her white lace dress.

At the end of the ceremony, the pallbearers closed the casket and wheeled it toward the waiting hearse. Sonja rose from her seat in the front row and placed her hand on the casket, walking beside it up a side aisle. "He was an outdoor person. He used to walk all the time," she called out to a friend. "Toward the end he couldn't walk no more, so now I'm going to walk beside my father one last time."

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