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A church worker gathered up the bouquets of flowers that decorated the altar. There were wreaths of roses and carnations. One offering, a simple tiger lily in a foil-covered pot, came with a card: "With Deepest Sympathies, Pastor Brown and your family at Ebenezer."
After a year at Ebenezer, Reverend Brown and his wife were toasted at a pastor-appreciation dinner, a ceremony common in black churches. At the Crowne Plaza hotel on the northern fringe of Little Havana, the couple of honor sat at a table positioned on a raised platform. They ate a dinner of chicken, salad, and chocolate cake. The whole congregation turned out. Everyone wore their best suits and fancy dresses. It was like a wedding reception without the DJ.
Still there was plenty of music. The choir sang an a cappella version of one of its standards. The step-dance team hip-hopped through an extended routine. Courtney's interpretive-dance group leaped in white leotards, flowing white skirts, and purple sashes embossed with gold letters spelling out "Jesus Me."
Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele presented Brown with a proclamation for outstanding public service. The men's group and the Tuesday-night Bible students gave Brown gifts, including a gigantic golden eagle, emblematic of his theme song, "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly. Also included were two new robes for Sunday services, art for his office wall, and a golf club papered face to shaft in dollar bills, flowering at the grip into a bouquet of twenties.
At one of the tables, 83-year-old Ida Mae Brown smiled with each gift the pastor received. Ida Mae worked for more than twenty years as a custodian at the Miami-Dade County Public Schools headquarters. It was basic work, vacuuming carpets and cleaning up soda spills after board meetings. "He's been so good for the church," she said of the new pastor. "I'm very happy he is at Ebenezer. One woman, she came up to me and she was saying how she was so glad to have him here, because if it wasn't for Reverend Brown, we wouldn't be here in this building. He saved the church."
Now, after two years at Ebenezer, Brown claims church membership is up, though the exact number of new members is hard to determine. Sunday donations have more than doubled, he says with pride, yet attendance on Palm Sunday, one of the most important days in the church calendar, is as light as usual.
"Within five years I expect every seat to be filled on Sundays. I firmly believe that will be the case," Brown insists. To realize this vision he plans to air cable-television advertisements starting in the fall. He foresees opening a bookstore in one of the backrooms, and maybe a credit union. Over the summer he intends to knock on every door in Allapattah, speaking through an interpreter if necessary, to ask his neighbors to consider Ebenezer as their church home. "I don't see a problem with maintaining our identity as a black church," he says of the radical plan to recruit Hispanic members. "We don't care about skin color here half as much as we care about Jesus. In fact one of the first things I proposed was buying headphones like they have at the U.N., so our Hispanic brothers can understand what we're saying."
When service is over today, the congregation will gather in the courtyard behind the sanctuary. Youth-group volunteers will sell fundraising lemon candies, colas, and fluorescent-red slices of pickled sausage. At precisely 3:00 p.m. a caravan will transport much of the congregation to a special service honoring Brown at Kerr Memorial, his old church.
Before then, before the tambourine rattles and the choir sings a closing hymn, there is one last ceremony. Brown leaves his pulpit and walks down four carpeted steps to the front of the altar. Bridget Jenkins steps forward. In her arms she cradles Treasure Kembria Hayes, a young woman with a doughy face, a quiet disposition, and a life history that doesn't stretch beyond a month. Her family is joined at the front of the church by a flock of stewardesses, elderly volunteers who sit in the front pews every service in their white dresses and elaborate white hats. Sonja Dellmar discreetly hovers just outside the group, her flashbulb exploding as inconspicuously as possible.
Brown takes Treasure in his left arm. Her father, Kenneth Hayes, is a third-generation Ebenezer member. Hayes wed Treasure's mother in the Ebenezer sanctuary in a ceremony Brown officiated.
The pastor uses his right hand to lightly pat the white ribbon taped to Treasure's thick hair. She responds by reaching her tiny fingers toward the microphone a stewardess holds close to Brown's mouth. A second stewardess steps to the altar to retrieve a crystal chalice filled with holy water. When she returns, Brown performs the sacrament.
"As an ambassador of Christ and as a minister in the United Methodist Church," he says, speaking into the microphone, "I baptize you in the name of the father ..."
He dips his hands in the water, then dabs a few drops on Treasure's hair.
"and the son ..."