NW 36th Street in Miami. Action Muffler, El Patio Body Shop, an old warehouse transformed into En Espiritu y En Verdad evangelical ministry. Jackson High School stands secure behind an imposing iron fence. Across the street, protected by its own fence, Ebenezer United Methodist Church looms over all, the church's walls painted the color of honey, its bell tower soaring seven stories above the dust and debris of Allapattah. A marquee in the Ebenezer parking lot advertises: "The church where there's always a warm welcome."
The Rev. Dr. Jimmie Brown arrives at Ebenezer already prayed up. It's his military background, no doubt. The man twice toured Vietnam as an air force police officer, earning a bronze star on his second stint for busting a plasma-smuggling ring. As a Metro-Dade cop, he rose from street patrol straight up to the rank of chief, ultimately overseeing the Special Investigations Division. While pursuing a doctorate in administration he put five kids through college and graduate school and watched as one of them, his middle boy, won a Super Bowl ring playing for the Denver Broncos. All the while he pastored part-time at two different churches in Broward County. Two years ago he retired from the police department and accepted a full-time assignment to Ebenezer. And as it is Sunday, and as it is ten minutes past eleven o'clock in the morning, he is alone in his office. He is not proofreading his second sermon of the day. He is not jotting down a last remark for the opening call to worship. He arrived, as he likes to say, prepared for kickoff.
Brown picks out a robe to wear over his pastoral collar. If this were the first Sunday of the month, he would probably don a white robe with red trim symbolizing the blood of Christ. During Black History Month, he wears only the kente cloth of a proud black man in charge of a proud, 103-year-old black church. On Graduate Appreciation Day in June, he wears no robe at all and lets a student give the sermon. This Palm Sunday he opts for what he calls his all-purpose robe. As he strides through a courtyard on his way to the sanctuary, Brown is a swirl of white cotton accented with clean black piping.
"Reverend Brown!" calls out a boy of eleven or so, earning a pat on the head as Brown breezes past. An elderly man holds out a hand, which Brown grasps firmly with both palms. Sometimes a politician, maybe state Sen. Kendrick Meek or former state attorney candidate Al Milian, will loiter in the courtyard for a chance to catch the pastor before he addresses his congregation. Brown usually shares a smile and a hug, but there's no time to be lobbied, and little interest anyway. It's kickoff, brother. There are souls waiting to be saved.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I'm found,
Was blind but now I see.
A choir of twelve opens the Sunday service. Eleven women and one man stand behind the altar, all wearing white suits, all swaying in time -- left foot, right foot, and back. A giant oak crucifix levitates behind them, floating in front of a deep maroon velvet curtain. Above the cross and curtain, sunshine filters through a large round stained-glass window. Brown sings along with the choir as he slips into his throne to the left of the rostrum.
From his seat Brown can see his flock of about 100 people, a fair turnout. They sit in blond pews padded with cranberry cushions. Ushers in crisp white uniforms police the red carpet that bisects the pews. The church walls are whitewashed, as is the ceiling four stories overhead. Aluminum air-conditioning ducts dot the ceiling in two neat rows of four. High on the walls, sunshine pours through small pairs of stained-glass windows, each pair arched to resemble fruit-colored angels' wings. The view is impressive. Former Miami City Commissioner Richard Dunn, upon a visit to the sanctuary, called Ebenezer "Miami's Notre Dame Cathedral."
The directory of The Gospel Truth newspaper lists 135 black churches in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Only two of those churches are Methodist. Although the United Methodist Church has been historically friendly toward blacks ever since church founder John Wesley baptized his first black convert in 1758, African Americans make up just a slim fraction of the church's 8.4 million members nationwide. When Reverend Brown goes to church conferences in Florida or elsewhere, he often finds he's one of only two or three black men in the room.
Methodism is a sensible religion. Church doctrine advocates self-discipline and social responsibility. The United Methodist Church is pro-choice. Homosexuality is accepted. Organ and tissue donation is promoted in a special Sunday service held once a year. Tobacco use is discouraged, though Reverend Brown admits an addiction to Vantage cigarettes. Methodism is a religion he fell into.
"I got involved in the Methodist Church when in high school down in Goulds," he explains. "At the time I was staying with my great uncle and aunt. She was Baptist. He was Methodist. Baptist folks stayed in church a long time. Methodist people didn't. They didn't make a lot of noise. So I would go to church with my uncle because we could go and be out and then go back and pick up my aunt later on."
Three days after receiving his diploma from Mays High School, Brown took his first plane ride, to Tampa and to his first assignment in the U.S. Air Force. The structure and relative color-blindness of the military appealed to a Southern black boy raised on welfare by a single mother. Yet even during his seven years of duty, Brown found himself drawn back to the church. He assisted a congregation during a stint in Honolulu. In Thailand he spent his leave helping to build an orphanage. Upon his discharge and return to police work in Miami, Brown decided to make religion a pillar of his life's vocation. He began pastoring at two Broward churches simultaneously, in Deerfield Beach and Hallandale. From 1986 until 1999 he served Kerr Memorial Methodist Church in West Perrine. He also excelled as a cop.
"When he was coming up through the force, we were all asking ourselves: Is this guy for real?" reveals A.D. Moore, a Miami-Dade officer and one of Brown's closest friends. "And the answer is yes. Jimmie Brown really is a man of God."
Brown's clothes fit a bit too snugly when he took over at Ebenezer two years ago. To mark his new beginning, he vowed to shed 25 pounds over the course of his first year. He ended up dropping 30 pounds in just one month. A typical Sunday has him officiating at 7:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., always with two different sermons. Frequently there is a third service as well, at 4:00 p.m., a special celebration for which Brown often is asked to give a completely new sermon, preferably glorifying God's work as performed by the women's group or the ushers board or whatever organization for which the ritual is held. At 7:00 p.m. he guides addicts through a substance-abuse twelve-step group. By 11:00 p.m. he is on the air at Hot 105 (WHQT-FM), facilitating Hot Talk, the hourlong call-in show he's hosted every week for the past eleven years, ever since the Lozano riots.
Sunday is not even his busy day. Reverend Brown leads two Bible-study classes every Tuesday. He serves on the board of Friends of WLRN public radio. He teaches management at Barry University and criminal justice at Florida Memorial College. The Miami chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes elected him its president. Sometimes Brown attends meetings fifteen days in a row, he gripes, noting that he must juggle these commitments with his already full schedule of weddings and funerals and calls from, say, a church member so despondent about her divorce she swears she's going to kill herself if she doesn't meet with Brown immediately. If the pastor is lucky -- and only if he's lucky -- he'll find time on Friday for a quick round of golf, solo, at high noon, when most courses are empty. Best time to work on his sermons.
"I used to wonder what full-time pastors did all day," he cracks. "Now I know. They work."
This workload enables Brown to live fairly large. He owns three cars, including a Cadillac and a Mercedes. His dress shirts feature French cuffs embroidered with his initials. He occasionally flies to Las Vegas with his friend, famous boxing promoter Don King, to watch a title fight. Three of his fingers sport rings of surprising heft and dazzle. Such visible wealth creates no ill will among a congregation composed largely of schoolteachers and civil servants. To the contrary Brown is encouraged to showcase his prosperity. "They want their pastor to represent, know what I'm saying?" he explains. "It's a matter of church pride."
An organist lightly massages his keyboard while Reverend Brown takes to the pulpit. The 56-year-old pastor crosses his hands and rests them on the Bible open before him. A thin black microphone snakes up from the podium toward his mustache.
"Thank you," he says. Every service starts with a few minutes of extemporizing. Brown nods at his wife, Avis, stationed as always in the front row, and closes his eyes. "Please be seated. And once again let us prepare our hearts for prayer.
"Our Father. God of power. God of amazing grace. Here we are again, thankful to be in your house one more time. God of love. God of STRENGTH, thank ya'! When we think about just how good you are, our hearts have to cry out: What an awesome God we serve!' Lord, ya' been so good to us. You've been our going out and our coming in. You've been our doctor when the doctor didn't know what to do. Thank ya', Lord! You've been a friend when we couldn't find a friend nowhere.
"Oh God, we come, and we come trying to lift up your name. We pray that you would just send your holy spirit by Ebenezer just for a little while today. Somebody needs to feel the power of your salvation. Somebody feeling so all alone needs to feel your power of love and fellowship. Have mercy today. Somebody may be even a little confused today. PEACE BE STILL! Have mercy today."
As Brown warms up to his invocation, he grows more animated. He sucks in his cheeks with the intake of every breath. Rising eyebrows punctuate the words he wants to emphasize. At the end of each sentence, he rocks forward onto the balls of his feet. He is channeling the spirit, improvising like a jazz musician.
"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."
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.
Throughout the instability post-Bartley, pre-Hall, post-Hall, or whenever, the backbone of Ebenezer has always been its families -- the Thomases and the Francises and the Smiths who have supplied dedicated church members for three and even four generations. People who are rooted in Miami as deeply as anyone. "Once we dig in our heels, we stay close," says Eileen Martin Major, a lifetime Ebenezer member whose great-grandfather's name is etched onto the cornerstone of the old Overtown church. "Family is very important."
Despite the need for new leadership at Ebenezer, there was little initial support for Reverend Brown. He is not an elder in the Methodist Church, meaning he has no voting power in the church hierarchy. Because he never attended seminary, his title is "local pastor," the lowest station in the church. Ebenezer, the crown jewel of the black Methodist Church in South Florida, supposedly deserved a more prominent pastor. Some trustees wondered if a previously part-time minister could even run a church with as many challenges as theirs faced. "I stated if a man controlled a department of police officers for the amount of years he done it there, he can control another business," recalls Tim Smith, one of the trustees. After lengthy discussion, Smith put the matter up for a vote in July 1999. Brown got the job.
Smith is a 69-year-old retired grocer. Most of his week is spent on church business: drafting a lease for the auxiliary hall, unlocking the parking-lot gate for Sunday service, or perhaps rustling up vans for a choir road trip. Once a month he raises money for Ebenezer by selling homemade potato pies in the lobby of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. Every Sunday, without fail, Smith can be found in the back of the church wearing a suit and a tie that stops just short of his prodigious belly. He offers a handshake, a smile, and a church bulletin to every person who walks through the door.
The Smith family were farmers from Greenwood, Florida, just south of the Georgia border. Tim Smith moved to Overtown in 1946 to join his father, who had migrated down a year earlier in search of steady income. He was only thirteen years old. Nearly six decades after his arrival, Smith still pronounces the city name in the old cracker style.
"As a young boy, Miamuh was a great place to me," he recalls. "We were still segregated at that time. We used the back door, the rear of any establishment. We weren't allowed to eat in a restaurant. But we had our own business areas, with nightclubs and hotels on Second Avenue and Third Avenue. And you'd got more places for young people to go to during those times. We had Liberty Theater and the Ritz Theater. We had three theaters in Miamuh alone and one in Liberty City. And the floor shows were better than Las Vegas! I used to see Ray Charles for 50 cents at the Palm. Fats Domino I saw for 50 cents. All your famous stars were there. Louis Armstrong. All of them.
"I joined Ebenezer in 1949. I was baptized on Virginia Key Beach. I got married in 1950, and my wife, she joined Ebenezer in 1952. All my kids were raised up in Ebenezer, even after we moved from Overtown. My son Jack, he was married here in this building; that's how we tell how long we been here [in Allapattah]. Next month Jack will be married 27 years, so we been in this building for 27 years."
When he was still a teenager, Smith began working for the now-defunct Food Fair supermarket. In time he rose to become the only black manager in the entire chain. He often was assigned to the poorest-performing stores in Miami, in white neighborhoods and black. Through "hard work and preparation," he says, he was able to turn around most of the stores, usually earning him the reward of an even worse assignment. In 1980 Smith managed a store in Liberty City. There were advantages to being a local.
"When the riot came, every store in the area was destroyed and burned up," he recalls. "I had three tractors in my backroom loaded with groceries, and a meat cooler loaded with meat. People never went in my backroom. I had $300,000 in my safe, and no one ever tried to roll it out of the store. Nobody even tried to take my gun."
Smith doesn't believe a young black man in Miami today has as much chance as he did to advance professionally. However rooted black Miamians may be by nature, economic realities are taking a toll. "The black community, it's changed for the younger peoples," he says. "They still feel that they not getting a fair shake of opportunities that, going back years, people like me used to have. I have a cousin in the teaching profession who is now moving to Atlanta. The pressure in Atlanta is not as great as the pressure here, being a teacher. And with more money and with more benefits, that's why she's leaving.
"One of my sons, Tony, he refuse to come back to Miamuh because the opportunity just isn't here for him. The potential wasn't what he was looking for. Business opportunities for the young blacks are not promising here in the Miamuh area. That's why a lot of them go move out when they get married. That's what happened with my kids. And I know other kids, that's why they leave.
"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.
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, Girl, 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.
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."
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 ..."
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"and the Holy Spirit."
A third stewardess uses a white handkerchief to wipe off the drops winding down Treasure's puffy cheeks. The baby floats in a cloud of crinoline, staring straight ahead, her face expressing calm mixed with a mild dose of confusion.
Brown dips his hand in the chalice again. With a wet index finger he traces a cross on Treasure's forehead. He closes his eyes at the same time he opens his palm, which he rests on her head as if he were feeling for a fever. "May the Lord bless you," he whispers in her ear.
Treasure yawns. Brown opens his eyes and looks down at her gaping mouth, which makes him smile. She is a fourth-generation Miamian. She is the newest member of the Ebenezer family. As the congregation looks on, he draws Treasure close, cradling her in his arms tenderly, carefully, holding her as if she were the most important person in the church.