Upon This Rock (HarperCollins, $22.50) is a sourcebook for thinking about the black inner city.
Not for understanding it, nor for solving its problems—this is more than one may reasonably ask of any book—but for thinking about what is going on, in a more realistic way.
At its simplest level, Upon This Rock is an account of a year in the life of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in the slums of East Brooklyn. It opens with the Christmas service of 1989, and then describes the lives of the pastor, the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood, and a number of church members over the course of the next year. It is written novelistically, which makes for a highly readable book; the author, a white New York Times reporter named Samuel Freedman, is a natural storyteller.
The book has the feel of two other accounts of the black inner city written by whites, George Gilder’s Visible Man and Scott Davis’s The World of Patience Gromes. Obviously, the author is perceptive; just as obviously, he wants to be as nice as he can to real people who are probably going to read his words and recognize themselves. Voices that the same author might freely use for any other subject are impermissible for whites writing about blacks, especially any ironic voice that might be construed as mocking or patronizing. These conventions make for awfully polite prose. Occasionally, one wishes that Freedman would feel free to come right out and acknowledge that one of the characters was mean or stupid or had acted like a jerk.
These limitations notwithstanding, Upon This Rock is a valuable window onto a world as alien to the white intelligentsia as the other side of the moon: a black working-class church and the community that it constitutes. Freedman does a wonderful job of conveying the cadences of the preaching, the stamping, the jumping, the commotion, and emotion that are woven into a black church service of the style run by Johnny Ray Youngblood. But the book’s greater contribution has nothing to do with the cultural characteristics of black churches, but rather with the peculiarities of daily life in East Brooklyn.
Take the question of illegitimacy, for example. In neighborhoods like the one served by St. Paul’s, more than 80 percent of black children are now being born to single women. This phenomenon is at the core of the inner city’s problems; its effects are pervasive. How do you raise a generation of young males to be responsible adults when they grow up not only without fathers of their own, but with no fathers in sight? The bleak answer seems to be “You don’t.” In Upon This Rock, readers who are familiar with the numbers and the sociological studies have a chance to observe the phenomenon in three dimensions, including all the human perplexities it entails at ground level. Two high school girls in the congregation are pregnant. Many in the church—parents engaged in trying to teach their own children how to behave—feel the girls should be stigmatized. Youngblood can’t agree. It will be the babies, not the mothers, he feels, who will be the ultimate victims. So he baptizes the babies and publicly absolves the young mothers of blame. Did the Reverend do right or wrong? Right for the girls who got pregnant but wrong for the ones who did not? Right for the girls and wrong for the church?
There are wheels within wheels in this recounting. Youngblood himself long ago fathered an illegitimate son, now twenty years old, whom he ignored during the child’s formative years. Even during the period covered by the book, Youngblood is struggling to acknowledge that the boy is in fact his son and to come to terms with his own past. Youngblood is also trying to come to terms with his own father, a man who in many ways lived a heroic life. Forced to drop out in the tenth grade, the elder Youngblood worked at a New Orleans sugar refinery for 41 years, where he started by dragging 375-pound bags of sugar onto conveyor belts for 77 cents an hour, and ended as a forklift driver making $15 an hour.
The problem is, Youngblood has been estranged from his father since he was a small boy. So here we have a father who is part of the generation of black men who persevered in the face of systematic suppression by whites and managed to make a living for themselves, stay married to their wives, and live to see their children do better. The son is part of the black generation that came of age during the civil rights revolution and is now trying to hold together a black community besieged not by whites but by other blacks. Father and son have a very hard time getting along. The son and his son are barely managing to establish any relationship at all. And to top it all off, one of the ways Youngblood is trying to fortify St. Paul’s is by drawing black men back into the church, using appeals to the importance of male authority that would make feminists gasp. As I say, Upon This Rock is a window, and it opens onto a very complicated tableau.
Put simply, it shows us the stuff of life. The members of St. Paul’s congregation get jobs and lose them, fall in love and get into fights, have babies, perform acts of generosity they can’t really afford and acts of mindless self-indulgence that tear their families apart. They marry and separate, send their kids to college or watch them get arrested, get strung out on drugs and get straight again, gather for celebrations and mourn together at wakes. All of this takes place within the ambit of the church—not church as spiritual shepherd, not church as part of the city’s political power network (though St. Paul is both of those things), but church as public square and town hall in a place where the “real” public square and town hall have failed.
Of the dozens of stories bearing on this theme, one is especially illustrative. A ten-year-old girl accuses one of the ushers, an elderly man, of kissing and fondling her. The girl’s mother wants the usher punished; the usher wants to prove his innocence. The one thing no one wants is to go to the authorities, for that way lies a swamp of agencies, delays, technicalities, and trauma for the girl and the old man alike. So the parties agree to arbitration by the church’s Board of Elders. It is a long process, with a formal investigation and a deliberative decision, very like the normal judicial process except for one crucial difference: This is closer to the way that justice is supposed to work than the way it actually works in the court system. There are no interminable postponements. The investigation is thorough, not just a lick and a promise by an overworked prosecutor. The handful of witnesses are tracked down from among the hundreds at the service on the night in question. The elders, who act as the jury, grapple with their responsibility to be fair and impartial every bit as seriously as juries generally do, but also incorporate into their deliberations an intimate knowledge not just of this particular case but of the rich tapestry of context—personal, church, social—in which their decision must be taken. And they do a terrific job. There is a sense of system and fairness in their assessment of the facts, sensitivity and much common sense in their judgment.
The irony, of course, is that within the New York City court system, such a process would not only be unlikely, but actually illegal. The entire Board of Elders would immediately have been stricken from the jury list precisely because they knew the parties involved and because they had a direct interest in the life of the church where the alleged incident took place. Freedman calls this a case of “the racial self-governance known as ’black law.’” It is sad that he is led to look at it that way. Properly understood, it is Jeffersonian self-governance of a kind that was originally supposed to characterize the way this country functioned, the kind that de Tocqueville found so feisty and yeasty in the 1830s.
Yet St. Paul’s and Johnny Ray Youngblood by no means try to go it alone in all things. On the contrary, there is a strong heritage of Saul Alinsky-like community organization in East Brooklyn, and St. Paul’s strikes off in several directions at the same time—sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration with an organization called the East Brooklyn Congregations. Occasionally it works, usually it doesn’t. And always it is a struggle. “We are angry,” Youngblood says at the end of another fruitless meeting. “If we were not church people, you might say we were mad as hell. At people who are all lips and no labor. At the bureaucrats who would diminish us into beggars. At the weavers who turn red tape into red cable. At those who attack our self-esteem. It must be known that we are the fairest fighters in town. We never ask for what cannot be done. We only ask for what is our due as citizens.”
There is nothing new in this, nor is the frustration unique to blacks or to the inner city, as any white who has tried to deal with the New York City bureaucracy can confirm. But the contrast between what happens when St. Paul’s does things on its own and what happens when it tries to collaborate with City Hall is a powerful one. The main point is not “success” or “failure” in traditional terms, but the outcomes for the congregation of St. Paul’s measured against another criterion, the pursuit of happiness—once again, in a Jeffersonian sense. The success of a Johnny Ray Youngblood is not that he has cornered a bigger piece of the pie for East Brooklyn, but that he has enabled the people of his congregation to form the kind of community that provides the warmth, companionship, and mutual help in problem-solving that go a long way toward creating a deep sense of satisfaction in the life of any human being, not just blacks and not just people living in inner cities.
If it is not clear already, let it be understood that St. Paul’s is a special case. It had 86 members when Youngblood took over in 1974; it now has 5,000. Its budget is in the millions of dollars. Freedman has written a book that celebrates a charismatic black preacher and the extraordinarily energetic and cohesive church he has nourished.
Perhaps there is no lesson to be learned when the potential supply of Johnny Ray Youngbloods is so limited. But the lesson I nonetheless take from Freedman’s account is that the problems of the inner city will never be solved by programs that are designed, funded, organized, and administered by a centralized municipal bureaucracy in a city the size of New York. It is in the nature of such enterprises to be slow, inefficient, and institutionally moribund, with a rule for everything and a solution for nothing. Moreover, there are no cheap fixes whereby such centralized bureaucracies can earnestly pledge to do better and then set up “partnerships” with neighborhoods or make promises of “community control.” The nation has a long history of such efforts extending back more than a quarter of a century, and they have invariably ended up as charades. The inner city will change for the better only when the St. Pauls flourish, and they will flourish only in an environment where people are expected and permitted to run their own communities and institutions. While Upon This Rock does not tell us how this might be done, it makes quite plain that this is what most needs doing.