“Old school,” “old timers,” and “legendary muscle” cars lined the parking lot like the anchored boats of an invincible armada. Between Caddies and classic Mustang muscle cars, men and boys walked among their toys talking pistons and carburetors with a few words of the Holy Book thrown in.
Hanging on the chain-link fence around the parking lot’s perimeter was a sign, “Welcome to ‘Bless My Ride,’ the Antioch Baptist Church’s 13th annual car show in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.”
A young boy went scooting on his convertible toy car.
At the entrance a 16-year-old boy named James tapped his feet to the loud rhythm and blues being played in the lot. In his right hand, he held a clipboard with a sign-in sheet as he wiggled his arms and bobbed his head in unison to the beat.
Antioch’s Boys-to-Men ministry hosts the event to show young men that their interests are not antithetical to church involvement. Pastor Robert Waterman, who began at Antioch the same year as the first car show, believes that community outreach events “bridge the gap between culture and church.” The pastor wrote his doctoral dissertation on community collaboration and is on Mayor Bill De Blasio’s advisory board. About 500-600 people attend Antioch on Sundays.
In the machismo culture of Bed-Stuy, Waterman has found that the best bridge to a man’s heart is to invite his car to the church.
Men have long gravitated toward cars as statements of personal freedom, strength, excitement, prestige, or American national pride. Mostly, cars serve as a node for male bonding.
The emotional connections that cars promote can be surprisingly intense. One over-wrought car lover in Chile even kissed a car for 54 hours straight in order to win it as a prize. These car kissing contests are a global phenomenon.
This last summer, church car shows also took place all over the nation. The main purpose was a similar to Antioch’s -- outreach to men. The ancillary purposes include raising money to help the poor, stock food pantries, fight domestic violence, ransom slaves, and promote missions.
The church shows range in size from ten cars adorning a church picnic to several hundred cards lined up for a hundred yards. The Woodwood Dream Cruise in Detroit, the largest car show in the world with 30,000 cars and trucks, is not a church-sponsored event but a local Catholic church does offer to bless anyone’s car before the cruise kicks off. There is a specific prayer for cars in the Catholic Book of Blessings. Each participant in the blessing also get a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
Anybody can register their car in the Antioch Baptist event for twenty dollars per car. The church encourages Brooklynites to participate in the car show even if they are not religious or are from a different religion. The car show is a way of telegraphing that the church is a good neighbor. This year, 30 cars were parked in the lot—a number on the low side, which Waterman explained was due to the pending rain. Showboats like to gleam to an audience, not be marooned in the water. In the past, the show has had as many 100 cars on display at a time.
Passersby can stop into the lot and vote on their favorites. Near the entrance, volunteers sold tee shirts and barbeque. The proceeds from the event are then pooled into a college scholarship for one of the young men of the church.
Each year, Antioch earns between 1,000 dollars to 1,500 dollars from food purchases alone. Last year, the show raised 3,000 dollars for the scholarship.
Unique Dunn, the mastermind behind the event, boogied energetically from car to car to admire the engines like the ridiculously effective Hi Performance 289 of the Ford Mustang, the supercharged big Four-Two-Seven in the Chevys and so forth.
As a kid, the organizer drag raced and attended Automotive High School in Brooklyn.
Car aficionados polish their resplendent front grills while admirers took photos. One owner of a sporty convertible labeled his hood air takes as “In Heaven.”
Dunn’s Volkswagon Beetle acted as the outrider with announcements and Bible verses to accompany the big car flotilla. His verse for the car from the Apostle Peter (Acts 4:12), who told public officials that “there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
The organizer passionately prepares for the show year-round. He briefs the pastor to gain organizational excitement and reserves the date on the church’s calendar a year in advance to ensure that Antioch, which is a very active church, does not double-book. Men want their cars in the spotlight! Earlier this spring, Dunn was visiting city offices to promote the show, get the proper permits for the space, and tax deduction forms for the scholarship.
He proudly notes that Antioch hosts the only car show in New York City “at this level without being tied to a major corporation.”
The car show was originally a motorcycle event. Waterman and Dunn invited local bikers to the parking lot of the church for a cookout, a blessing of their bikes with water, and a prayer for protection.
As the church had hoped, the motorcycle blessings attracted gang members, but the event became harder and harder to manage. The church also noticed that local neighborhood men and boys were actually more interested in cars.
So, Dunn, whose son had been injured in a motorcycle accident, suggested that hosting a car show might attract a bigger audience. Further, he noted that there is a large community of car owners that travel to car shows around the United States. Indeed, some now make pit stops at Antioch’s car show. Present are also cars and drivers from car clubs from around the city such as Old Timers, Old School, Legendary Muscle, and the Antique Auto Club.
Dunn calls out the cars as they come into the lot.
“Damn,” he says under his breath as a pea green ’68 GTX Plymouth pulls in. “Look at the racing tread on the back wheels!”
Despite the mild expletive, his vocabulary is now quite tame. He reassures the men who gather at the show that his vocabulary used to be as colorful as theirs. “Some of them say, ‘Oh, he’s a minister, careful how you talk.”
“I say,” Dunn remarked, “’No, talk the way you’re talking. Every word you say, I already know,… in the day I was you.”
Dunn hopes the car show will change men’s perceptions of church involvement as a step into kill joy land. “People see church as a binding thing,” Dunn observes. In particular men think that going to church can mean the death nail of a manly lifestyle. Dunn sympathetically observes that men “can’t stop living because of church.”
Instead, he says the car show offers “a neutral setting [to] relax” without being strapped into a pew and told to get up and get down. Men also see a church car show as a place that they can bond as men without being inundated with the destructive aspects of street life. To make his point Dunn turns around, sniffs the air and says, “and don’t smell weed yet!”
“I’m proud to be here,” said C.D. Cook Sr., a member of Antioch and owner of a baby blue classic Cadillac. He believes the car show teaches young men that they “don’t have to be involved in antisocial behavior to be in community.” Cook recalls to young men about how he overcame challenges in growing up in a single parent family living in the Gowanus Projects. His path was “education, have faith, believe in yourself, and believe that there is a God.”
Cars are “a hobby that keeps you off the streets that people can enjoy to see,” says Lo, a member of the community that does not attend the church, but supports the cause. To him, the car show is a time to be around friends and showing each other’s creativity. Lo brought two antique cars that he has refurbished and ornamented. He has two more at home.
The car show is usually held at Middle School 35 on MacDonough Street. This year, due to renovations at the middle school, the show was hosted at Public School 5, on Hancock Street a seven minutes’ drive from M.S. 35.
Antioch’s men’s ministry also places 10-20 mentors at the middle school where they play basketball, help with homework, advise the boys and encourage them all the way through their second year of college. At times the church has partnered with New York Knicks’ players like Allan Houston, Charlie Wood and John Starks to put on basketball clinics.
Tina Watkins, a member of Antioch and the principle of P.S. 5, observes that the car show has been a great way to attract men to the community functions. “You know men and their toys,” Watkins says. One of the largest concerns that the public schools administration is tackling this year is the low attendance of parental involvement. Fathers are the least likely to come to the schools of their children.
Through events like the car show, Waterman aims to help his community grow in a positive direction. Car shows aren’t really about drive-shafts and gears, but they are really about laughter and talk. The clear and precise mission of Antioch Baptist church is to be the central cultural support for their community.
“Cars are some kind of commonness between men.” Dunn says. They are “a neutral zone. Down the block we might be fighting, but here--I’ve even been in the Deep South where, at car shows, it’s all about the cars. Cars are the great equalizer.” Black or White, rich or poor, Brooklynite or suburbanite, cars are a common denominator of pride and community among men.
Finished for the day, Cook, Sr. drives his blue Caddie out of the lot. Dunn watches and proclaims, “Now that’s a land yacht!”
Journey has also written about how cars and their highways have disrupted churches.