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Hope in the age of Crack Cocaine

Youth moving on up at Brooklyn church, Part II. God’s Row Ralph Avenue

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Eddie Karim dodged the bullets of growing up in East Flatbush to become a pastor with a heart for kids. Photo illustration: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Eddie Karim dodged the bullets of growing up in East Flatbush to become a pastor with a heart for kids. Photo illustration: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Eddie Karim grew up in a close knit community in East Flatbush that was hunkered down trying to survive the chaos and violence of the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s. It was not unusual to hear of another body found wrapped up in a blanket and left in an abandoned building or an unwrapped body just lying in the street. The Vanderveer Estates in the neighborhood were a violent, competitive drug market. Gangs like the Rastafarians, Crips, and Trinidadians fought it out. Locally, Foster and Nostrand Avenues were nicknamed “the Front Page” because the numerous murders on their corners so often ended up in the newspapers.

Another, even more gloomy area in south East Flatbush was named “the Back Page” because nobody seemed to pay attention to its prolific murders. Karim had to transverse Front Page and Back Page as part of his daily routines. From the 1980s to now, rappers like Shyne, The East Flatbush Project, and Busta Rymes have wrapped their songs around the life of bullets, drugs, sexual assault and murder in East Flatbush.

Tried by 12

At that time Karim’s family found a sense of order in the Nation of Islam, also called the Black Muslims, with his Mom doing some clerical work for Malcolm X. The Nation emphasized a rigid moral discipline of abstinence from moral dangers like the White man’s religion Christianity, premarital sex, drugs and alcohol.  However, with the death of Malcolm X in 1965 and, then, of Elijah Muhammed in 1975, Karim’s father loosened his grip on the Black Muslim faith and its strict life-style prohibitions. In the early 1980s the father’s young son decided the time was right to explore the Christian religion which his Hispanic next-door neighbors promoted. He recalls that “our neighbors invited us to church every week.” He and his sister obtained permission to go to a youth service.

After a youth leader in the church gave him John 3:16 to memorize, Karim thought that as a Muslim with a father reluctant about Christianity that he wouldn’t be back. The visitor assumed, “I’m never going to come back to this church. Not again!”

On his way out, the youth leader gave a Bible to Karim so that he could check it out for himself. “He said, Take this Bible, memorize the passage, and East Flatbushcome back and tell me what you feel,” Karim recalled.

The youngster tried reading John 3:16. In the passage Jesus told a pious man named Nicodemus that love and eternal life really begins with belief in the Son of God, the Redeemer. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“It revolutionized my life,” said Karim.

He felt that Jesus brought a different atmosphere to life that contrasted with his neighborhood which “had a lot negativity.”

Back home, Karim asked his mom, “Do we Muslims believe in the Bible?”

“Yes, and the Holy Koran,” she said.

Recalling John 3:16, the son then asked, “Do we believe in Jesus as God’s Son?”

Karim’s mom hesitated.

“You need to talk to your father,” she replied. Orthodox Muslims see Jesus as a prophet, not God or God’s Son, and Black Muslims see the claim about Jesus being the suffering divine Messiah as a deception to keep Black slaves docile.

“That is just a White man’s deception,” his dad dismissed.

Yet, in his heart Karim was still intrigued. Jesus’ message of love differed from the Muslim message of submission and living by a very strict moral code. “The fact that God loved me just made such a difference. I wanted to find out more.”

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A sign of the Southern roots of church life in Brooklyn. United Baptist Church Photo: Alexis Beasley/A Journey through NYC religions

Karim asked his parents if he could go back to church. “I just wanted to be in that atmosphere” that he sensed in Jesus life. He started at the Hispanic church, which had a small English service for kids and teenagers in the basement.

Karim asked his Mom if she knew a church that functioned in English. Being from Alabama, she had heard about Bethel Baptist Church from fellow Alabamians. Also, she had friends across the street who were leaders at Metropolitan Baptist Church.

The youngster entered the Baptist world, professed faith in 1983 at age twelve and started to participate in the church’s activities. There was a “however”—in Baptist world how he acted was different from how he acted in club land. The two worlds eventually came crashing together one week-end.

In October 1992, the youth leader at the Metropolitan Baptist Church asked Karim to preside at the next youth service. His future brother-in-law was going to be there too. It seemed like he was moving up in the Baptist world.

However…that Saturday night the budding youth leader was hanging out at the well-known supper dance joint, Sugarhill Club on Dekalb Avenue.

Sugarhill Club

Not so bad, you might think, but certainly Karim would not say that. It sort of undermined the credibility of a Christian leader getting ready to get on his soap box about the straight-and-narrow life. More importantly as far as Karim was concerned, his clubbing on the night before he was due to do his first church presiding leadership role indicated a sort of half-hearted commitment to Jesus.

There at the club he was seen by the brother of his future brother-in-law. Then, “on Sunday, I was in the pulpit,” Karim recounted. And who walks in, the brother who saw him at the club.

The pastor remembers the moment as a personal apocalypse.

“He opened the door, and there was a bright light shining behind him, so I could see him clearly as he saw me. He crooked his hand up in a gesture of dismissal to me and walked out.”

A sonic boom went through Karim’s feelings. His blood flooded into his face.

He took the embarrassment as a moment to reflect that his faith was pretty shallowly rooted. “That so convicted me,” he repeated in various ways. “I thought, I can’t do this, one-half church and one-half world.”

Karim also realized that he wasn’t really getting away from the negativity of the neighborhood but only trying to manage its downsides.

That night Karim decided he would do whatever he could to enter entirely into Jesus’ world. He felt a release from a tension that had been building inside. It was like he was entering into heaven. “I slept like my bed was surrounded by clouds.”

However…the problem wasn’t really club land but lust, which looms big as an unsettler of commitments. Even after he moved into the home of his pastor, Karim was easily unsettled. He had the help of the pastor’s daughter.

One night, he roped the pastor’s daughter into a lustful conspiracy to hide the fact that he was going clubbing. “I convinced his daughter,” Karim bashfully recalled, “to let me back into the home after I finished partying. I would knock on the window.”

Unfortunately, the only knock on the window that night for Karim came from a policeman’s flashlight.

Karim had left with particular excitement because the guys with whom he was palling around were going to let him drive their car. However…

After he got into the driver’s seat, he noticed that in place of the ignition switch that there was a hole and a screwdriver on the floor. As he briefly hesitated before picking up the tool, a police car suddenly stopped in front of him, followed by a rap on his window by a policeman’s flashlight.

Karim glanced out and saw the policeman’s hand on his gun. “I hadn’t yet picked up the screwdriver. If I had, maybe he would have shot me.” Also, it meant his fingerprints weren’t on the screwdriver.

He told the police that he didn’t know that the car was stolen and didn’t know who did it. The police could see that his flat-top haircut didn’t match the description of the thief as having a bi-level haircut. Still, they wanted to sweat Karim more about the theft and to fingerprint him. He got back to the pastor’s home on Monday.

“That was some party you went to!” the pastor observed.

That gentleness was enough comment to evoke waves of shame. “I wasn’t playing with God --  who I believe and loved, but I had lust.”

Tanya & Eddie Karim. Photo: Alexis Beasley/A Journey through NYC religions

Tanya & Eddie Karim. Photo: Alexis Beasley/A Journey through NYC religions

Karim turned away from his self-centered life and became a more caring, responsible person. It made him more attractive as a potential spouse, too, and he soon got married to Tanya. On January 3, 1993 Karim gave his first sermon in the church.

As he became more involved in ministry, he tried out as the assistant to the pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church. He must have passed the test because then Karim was invited to pastor in April 2001 at the dilapidated congregation of United Baptist Church. At first it didn’t look like much of a reward. It took twelve years, but he has brought the sixty-four year old church back up from a few people to over one hundred people today. Karim’s experience of working for ten years in the public schools and study at New York Theological Seminary honed his discernment of teenage problems.

Intelligence for the rough-hewn life comes on Sunday morning at United Baptist Church. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Intelligence for the rough-hewn life comes on Sunday morning at United Baptist Church. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Also read: Youth moving on up at Brooklyn church, Part 1

The children of "Satan's Crack Stuff', Part 3

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