The northern tip of Ralph Avenue crosses Eastern Parkway going south into Crown Heights between a Popeye’s fast food restaurant and gas station with a car wash. Most of the seven blocks of Ralph Avenue that lay within Crown Heights is filled with similar mostly low rise, low rent establishments. But inside this plain cover lies a religious cornucopia.
In the instant after passing the car wash, the traveler will come across a medium-sized edifice of a Baptist church which is across the street from Edna’s Soul Food. Quickly, one starts to run into more churches. In the neighborhood there are over thirty-four churches. There are three more Baptist churches down the street or just off on one of the cross streets. In the one block between St. Marks and Bergen Streets, there are seven different churches on either side of the road, some of them right next door to one other. There are twenty churches on Ralph Avenue, that is why we call it God’s Row Ralph Avenue.
On the corner of Ralph Avenue and Pacific Street, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, sits a wide brick building. A sign above it reads “Mount Sion Baptist Church” in bold black lettering. To the left of the door is a humbler paper sign, written in marker: “Looking for few good MEN, inquire within.” It is humorous, yes, but the missing request for women rubs a female reporter the wrong way.
It’s hot for early September, and the doors are shut this Sunday morning. Suddenly, the door opens, and a man emerges. He wears a blue shirt, a salt and pepper mustache and a jaunty style. He looks at our group inquisitively. We tell him we are student reporters here to attend the service, and he quickly ushers us inside.
Directly to our left is an open office where he sits us down in the corner on two sprawling leather couches that enfold on us like cocoons. We are visitors in the holding room waiting to pass inspection.
The man—Pastor Daniel J. Craig—perches on the arm of a third couch across from us. From outside of the door comes a tiny voice: “Hi Pastor!” Craig gives a personal wave that ducks out of sight of us—the visitors. It was a personal pastoral moment with a mother and child who we hear talking and walking down the church aisle.
The density of churches on this block is amazing. Many storefronts here have been transformed into places of worship. Mt Sion’s building was a grocery store in its previous incarnation. Each congregation seems to offer something different.
“Pastor Craig, what’s special about Mt. Sion?” we ask.
“This street is littered with churches,” he wryly observes.
“Well I shouldn’t say littered,” the pastor says with a self-deprecating laugh. “It is flourishing with churches!”
Craig shifts back to consider us and seems to decide that we should get the story of his church. The pastor has an investment perspective about church well-doing, a perspective rooted deep in his thirty-plus years with Deutsche Bank. Perhaps, he believes that a little press attention can help the church’s work in solving a community crisis. He prefaces his remarks with the observation, “We are a church that decided there is more to do outside these walls than inside these walls.”
He recounts how the church brings together working class people to difficult neighborhood problems. “Bikers, truckers meet here to figure out ways they can help the community,” he says. Among the most urgent problems is the high rate of male teenagers dropping out of school and getting into gangs. Hence, the sign on the front of the church.
Boys are an endangered species in our society, even more so in African American neighborhoods. Boys are dropping out of school, being killed, jailed and becoming homeless at rates that far exceed those rates for girls. The drifting disaster of male African American childhoods washes right by many African American churches, which tend to be largely female.
In late Twentieth Century East New York, Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood made his St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church famous for its affirmative action for males. The pastor, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the conspicuous absence of the Black male in the local church, emphasized the “warrior spirit” in his men’s program. He claimed, “This country is not going to live up to its potential until the black man lives up to his.” As a disciple of Youngblood, Craig has encouraged Mount Sion to take some steps toward being more inviting to African American males. However, we also discovered that the church hasn’t turned its back on female leadership either.
Gangs and ways out
Craig points out that the area has a lot of gang activity. And the kids who are getting involved with gangs are doing so at a younger and younger age. Craig stares despondently at the ground. “You can’t have nice things without being a gangster,” he laments. “The target is the money,” raps local singer Mr. Muthaf***in’ eXquire. But the Kingsborough Houses’ rapper also deadpans, “The perplexor is how you can get everything you want but at the same time have…nothing at all.”
The church tells the kids that goodness goes with success. “You can have a nice car and nice things without being a gangster,” Craig argues.
The Baptist pastor picks up on the downbeat and talks about his worry that going for the gold ends up with too many boys maimed or killed. Crime is down but gang life continues. “We try to broker peace between the gangs,” he adds as a temporary solution. He says that “the church serves as an open space for gang members who want to talk about their futures.” Craig tells them about other options that are available through the church and city programs.
The pastor also promotes changes in the schools. Craig feels that the public schools too often don’t control disorder and have changed their curriculum in a way that disadvantages male kids. For example, the schools have reduced physical education. Craig believes that the kids, both boys and girls, need at least one hour a day in the schools. “It is absolutely ridiculous when kids have no opportunity to get physical exercise,” the pastor says. “Kids are going to let loose in some kind of way when they have stress.” Consequently, the church has offered a martial arts class.
There are success stories in education at this church. For example, one church progeny is going to Cornell University. Another has signed a basketball commitment with Georgetown University because he is both a great big man on court and a good student.
Then, Craig interrupts the direction of our conversation to hand us over to his wife. To a woman in the hallway he calls out, “Hey doll, how are you—Sister Smith, will you go get my wife?” The sister walks away on her errand. “I want you to meet her,” Craig says.
Mrs. Edna Craig
Dressed in magnificent dark coat and gold-sashed dress, a woman enters the office. She introduces herself as Edna Craig. She beams as Mr. Craig mentions that she was preparing her sermon downstairs. “You both preach?” one of the reporters asks disbelievingly. It seems like the church is not a one way male street to heaven after all.
They do, though Minister Craig says that she is “new to the pulpit.” She is retired form the the New York City public schools. The preacher then shows a pamphlet from the Focolare Movement with a verse important to her talk today. “This is a group I belong to,” she indicates. “It’s a Christian-universalist group, with chapters in countries world-wide.”
“Universalist—and Baptist. How does that work,” a perplexed reporter asks, wondering if the pastor means that all religions are one the street to heaven. Mrs. Craig just chuckles at puzzlement and then explains, “Yes, but Christ is one.” Then, she is gone as quick as she came, excusing herself for the service.
On the leather couches we are left alone for a moment to puzzle out the meaning of Mrs. Craig’s words. Questions linger, but then, her husband comes back to take up his narrative about reaching male gangbangers. Why should they come to church?
The relevance of the Civil Rights Movement to male gangsters
Part of the answer is that gang life carries an uncertain future. On the one hand, a kid feels acceptance in a prestigious group. On the other hand, in the dangerous competitive world of drug-dealing, friendship and trust are easily cracked by betrayal, imprisonment and death. The church buried a young nineteen year old man who lived just across the street. He was killed when he walked into the middle of a cross-fire.
A young teenager can end up all alone with his fears and angers. The church, Craig says, offers the promise of enduring companionship and a culture of love.
The pastor knows what it is like to endure isolation and sufferings. He recalls his origins as a framework for encouraging youth to persevere through their troubles. “I grew up in Selma, Alabama,” Craig recalls. Black men couldn’t do much in his town. Consequently, “my favorite passage in the Bible is the Fifty-third chapter of the Book of Isaiah.”
In that famous chapter of the Bible God says that his Suffering Servant will endure:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering…
“Christ came and endured brutalization,” Craig reflects. “But by his stripes we are healed.” Such sentiments undergirded the Civil Rights movement’s policy of not striking back with violence. Mt. Sion stands firmly in this tradition of Christianity.
The doors of Mt. Sion are always open to the young boys and men, whatever choices they’ve made, the pastor says. “They know that whatever they say is confidential here.”
Some men also come to talk to the pastor because they are living under the threat of an old warrant for arrest that dates back to their teenage years. Very often, the warrant has stayed on the books though the man has either been declared not guilty or already served his time. The church works with the city’s “Project Safe Surrender” which can allow an outdated warrant to be dismissed.
Craig’s mission to men also benefits the women who are the large majority in many African American churches.
Women and men together in the church
On the other side, Mrs. Craig leads the women’s outreach at Mt. Sion, with a similar message of love: you are not alone, you are not alone. One group particularly needs this encouragement at times.
Most of the elderly are women. The church hosts a grandmother’s service in November in order to teach the elderly how to interact with their grandchildren. The church also has funded and runs a senior center on Tuesday and Thursday after several other centers in the area closed. This week a police sergeant briefed the elderly on a scam that is going around that asks for donations to churches.
The group then went with the pastor to join the service. Inside the sanctuary four gold-painted chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Traditional wooden pews are bordered by a red carpet that covers the wide floor of the one-time grocery store. The walls gleam white. The church is rooted in the elegant and dignified tradition of dressing with honor in God’s eyes. The front of the room is filled with women dressed in black who make up the choir. The pews with about 100 people sway with their harmony as they sing the classic “I will bless thee O Lord, with a heart of thanksgiving.”
With each repetition the fervor grows. Mr. and Mrs. Craig sit at the front as well, calmly swaying back and forth with the music.
One choir member chants, “Thank you Jesus!” She then throws her head back and releases her voice soaring over the congregation.
“Thank-you Jesus!” she repeats.
The women around her smile and lean in, fanning her with bits of paper. Mrs. Craig moves toward the pulpit. Her hands clasp the wood as she draws close to the microphone. Her eyes scan the congregation, “Thank-you, Jesussss.”
Her husband claps and returns with “Thank-you, thank-you, Lord!”
The husband and wife team offer a living example of bringing men and women together. Each gender shares the pulpit and honored places of pastor and leadership in the pews.
With additional reporting by Jillian Schmid, Nicole Miller and Melissa Kimiadi.
Article done as part of a Journey Workshop with Bethel University.
Also see -- Illustrated Explorer’s Guide to God’s Row Ralph Avenue, Crown Heights. 20 churches, 7 blocks, 1 street. 14 churches nearby.