From a back room, the sound of Lula Pressey’s cry seeped into the sanctuary. At the pulpit, her son, the church’s pastor, felt shock from the knowledge that Lula’s husband was dead. He told the audience, “I can hear my mom crying, and I know now my father is gone.”
The congregation of True Worship Church of Christ in Hollis, Queens has about 40 regularly attending members. Two years ago, they offered up prayers asking God to give their pastor strength as he spoke. Pastor James Pressey struggled in his mind on what to do, then he knew that he had to continue his sermon.
In their many terrible challenges of living in New York City over four decades, the mother and son have supported each other out of danger and lead one another to spiritual anchorage in safe harbors. The bond between mother and son is one of the anchors of African American family; the other is the church.
Previously, the Pressey’s faced life in East New York in its most violent days. Then, James dropped out of church to immerse himself into the club scene which lead to a marriage and a divorce. After Lula helped her son return to faith, James rebuilt his life with the help of two churches.
Recently, the son braved the hazards of starting a new church, one of which was the onset of the fatal cancer that took the strength and then the life from his father Jimmy. Lula worked all day for income and then spent her nights caring for her helpless husband. Previously, she had stayed true to her Christian faith while her son wandered, and she brought him back into church. Over the last two years, James has provided his strength for his mother and father. This Sunday morning was the start of the son’s support of his mother in a new painful challenge.
“Even though I was about to face something I had never faced before, I had to rely on the strength of God to continue the message,” James, 43, said. “I carried forth.” After having a “moment of tears,” the son turned toward casting an anchor for his Mom. He foresaw that God was going to move her into a different role that would provide meaning and solace to her.
“As a parent, she was leading me all these years,” James said, reflecting on his upbringing. “Now I am leading her in a different light.”
James asked his mother to take a leadership role in ministry. On June 5, Lula Pressey was inducted deaconess of the very church her son and his wife Tessa started three years ago.
In her new role, she will be “the eyes and the ears of the pastor” as Lula says, and assisting James and Tessa in finances, decision making, and operational matters. It is a long way from the dangerous life on the streets of East New York of the 1970s and 1980s.
Growing up in East New York, Brooklyn
Growing up in a dangerous part of the city on Schenck Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, James, the middle child between two girls, recalls Lula as the “neighborhood Mom,” always watching out for her family and those around her. The Pressey household always had an open door to the neighborhood. On weekends, James called over his friends while Lula served as hostess.
“We’d have music and the kids would dance. (They would) stay in the house until one or two in the morning instead of being out on the street,” Lula said. Faced with tremendous urban social problems, the anthropologist Carol B. Stack has documented in her study All Our Kin. Strategies for Survival in a Black Community how African Americans informally organized cross-neighborhood cooperative life-styles like that practiced by the Pressey household. They treated the friends of their children like they were kin. Through such shepherding, the kids escaped the worst ravages of the neighborhood.
The central part of East New York was largely destroyed in the 1970s-1980s. Between Van Sicklen Avenue and Barbey Street 15-20 blocks were totally devastated. Stripped, burnt out cars dotted every block.
Most of the local Protestant churches closed their doors; the Catholic churches were in debt and closed their schools; and the twelve Jewish synagogues that existed in 1965 disappeared. Crime soared.
Urban planner Walter Thabit wrote that East New York contained “some of the most dangerous spots on earth,” particularly the housing projects Cypress Hills Homes, Unity Plaza and Brownsville Houses. In Unity Plaza one building was called “The Slaughterhouse” by police. Street gangs invented a panoply of words for gun: burner; jammie; bis (biscuit); kroon; four-five; and oowop. By 1990 the 75th Precinct was always among the top three precincts for violent crime in the city. It was called “the murder capital of New York,” having 340 homicides in one notorious year. The police were ineffective.
Corruption, brutality, and racism was rampant among the police. Captain Michael Dowd of the 75th Precinct was arrested in May 1992 for drug trafficking. The terrible social conditions also alienated White police who saw their former homes destroyed. Some were quoted at the time as calling the residents, “F-ing baboons” and saying “Let ‘em kill themselves. Like a self-cleaning oven.”
The children were ill-served by the public schools. In a 1994 survey of 850 6-8thgraders in the East New York-Bedford Stuyvesant area one fourth carried a weapon and one-seventh claimed to have robbed someone. One-half exhibited post-traumatic stress. The huge Thomas Jefferson High School was one of the first to use metal detectors and acquired a reputation for abysmal education (it was closed in 2007). Each year five hundred new kids would arrive, but only 120 would graduate, of which only 75 had completed their full course work. The kids that succeeded were bright and eager, but the school leadership just passed them along without solid education. The top class performers scored near the bottom in the college entrance exams. One young girl, who was the salutatorian, class president and leader in many activities was dismayed that she couldn’t get into a four college because of low SATs. She exclaimed to a college admissions committee member that we interviewed, “I did everything that the school told me to do!”
James was fortunate that he shared an especially close connection with his mother because he was the family’s only boy. Lula extended her closeness to her son into her role as the “neighborhood Mom.” James reciprocated with affection and respect for his mother’s opinions.
“He’s always been there,” Lula said as her eyes glanced over towards her son. “If I got sick, (with me) is where he’d be.”
Attending church started as a way of life for the Pressey household. James involved himself in the church choir and was baptized at 16. Churches in East New York battled against the blight. Rev. Johnny Youngblood pioneered reaching out to me at his St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church. Rev. A.R. Bernard and his Christian Life Center (now Christian Cultural Center) played a major role in the “Stop the Violence Rallies.” However, the wave of disaster swept over everyone. As James matured, he had to make decisions on how to incorporate new social influences into his identity. Within a year of his baptism, James turned toward the club scene.
The clubs encouraged young teens to come by loosely enforcing drinking age laws. Though he and his friends were underage, James recalls “We were still able to go in.” He then stopped going to church.
For the next decade, James lived a reckless life style. After a failed marriage at the age of 30, James had a turn-around.
“I felt life had to have more depth to it than what was happening,” he said. He felt fortunate to have survived the East New York scene to be able imagine a long and meaningful life. But what did that mean? He turned back to his mother’s teachings.
“I realized (God) was missing from me and that’s when I really rededicated my life to the Lord.”
He moved back in with his parents and became a deacon at the Greater Rescue Church of Christ in Jamaica, Queens which his parents later joined.
In 2005, James was working at Carver Bank in Queens. One day a woman named Tessa Williamson walked into the bank needing a new checkbook. They left with an exchange of business cards without anticipating anything serious in the relationship. However, in their conversations Tessa noticed that James had changed from a clubber to a worshipper. They began to date.
While they were dating, James was called to be minister of Assembly of Zion Worship Center. Tessa too became a deacon at the church. In 2007 they married. Soon thereafter, their journey in ministry took them onto an entrepreneurial adventure.
“He came up to me and said that the Lord wants to move him in another direction,” Tessa said. “I agreed and said it’s time to move on,” she said.
James felt that the Lord was leading him and his wife into starting their own church. “I knew I always had a calling to be in the ministry as a pastor,” he said. James felt a nudging from the Lord in this direction, but the logistics were a mystery to him. “I asked the Lord, ‘I need a building. I need a house for ministry.’”
Can we know the risks of the future? Not really, but we must act as if we do. Some gain their certainty through following custom, advice of experts or gut instincts. Others like
James and Tessa gain a heart-felt conviction through attitudes shaped by the Bible and church culture and a life-style of “feeling the Spirit.” The sociologist Max Weber observed a paradox that “worldly mental calculations” are often most effective and clear-sighted when joined to a mysticism of the Spirit.
One foggy wet evening, James was driving when he glimpsed through the gloom a For-Sale sign on an empty building that was once a dry cleaner on Hollis Avenue in Jamaica. He felt that this was their destination. Within three days, he signed the lease for their new church.
James and Tessa felt that God had reserved the building for the use as His church. One sign was the timing. “The building was unoccupied for seven years. And we moved in on the eighth year,” James observed. “In the Bible, eight is the number for new beginnings. We knew that the Lord was preserving the building for seven years.” The eight year is the year of laying new foundations.
The building had a long way to go before it could be called a church. After knocking down and painting some walls, scrounging furniture and installing electrical wiring, the building was finally ready for its April 6, 2008 opening.
“By the time we put everything in place it was two or three in the morning on the day of the service,” James recalls. James’ parents Jimmy and Lula were among the twenty people who came to start the church.
While the church is nondenominational, James says it has an “apostolic flavor” which stresses the doctrine of the apostles in the New Testament. The name “True Worship” also comes directly out of that teaching.
Doing Ministry Together
As the church opened its doors, the son was aware that the moment was bittersweet. His father Jimmy was two years into his battle with larynx cancer. With a removed voice box and little strength, his ability to attend church was going to diminish. Lula’s time also was needed as her husband’s overnight attendant when she was not working during the day. Preparing his diet, feeding him, and cleaning his trach tube escalated into another full-time job. She didn’t have too much time for church.
“We all lived in the same house together. I saw (Lula’s) strength during the time he was sick. It was a very difficult time for us,” James said.
When Jimmy passed away on Easter Sunday 2009, James and Lula adjusted to a new life. James remarks how Lula’s quiet strength has become even more apparent over the past couple years as she has continued to serve the church. The title, “neighborhood Mom” still applies today as she kindly directs children to stop running or get to their seat before the service.
Much remains the same. James, now along with his wife Tessa and daughter Teanna, continue to live in the same house with Lula in Queens Village as they have for the past 13 years. Lula has kept her job at Ridgewood Savings Bank in Forest Hills for the past 42 years.
One month ago, James felt it was the right time to ask Lula if she would step into the role of a deaconess. The request came as a surprise to her. She always considered herself as a helper and supporter. This was the first time she considered herself as a leader of a congregation.
“That wasn’t in my mind, because I’m an usher,” she quietly stated. “But it is about being faithful in the church. Having faith in God is all you need for that. I’m still gonna be an usher and a deaconess,” she confirmed.
During the induction service on June 5, with happy tears rolling down her cheeks, Lula thanked God for calling her into this position of ministry. She appreciated that she now could help her son in ministry.
The ministry of the church is growing. The regular attenders have doubled to 40. Last November, James signed a new lease for another building on Jamaica Avenue in Hollis. The new building is furnished with two stories: a sanctuary on the first floor and a fellowship hall and office in the basement.
“We have a lot of young people which is a good sign,” Tessa said. “We have the young generation that’s going to one day take over.”
Lula is involved in “Daughters of Promise,” where the church gives scholarships to qualified girls entering college. Likewise, James has started a men’s ministry. He hopes to branch off a program for uneducated men to be tutored to earn a GED. He takes inspiration from his Mom’s dedication to the neighborhood kids back in East New York.
James says about his mother, “She is committed, dedicated, and focused on the vision of the church. I learned everything from her.”
True Worship Church of Christ
191-19 Jamaica Avenue, Hollis, Queens
Sunday service 12N
Feeling the Spirit: Philadelphia's Kitty Parham and the 32nd COGIC Youth Congress choir sing--
God is not dead. He's still alive.
God is not dead. He's still alive.
God is not dead. He's still alive.
I feel Him in my hands.
I feel Him in my feet.
I feel Him in my mind.
I feel Him all over me.
God's not dead. He's alive.
For further information:
Samuel G. Freedman. 1993. Upon this Rock. The miracles of a Black church. New York: Harper Perennial.
Timothy J. Nelson. 2005. Every Time I Feel the Spirit. Religious experience and ritual in an African American church. New York: New York University Press.
Walter Thabit. 2003. How East New York became a Ghetto. New York: New York University Press.
Carol B. Stack. 1974. All our Kin. New York: Harper & Row.
My Mom was called by the Holy Spirit in Hollis, Queens. Part 1 http://buff.ly/2eygEmN #jamaicaqueens #queens #Pentecostal