When you first walk through the double doors into the sanctuary of the New Church of Christ Holiness Unto the Lord at 470 Ralph Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, you face a large picture of Elder Arthur Blue and his wife First Lady Kecia hanging on the front wall. Directly above on the wall is a sign painted in large black letters with the words “Let’s go back to the basics and talk about Jesus.” There are tambourines in every row and hand fans with pictures of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on them.
The small church meets at 11 a.m. for a Bible study led by Bishop Joseph Brown, Sr. During this Bible study, above the noise coming from the loud worship music of the church next door, Bishop Brown asks the congregation a series of questions, such as “What do our hardships and sufferings reveal about our relationship with God?” The members scattered throughout the eight pews on either side of the aisle formulate answers together. Elder Blue suggests that “I can do anything because God knows my tomorrow. I can step out there on faith alone and put all of my trust in God.”
Immediately following this question and answer session, the congregation proceeds into a time of worship about 12 Noon.
The church is an outpost of a Pentecostal denomination started on January 8, 1926 in Savanah, Georgia. The name derives from Romans 16:16, which speaks of “the church of Christ,” and Zechariah 14:20 on the Messianic gathering “Holiness unto the Lord.” The Holiness movement has its roots in the “Christian Perfection” teaching by 18th Century evangelist John Wesley, whose first foothold in the United States was the establishment of the Methodist church. The doctrine demands a higher dedication to morals like treating every person as if a brother or sister in Christ. In African American hands the teaching became a powerful encouragement to combat racism.
In its early years, the church ran into a lot of troubles in the Deep South because of its commitment to having both Blacks and Whites in their services. Churches were burned to the ground, and their refuges in tree groves were also burned. In the early 1930s a White group sent an assassin to kill Evangelist W.W. Grant because he was healing people across racial lines in a community near Glennville, Georgia. Denomination historian Tommie L. Brown recently wrote about how the putative assassin was converted before he could do his wrathful deed.
The Brooklyn church started in 1960 in Jamaica, Queens with eleven members. In 1968 the congregation bought the building on Ralph Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Worship is led by First Lady Blue from her seat in the front pew. With her loud, melodic voice, she begins one simple hymn after another that the congregation has memorized. They are accompanied by the sounds of the drums, bass guitar, and tambourines played by members.
Elder Blue goes up to the pulpit to introduce the pastor. He is a large man with very fulsome eyebrows. As he looks over his eyeglasses to call for undivided attention to the pastor, he is very intimidating like a stern father.
Bishop Brown reads from Romans 10. In this chapter, the early Christian Apostle Paul taught that confession of Christ would enable a person engulfed in a horrible life to have new start followed by eternal life.
As he goes through the verses, he details how he too once was overwhelmed with drugs and alcohol addiction. In his sermon and prayer he thanks God for curing him of these wretched disabilities. His testimony sets the stage for a family gathering to hear from each other.
What sets this church apart from many others in the area is the intense sense of community that the members of the congregation share. Because the church membership is so small with about fifteen attenders today, they are able to form strong connections to one another. Every time someone opened the door, the whole congregations looks expectantly back to see who is arriving. The bonds are so strong that time is set aside in their service to hear each one’s testimonies.
One by one members of church stand in their pews and share what God has placed on their heart. In these brief, yet passionate testimonies, they share stories of recovery from failed relationships, rescue from drug addiction, escape from alcoholism, and the abusiveness of alcoholics in their families. These testimonies realize the goals of the Holiness movement—that through acts of God, one can lead a life increasingly free from sin.
One lady stands up to tell how Jesus had healed her knees. A man, the bass guitar player, testifies about how he has changed from feeling ill to feeling well during this very church service. He is grateful that he is able to feel well enough to remain so that his two sons, who came with him, can experience the love God shows in this church. Bishop Brown later will recall these kids’ presence to illustrate the church’s concern about how children are being raised.
Lady Kecia wraps up the testimonies with a recap of the blessings that God has bestowed on their church. She says that she knows that God is working even on the reporter’s heart so that she will come back maybe to testify about the blessings of the Lord in her life.
“I have never felt so welcomed at a church or been to a church where I can get up and share my testimony,” says Sister Mary, one of the church members. “I believe that is something we all must do to show our appreciation for everything that the Lord has blessed us with.”
As she walks out the door, Sister Mary says she is now prepared for whatever the week holds.
Article done as part of a Journey Workshop with Bethel University. Additional reporting by Tony Carnes
See other features from God's Row -- Ralph Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn:
Children of “Satan’s crack stuff,” Part 3