For Those Who’ve Fallen, Salvation Amid the Suds

A few blocks away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the congregation that Martin Luther King Jr. once led, sits the neighborhood carwash. It's a rough place where junkies and drug dealers hang out. To an African-American minister who came of age in the civil-rights movement, the blighted scene might have made for a powerful sermon on race and inequality in America, culminating in a call to protest and demand change from an uncaring government. But 38-year-old Raphael Warnock, who is now Ebenezer's senior pastor, saw those young black men destroying their lives at the carwash and had a different idea. Railing at the problem from the pulpit, he says, wasn't enough. So last year he asked his flock to join him in holding a weekly Bible study at the carwash. "In many ways, I see my mission the same way I think Dr. King did, helping the poor and helpless find their way and not be forgotten by the powers that be," says Warnock. "I just think our ways of attacking many of those same issues have changed. Protests and marches have their place, but there is also a certain amount of action we have to take today to see a change.''

Warnock is part of a new generation of up-and-coming black ministers who are reaching out to young African-Americans, many of whom view the church as an anachronism, and have fallen away from it. Once vital community centers, black churches are often filled with older women on Sunday mornings, not families or young singles. Younger African-Americans, men in particular, say the church, rooted in the struggles and rhetoric of the past, does not speak their language, or speak to their needs. "The black male has all but disappeared from the church, and that wasn't the case during previous generations," says Warnock.

Warnock and his peers are out to change that. Like him, many young black pastors grew up in the pews listening to the often fiery sermons of civil-rights-era ministers like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.—Barack Obama's controversial Chicago pastor. They respect and revere their predecessors and share their anger at persistent racism and inequality. Some believe the uproar over Wright's sermons has been overblown. "To take one man's work and reduce it to a single 30-second clip is just amazing to me," says 34-year-old Rev. Kevin Johnson of Philadelphia's Bright Hope Baptist Church. "Not to look at him as a whole or at the black church as a whole before condemning it is outrageous." Even so, ministers like Warnock and Johnson don't feel the need to adopt Wright's sometimes furious tone. Born after Jim Crow, they have faced fewer obstacles in life and often have more-nuanced attitudes than their elders about race and racism in this country. So do their younger congregants. Laurence Tyler, a 32-year-old mechanic who attends Ebenezer, says he doesn't want his minister to hit him over the head with stories of the past. "We as the members of the black church don't have to be told about racism," he says. "We live with it every day in one form or another. The new guys understand that, so their message is more focused on the here and now."

Warnock points to his carwash Bible group as an example of a "nontraditional" way black churches are introducing troubled young men to the church. Some older members, raised before drugs, violent crime and out-of-wedlock births took hold in the inner city, thought it was a waste of time reaching out to junkies and dealers, whom they considered lost souls. But these are exactly the souls Warnock and his colleagues believe are most in need of attention. As it turned out, the weekly carwash meetings were an immediate hit. Even the local drug kingpin came by. "I knew the church had to find a way to get to these young men, and I knew it wasn't going to be by singing gospel songs and fiery sermons alone,'' says Warnock. "We were going to have to find a way to connect with them on another level because standing behind the pulpit isn't enough these days. Our young men aren't even in the church to hear them."

Perhaps no one is more acutely aware of this generational divide than the Rev. Otis Moss III. The son of a prominent African-American minister who marched with Dr. King (King officiated at his parents' wedding), Moss has taken over the pulpit at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for the retired Wright, whose sermons on race put Obama on the defensive. Moss, 37, says that at a young age he realized he saw the world differently than pastors of Wright's generation did. "I did not march in protest or arrive at college with 50 cents in my pocket and nothing else," he says. "My world is a world of Morehouse and Yale—a more diverse world than my father ever saw." That doesn't mean he thinks racism is a thing of the past. "I understand that though the anger and frustration may be different today, it is indeed still there, and my job as a minister is to address it the way that it is felt today."

Moss began a program that reached out to a group often ignored by the church in the past: black men in prison. He printed prisoners' names and addresses on church programs and asked the congregation to write letters of encouragement to them. His hope was that they would reconnect to the church after they were released.

Moss's sermons are more likely to invoke hip-hop lyrics than civil-rights protest chants. "The rappers talk about social ills and racism in their songs all the time, so we as preachers have to do the same—we have to do the remix. We have to talk about the thugs and gangsters so that we reach everyone," he says. "I'm not sure the pastors before us put it like that to their members. They didn't have to."

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