Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church should be renamed The Miracles of a Black Pastor. The book is not an institutional analysis or a description of a religious organization so much as a celebration of one man’s successes achieved through an institution. This is true biography. It details a life—its past, its present, and its possible future. Readers should not be surprised that the author, Samuel G. Freedman, has presented his data about a black church by focusing on that church’s leader. The history of African American churches has often hinged on the skills, vision, and peculiarities of their pastors. The Saint Paul Community Church in East New York is no exception; its size, character, programs, and successes have all changed dramatically because of its leader, the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood. Upon This Rock details what one black pastor in one blighted urban neighborhood has accomplished and how both church and community have been transformed.
Freedman spent one year researching the pastor, his congregants, the church’s organization, and the surrounding community. He studied the Brooklyn neighborhood of the church, the church’s efforts as it built schools and a playground, the organization’s emphasis on redeeming black men, and the temptations of members to fall back into previous lifestyles of drug addiction, prostitution, and anomie. He details the difficulties of this organization as it fought bureaucratic structures of the City of New York, as it related to Korean American and other business owners in the immediate community, and as it erected more than two thousand housing units for impoverished people. Nevertheless, these revealing “slices of life” are very much a particular pastor’s world. They are really researched as part of the attempt to show Youngblood’s ennobling work.
Other books, some decades older, are even more poignant in evoking the despair of African Americans in New York, with insiders’ perceptions that Freedman cannot offer. One example is Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). Yet Upon This Rock is a valuable literary contribution, as it portrays a wholly engaged clergyman responding to this despair. It goes beyond both theology and sociology in interpreting the acts of a charismatic but fallible leader who acts out a mission to help others overcome personal and social estrangements.
The author celebrates Youngblood, but he does not dismiss his complexities or his failings. The pastor is especially attractive as Freedman presents him, since he opens his pain and failures to his congregation. He may not have been a pimp or drug trafficker, but he had an impoverished background in New Orleans, a distant if not wholly strained relation with his father, and a history of denying his fatherhood of one of his sons. In fact, indiscretions and even illegal behaviors are sometimes tolerated or even appreciated by some black church members, so long as they are evidence of the pastor’s shared suffering and struggles with his congregants. Youngblood is clearly a man who fits the name of one of his church’s self-help groups: He is a “wounded healer.” Freedman shows the restlessness of his mind, his sometimes mistaken judgments, his occasional despair about people and the possibility of social change, and his indecisions concerning what ministries to take up. The weaknesses of this spiritual leader are not avoided but become a part of his nobility. The pastor’s uneasy humanity, in fact, is the most direct way in which he connects with his congregation, allowing him to enlist them in his crusade for personal and social change. The brilliant, skilled, but flawed leader without pretensions can be emulated.
Readers may wonder why a relatively obscure pastor merits a major biography. Youngblood has not enjoyed the publicity of his fellow New Yorker the Reverend Al Sharpton, and his name would not be recognized by...
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