Web EXTRA: Revival

by Seth Kanor

Under a Gospel Tent in Brooklyn

On the chain link fence that hems in the vacant lot at the intersection of Broadway, Lafayette, and Patchen Street, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, there is a poster that looks like it belongs on the side of a country road. The top reads: "OPEN DOOR CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST. TENT REVIVAL. TURN UP THE VOLUME. CRY LOUD FOR JESUS, WITH DR. JERRY BURNS." Two boxes are drawn below. Inside the first is written "7:30PM NIGHTLY, SPREADING THE WORD OF GOD;" and in the other, "COME AND BE BLESSED. YOU WON'T LEAVE THE SAME WAY YOU CAME." Running at the bottom of the poster is a thick schedule of pastors.

Floating behind this sign, billowing over the lot, open on all four sides, is an enormous white tent.

The tent is, for the moment, silent. No one on the dais of pastors, deacons and elders speaks. Sister Betty Aiken and her Praise Singers stand by their microphones, heads bowed, hands folded. Elder Aiken cradles his guitar on his lap, muting the strings with his forearm, and the band behind him has come to a rest. The pulpit is empty, and the sweltering men and women who are seated on row after row of white folding chairs make no sound, save for the faint hum from the newspapers, church programs and hats which they are fanning themselves with. Some of the men mop perspiration from the backs of their necks with handkerchiefs.

A passing train rumbles, rattles, and clacks on the nearby elevated tracks. A bus honks. The streets go quiet. It is July in Brooklyn.

Jerry Burns sits center on the dais. He's wearing a black suit, a white shirt trimmed with black stitching around the collar and cuffs, and a white tie also trimmed in black. His jaw is set in a seriousness of purpose, and his brow is furrowed; but his eyes are gentle and his gaze is soft. Dr. Burns was born sixty years ago, in the South, in Georgia. As a young boy he would go out into the fields and build a little mound of dirt on which to stand. He would talk to the oak tree and to the pine tree. Then he would sing to the sky and the old folks would come out on to their porches to listen.

Just a few seats to Burns' right, sits Bishop Eric R. Figueroa, the visiting preacher, listening intently to a tall man with a beard, wearing blue jeans and a tee-shirt, who has risen from the second row. The tall man speaks about his tribulations in a soft and distant voice, almost as if he is speaking as respectfully as he can about another man's life.

"I've stolen. Done drugs. I've sold drugs. I've been hit by a car. Twice. I've murdered. Been in prison. The only church I knew before was the white church, the whitewashed church. I was like Adam. Lost in the wilderness. I didn't know the people of Jerusalem were dark like me."

"We're telling the truth, right? So let's tell all of it. I didn't know Jesus had dark skin. Then I found this church. Found the Open Door Church and Pastor Burns. Found Jesus. Reconnected to my daughter. She's twelve. Reconnected to my son. He's twenty-one. My father, he was a good man. I'm responsible for what happened to me. Nobody else. Puttin' drugs in my body. Alcohol. Fornication. Adultery."

The tall man finishes. He sits. An older man puts an arm around his shoulder. The tent quiets. And then an older lady springs to her feet. She has twisted her hair into two pigtails that she wears tied together on the top of her head like a wreath. Her dress is yellow and purple, the purple faded almost to gray; her white blouse is decorated with flowers sewn in soft pinks and blues-like the flowers you might see on the frosting of a birthday cake.

"Other places you go they give you canned string beans, canned-," she falters for a moment, losing her words. Her head bows slightly towards the ground. "Canned vegetables," somebody shouts. The older woman nods appreciatively and picks up her train of thought. "Other places, they give you canned mixed vegetables, canned meat, canned everything. Not Dr. Jerry Burns. He puts meat on the table!" she shouts. The band strikes a chord on a hard downbeat. "Steak," she shouts, stomping her foot. The band stomps a chord back at her. "Chicken," she sings, her arms swinging as the band digs into a bluesy chord. Somebody offers a microphone. "Fatback," her voice howls through the sound system. And the Open Door Band's electric guitarist, Elder Aiken, answers her, sending a lightning strike of notes through the chords that blind Elder Thomson is coaxing from his Hammond organ. The woman in the yellow and purple dress cries out the opening line of an old spiritual and the band rises behind her in a giant wave of sound, immediately finding the key. And as she sings the song's first chorus her head shakes and her hair loosens-pigtails swinging in rhythm.

When the song ends Dr. Burns unfolds his long frame from the dais of church elders and takes the microphone. In the 1960s, as a young man, he sang professionally with a gospel group called The Twilights. During the group's last tour, near the end of a concert at the University of Virginia, Burns was standing off-stage when he felt a hand ("God's hand," he says) pushing him back out from behind the curtain, letting him know that his time with The Twilights was drawing to a close. That night Jerry Burns sang six encores. He now sings only in church.

"I cry just thinking about Jerry Burns singing," Bishop Figueroa says. "He sings every song like he lived it. I once heard Jerry Burns sing Only What You Do for Christ Will Last' and it was so good the body came back up out of the casket."

After several verses, Burns retreats to the dais and gestures for his Children of Praise choir to come front and center. Their littlest member, a girl in a pink dress, claps wildly out of time, while the old woman in the yellow and purple dress shouts encouragement.

For an hour the music does not stop. The Children of Praise Singers, the Praise Singers, the Open Door Sounds, the Miracle Men, and all the possible combinations and permutations of the congregants of the Open Door Church sing song after song. But it is now nearly nine o'clock and so Dr. Burns rises, and with a hand gesture brings the music to a low simmer so that he might introduce the visiting preacher.

Pyrotechnics

Figueroa walks slowly from the dais to the lectern with the easy gait of a former athlete-he was a football and track standout at the legendary Brooklyn sports power, Boys High. He is a handsome and solid man, just over six feet tall, his hair graying at the temples, salt and pepper in his closely trimmed beard. He begins humbly, promising not to keep us long, peppering his speech liberally with "amens," placing them wherever commas or periods might occur were his speech in written form, then adding a few more in unexpected places for good measure. The band accompanies him with solemn chords.

"Now I'm just going to speak to you for a little while tonight. A short sermon. I know it's hot under this tent, but I'm sure many of you have been in hotter places." Figueroa sets a Bible on the lectern, unopened. "You know a church is not a building." Silence. "Ain't nobody gonna help me?" Scattered amens' come as Figueroa continues on his theme. "A church is not a building," he declares. "Hallelujah!" "We've been for too long in the building, for too long in the edifice. Real power is having a touch. I need a touch from the Lord." "Amen and Hallelujah!" "I want you to hold hands with the person next to you-but I want you to hold that hand the way you would want Jesus to hold your hand, with that much love." "Amen, brother, amen." Figueroa, wiping sweat from his brow with yet another handkerchief that has been handed to him, opens his Bible to the Book of Samuel and within twenty minutes the entire congregation is in his hands. His performance is protean.

He lifts his right hand to the sky. "I don't care if my homeys are watching," he shouts. "I don't care who's watching. I'm going public with my praise."

Just outside the tent a Latino man sits in a wheelchair-face carved with lines, eyes hidden behind aviator glasses, mouth devoid of discernable expression, body broken, but not slack, and his whole being, despite its stony imprisonment, carrying the implicit threat of violence. Behind him, a group of gang kids wanders over from Patchen Street. A few smirk, then disappear into the shadows under the elevated tracks. Figueroa's voice rises over the rumble of a passing J train. "I don't care if my homeys are watching, my posse is watching, my boys are watching. I don't care who's watching," he says. "I'm going public with my praise!"

And the congregants, led by the old woman-her braided pigtails swinging, her tambourine shimmering-answer with cries of "amen," and "Hallelujah."

"Ain't nobody gonna help me?" he pleads, coming in closer to the microphone, his voice amplified to the point of distortion. "Praise the Lord," somebody shouts. "I wish somebody would help me. I ain't got no help in the building!"

The band is catching fire now and Figueroa has hit that fine straining voice' that Zora Neale Hurston writes about some Southern preachers having. A second handkerchief is handed to him and he pauses only for a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow.

"I'm going public with my praise," he says as he looks toward the man in the wheelchair. "You see, David leapt and danced before the Lord with all his might, and David was nobility."

The band drops into stop time behind the sermon, punctuating the bishop's phrases with bursts of sound.

"And David was a blue blood," Figueroa tells the Amen Corner. Women in hats dance and sing "Hallelujahs" from the rows on the side of the pulpit. "David was nobility," he shouts to the choir. "Hallelujah," they shout back. "David was a king." "Amens" pour from the congregation. "And David danced before the Lord with all his might." "Tell it, brother," someone screams out. "And David took off his robes and danced before the Lord."

And suddenly Figueroa has whipped off his suit jacket and loosened his tie, and the band is in a deep groove, and the woman with the halo of braided pigtails is jubilating and jangling and jingling, and Figueroa is dancing and it seems like half the congregation has spilled onto the dirt and loose gravel around the lectern. They are dancing and shouting praise and Figueroa raises his voice to reach those outside the tent.

"David didn't care if he looked foolish. I'm Going Public With My Praise! I want you to say it with me," Figueroa begs as he is handed a third handkerchief. "I'm going public with my praise," the congregants respond. "He didn't care if his boys saw him." "I'm going public with my praise." "He didn't care if his crowd saw him." "I'm going public with my praise." "He didn't care if his posse saw him." "I'm going public with my praise." "Say it with me. I want you to say it with me." "I'm going public with my praise."

He calls and the flock answers, and with each response he directs the microphone toward them so that they can be heard over the storm of the band. And they are clapping and stomping and it would be impossible to stop clapping and stomping and shouting because the Open Door Choir and Band are in full-tilt holy boogie, and also because the little girl in the pink dress-who minutes earlier couldn't follow dancing of the other children-has now caught the rhythms of the old woman's tambourine. Figueroa, drenched in sweat, discards the third handkerchief and a fourth is provided. The humidity is unbearable. From the Amen Corner a woman of regal bearing rises. Her hat is darker than blue, its ribbon a tone darker. She rises, and tries to move towards the pulpit, her small dance of worship lost in the frenzy around her. Figueroa spots her and soft-shoes over to her. And in the periphery of their dance the man in the wheelchair finally surrenders. Two fingers of his left hand tap time on the chair's arm; a faint smile breaks over his lips.

And then the skies break. And the rain comes.

999 Greene Avenue

One week later I call on Dr. Burns at 999 Greene Avenue. It is a Thursday, and snaking along the entire block is a double line of men, women, and children. Most of them have carts, but some do not. Trucks of food sit unloading on the street. A forklift jams the sidewalk with pallets of potatoes, onions and celery. Inside the church wait chicken, eggs ,and sliced ham for sandwiches. Dr. Burns, elegantly dressed, emerges from the church and leads me back to his small cramped office where he has arranged for me to speak with Jacqueline Huston.

Ms. Huston is an attractive woman, almost forty. She has a calm presence.

"I just came (to the Open Door) for the food, but Jerry Burns didn't let you go the same way you came in," she tells me. I remember the phrase from the revival poster.

"I was here on these streets, living in abandoned cars and buildings and addicted to crack, and the Open Door Church was right here all the time," she continues, "but it was like it was hidden in the mist, and I couldn't see it. I was doing crack right out here on Patchen and Greene. I had lost everything. I had lost my daughter to the BCW (Bureau of Child Welfare). She went into the system one week before her ninth birthday."

"Dr. Burns got me into a homeless shelter. He and Sister Burns used to drive me back to the shelter after services in an old school bus they used to have. Then as I got better I got a job in the shelter running programs. Between 92 and 94 I had some relapses, but when I'd come back to the Open Door they didn't yell at me or criticize me. Jerry Burns has the love of Christ in him. Seems like his heart breaks when he can't do what he wants to do for somebody. I never seen someone so determined."

"When I got clean and got a place to live the church helped me get a good job and Jerry Burns wrote the letter to BCW so I could get my daughter back. Then Dr. Burns and Sister Burns became my daughter's godparents. Now I own my own house in South Ozone in Queens. It was hard because I had to ask forgiveness, make amends and humble myself like a child, but still be a parent. I can't erase the past, so I have to keep working on it."

Dr. Burns comes back in, pleased that Ms. Huston and I have talked. He moves books and other odds and ends, settles in behind his desk and tells me a little bit about the Open Door Church and his mission.

"Some of the men are homeless," Dr. Burns says, gesturing towards the lines of people on Greene Avenue. "They're dirty and they smell bad, and they have bad teeth; but I don't want to embarrass them. So I don't say anything. I just drop a little package of toothpaste, deodorant, and soap into their food bag. The next week they come back clean. A lot of the men are drug addicts. I don't know why people in this society seem to want to lock away the drug addicts, kill them. No matter how many times they fall, I'll take them back. Some of them become the finest men I know."

"Last year I had a prostitute come to the revival. Skirt to here," he says, holding his hand just above his right hip and chuckling to himself. "It doesn't bother me. I'm used to it. I can handle it. By the end of the night she was crying more hallelujahs' than anyone. Never went back to prostitution."

We talk for about a half an hour, but there are people waiting to be fed and ministered to.

On the way out I ask if the Tent Revival, if Bishop Figueroa's sermon, brought in any of the kids from the surrounding streets. Dr. Burns proudly tells me that twelve of those young men for whom the bishop had asked us to pray, twelve who heard the music and the sermon, had decided to come into the fold of the Open Door Church.

"I'll tell you the secret," he says as we leave his office and walk into the mid-morning light that is now pouring into the hallway. He stops for a moment and looks directly at me, his eyes glowing amber, his gaze gentle and strong, "the secret is love and compassion."

And then he goes. I follow as he strides out onto Greene Street, watch as he moves with grace through the lines of people waiting for food: watch his broad shoulders as he bends down to lift a bag of potatoes from a pallet and into a waiting cart.

I asked Jaqueline Houston, at the end of our talk, if she had been to A.A. or any rehab program. She said she hadn't. And so I asked her how it was that she was able to find her way back to the Open Door Church, how she managed to beat the stranglehold of her addiction.

"Once you receive the love you supposed to have," she told me, "you don't forget where it came from."

Copyright 2006, Seth Kanor. Posted on www.pulpithelps.com by permission of the author.
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