Riverside Church is transforming itself into the Historical American Church. Interracial, Interdenominational, international it has combined the knowledge of transformations of social classes from the Historical Black Churches and the strength of progressive social justice for doing the right thing for your fellow man from Fosdick and Rockerfeller. Riverside seek not only to live out it Christian witness through being the Hands of God, where possible. Riverside intentionally welcomes all to the Table of Christ, and sets a table large enough for all to take part in the Body of Christ. Riverside teaches God love not how to hate. Riverside welcomes all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations. Stop By For God before going to work and after work. Stop by if you are happy or sad. Stop by for a cup of coffee on Sunday and a spiritual uplift on Wednesday. Stop by if you are a teacher and need some spiritual support and professional mentoring. Parents bring your children to be blessed before they go to school.

Riverside has some outstanding ministers. Dr. James Forbes transformed the foundation of protestant churches through demonstrating that European based churches could benefit significantly from Historical Black Churches in America. The intellectual skills of Dr. Forbes demonstrated that eleven o’clock Sunday morning did not have to be the most segregated hour in America. Whites and Blacks could worship together understanding the role that each played in making America a better place. There are good people in Riverside interested in quality of life and social justice for all, and Riverside Church would become the model for protestanism in America. Dr. Arnold Thomas provided opportunities for professional to share gifts and talents. Interracial Interdenominational and International expanded under the Education and Ecumenical ministry, as African, Asian, and Latino professionals contributed the religious experience. Riverside reminded me of the church of my youth.

As a youth I searched for a church that related to youth and young families trying to live a God centered life. The church played a significant role in helping families stay the course during the post depression years.  As an adult, I was happy to find the Riverside Church, it reminded me of the Historical Black Church I attended in my youth. I found the St. Marks Episcopal Church on 137th street and Edgecombe Ave. NYC.[2] Today it is called The St. Mark’s   United Methodist Church. There were exciting programs for children. There were men in leadership roles. There were women walking with heads held high and demonstrating the working of God in their lives. There were positive role models for living life in this exciting community called Harlem. Children in the community hung out in the church after school and evenings. The church was opened seven day a week. All social activities were held in the church. Young people learned to date from the church, and get married and have children blessed in the church. Whatever the community needed was found in the church, from financial planning, relationship building, management and administration, and a spiritual teaching about the love and will of God. I found my God, and I found my church. The church was so crowded that it was necessary to arrive early if you wanted a seat. The minister was feeding the people with the food from God, which they needed. Women would take young girls and mentor them into the roles of Christian women, and men would take young boys and mentor them into leadership roles and Christian manhood.

               That was the twentieth century, and through the grace of God we made it through. We made it through wars, racial discrimination, and unimaginable challenges of life. We had the church to hold as a firm course and a supportive guide. As children we made it through and became adults demonstrating the blessings of God in our lives. The church was filled with children from the nursery school to the university levels. The foundation of my spiritual, social, economic and educational growth was formed in St. Marks UMC originally Methodist Episcopal, this church and what I am today can be credited to outstanding ministers, religious educators, mentors, strong men and women dedicated to social justice. Women would take young girls and prepare them for introduction into society at formal presentations. The men served as role models for and guides for the rites of passage from boy to man. Boys learned work ethics and character development from watching their fathers and other men of the church.  Through Rites of Passage programs, boys and girls learned how to survive the challenges of the street, especially how to interact with policemen and survive. St. Marks was one of the leading family values religious and educational institutions in the Harlem community. All social interactions were held in the Church. Young people sang, danced and played in these sacred buildings, and were groomed for grand cotillion events, introducing them to society at lavished balls held at the Waldorf Astoria, premier hotel in New York City. Children were college ready, and many attended the City College located up the hill from the church.

The churches success was also responsible for its decline. The church taught its young people how to work and let God work in their lives. God did work in their lives. Many became success businessmen, women and professionals. Many demonstrating the workings of God, married, had children, and moved out of the community. They brought homes in the suburbs and other communities, they loved their church, but many could and would not send their children to the neighborhood schools.

As the school system in New York City began to decline, so did church attendance. People were not leaving the church; they were seeking better learning opportunities for their children. The church, without knowing it, had a vested interest in the quality of education delivered to the children in the community. It was directly affecting the bottom line of church operation. I too made my flight out of the area of my birth, electing to find a safe place to raise my young family, and especially interested in the quality of education my sons would be receiving. Black flight cause a socio intellectual drain on the Harlem community as the middle class left taking with them their positions of role model for the next generation.

We were the group that made it through the hard times, we knew where the road mines were and we had developed strategies for going around, over under or through them and coming our safe. There were few left to teach the secrets of survival, success, and how we were able to get over. The first law of nature is to survive, many black fathers took there little brood to safer less challenging growth areas to give the children a better chance in life.

The vacuum left by the Black flight was soon filled by society drop- outs, the lost and the forgotten. Many were trapped in deep pockets of despair and poverty, and there were no mentors, role models to guide and show the process of survival. Poverty pimps moved in and exploited the weak and the hopeless, and as negative behavior transformed the reputation of Harlem as a safe place to live, the schools reinforced this information, and presents the students with a hopeless curriculum, and sent them teacher prepared to sustain the hopeless situation. The churches tried to survive with its out of town weekend visitors, who came in with fancy cars, and left as soon as the pastor said Amen.

The church and the school came together and participated in the destruction of a generation of children. Harlem, which once sent its students to the best colleges and universities in the country, was now the major funding source for upstate communities whose primary source of jobs and income was the dependable operation of an efficient prison system. A failed education system was the major sending source of prison inmates and made it possible for prisons in America to be listed on the Stock market as an important capitalist industry. Religion and education the primary socialization and stratification agents of society, joined together and created the class society, and Harlem was considered the home of the lower classes. This does not negate the fact that millionaires and paupers live in that area located between the two rivers, but no one would ask how many millionaires Harlem has, but rather can we depend upon the school system to fill the prison quotas?

The challenges of the 21st century, is to solve the problem of educational delivery to poor children, and also to make the church more responsive to the social justice needs of poor children. Education is the doorway out of poverty and the key to the American dream, a dream, which millions of people have crossed vast oceans to live. Some of our educations are not only keeping some American students out of the American dream, it is causing them to lose faith in the promises of the country. The wants, the desires, and the day and night dreams are still holding the songs of the soul, but some students are being intentionally deprived of the tools for making the possible happen and releasing the song from within. A failed education system makes the possible impossible, and leave feelings of blame, guilt and helplessness on a people who see the possible dream slowly taken away with plan and intent set down in 19th century socialization strategies.

 

Today, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church sits in Harlem a shell of its former self. The church used to hold 1,500; today maybe seventy-five senior citizens attend on Sunday. There are no Sunday school or youth programs. The building is locked six days a week, and on Sunday, the one day that it is opened, the members quickly disappear after service to return to their homes. St. Marks and many main line churches sit and wait for “Superman” and senior members, holding on to yesterday’s memories, stand in the doorway and forbid the children to come to the house of God, for fear they will mess up sacred memories. This church was my escapee heaven in the days of my youth, taking off with nothing but a bag filled with hope carried on a stick of courage over my shoulder I found my refuge and my rock; today I wish the past on the future.

Needless to say the schools in the Harlem community has been in decline for years, and the churches have set quietly by and permitted that decline to take place. I am not impressed with churches that have loud music, exciting music, and no children. If the children in the neighborhood are hanging in the streets and know more about the inside of a jail than they do about the inside of a church, then something is wrong. If we do not help them with school problems, why should they attend our churches?

 When a man has a job and is able to take care of himself and his family, then he is willing to praise the God who made it possible.

A man without a job or a means to support his family will not come into the church. Churches must be job centers, with training and access to resources, which can help him to be a man. When a student feels that the education system is giving him the tools that he will need to get a good job, then he will be willing to sit in school and listen to teachers who respect him and his ability. It is the Fathers good pleasure to give us the kingdom, and good schools supported by good churches is part of that kingdom. The male is like the canary in the mind shaft. He will give the first signs that there is something unhealthy going on in the environment. Therefore, we must pay attention to the absence of men in our churches, homes, schools, and even universities. Jesus first healed then He taught scripture. He did not give scripture to the blind man or the cripple man; first, He healed the condition they were facing.

My spiritual calling was influenced by these observations and concerns. Inside of me a voice was saying, you know the way, you are chosen to be a change agent and a guide. There was no bright light or being knocked down on a specific road, it was just a quiet voice saying, tell your story. Share the knowledge of the God who brought you through poverty and despair without letting it change your soul or your heart. It was the combination of religion, education and life choices, which helped in the understanding of how God works. Thank God for churches like the Riverside Church seeking to be one colorless church, encouraging youth and ideas to try God, He/She has prepared a place for you.

 

[1] I had a rich and varied religious ecumenical background. I was born a Catholic, raised in the Baptist church, baptized through submersion, attended the Seven Day Adventist church, attended several Pentecostals, and several churches that were called “Holy and Sanctified.” My extended family was members of the Methodist Episcopal denomination, after many searches and visits; I found my place in that denomination. At a young age, I was only permitted to travel the distance of Harlem, which could be considered less than three square miles. So my search for my God was kept in those three square miles.

[2] I was impressed with the size of the church. I was impressed with the large number of men husbands and fathers in the congregation. The church had beautiful stained glass windows depicting stories from the Bible in beautiful display. Thousand of people attended the church, and they praised God for the wonderful things that were happening in their lives. I wanted to know more about this God and this religion that was being demonstrated in the lives of these people. I joined the church. Joining was easy, telling my mother would prove to be the difficult part. I became totally involved with the church. I attended alone, but I was welcomed into the church family. I became a Sunday school teach and member of the senior choir. My leadership roles continued and were supported in the church. I was still living in poverty, but poverty was no longer living in me. Through the early deaths of my father, sister and mother, I felt the presence of God in my life, and I knew that whatever the trials and adversities, I had a companion in life. Through his power and grace, I began to live the life of the people in the St. Mark’s church. Began to see wealth, happiness and prosperity demonstrating in my life. I wanted to help others to know this companion. I wanted others to know the power of correct focus and beliefs. Today I encourage people to find a place where God is working in the lives of people, and join those people. Sometimes you have to change your environment in order to change your life.

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