“IN Case of Emergency” was the topic of a recent Sunday morning sermon at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ on West 116th Street in Harlem. The Rev. Dr. Welton Thomas Smith III, a compact man with a meaty handshake and an irrepressible smile, delivered the message, an inspired hodgepodge of passages from the Book of Mark, Seussian rhymes and news headlines. “Good God from Zion,” he said, wiping his brow with a towel. “Even if FEMA don’t know where to go and President Bush is still on vacation, the church is standing vigil and knows what to do when evening comes!”
Tambourines jangled and shouts rang out (“Come on, preacher!”) as Dr. Smith sang into a microphone the color of a cherry Sno-Kone: “All I’m saying to the Harlem community, all I’m saying to the Canaan community, all I’m saying to those of you from Spain, Denmark, France, Arkansas or No-can-saw is, ‘Ba-a-a-aby, be ready!’ “
His theme could not have been more appropriate: For nearly four years, Canaan Baptist has been in a sustained state of emergency. The congregation of about 1,400 worshipers, some traveling hours to attend services, was put on alert when Canaan’s beloved pastor, the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, officially retired in 2004 after suffering four strokes. (At 78, he is now Canaan’s pastor emeritus, and he lives in Chester, Va., with his wife.)
What would prove to be the toughest chapter in the church’s history began in 2001 when an ad hoc pastoral search committee was created to help find Dr. Walker’s successor. Through scouting trips and interviews, the committee narrowed a pool of more than 100 applicants to 6 candidates, and this spring, Canaan began “auditioning” ministers for the pulpit, with each candidate appearing at least twice.
In August, three contenders were selected to return for a preach-off: Dr. Smith, of River Rouge, Mich.; the Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Johnson Sr. of Danville, Va.; and the Rev. Dr. Michael Andrew Owens of Detroit.
That selection was a major step forward. But still, a search process that was expected to last no more than a year and a half was two years late by that point, and it was late in large part because the 73-year-old church is struggling to replace the irreplaceable. A major architect of the civil rights movement who later became known as the Harlem Preacher, Dr. Walker had already been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief of staff and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s urban affairs specialist by the time he came to 116th Street.
In his 37 years at its helm, he put Canaan on the map, bringing in guests like Nelson Mandela and Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with the scores of foreign tourists who still crowd the balcony pews each Sunday.
“I became a Baptist because of Dr. Walker, I’ll say it straight up,” said Bryan Williams, one of the church’s deacons. “I was just so floored by him. He wasn’t classically what in the Baptist church is called a whooper or hollerer. He was a person who tied in your everyday life with what’s taught in the Bible.”
He added, “I’m looking for somebody who would have the ability to do those kinds of things, too, not just get people excited on Sunday morning.”
On Thursday, the membership voted, and today, nearly four years after the appointment of the pastoral search committee, the results will be announced from the Canaan pulpit. But the journey has been a hard one, and it testifies to the lengths to which a community of faith will go to be true to its traditions.
The Harlem Preacher
Competition for a prime-time pulpit like Canaan’s is fierce, and the contenders came prepared to pull out all the stops. Over the summer and fall, even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Fernando Ferrer were on the streets shaking hands and kissing babies, the pastors came, preached and politicked. Like the mayoral contenders, each minister was accompanied by a personal aide who would lead him to all the right people and places. When the candidates weren’t planning sermons or memorizing yet another new face, they were schmoozing with members of the church’s board over breakfast or visiting storied Harlem sites like Londel’s Supper Club on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
As the new chairman of the 17-member pastoral search committee, which included deacons, trustees and regular church members, the Rev. Jacques Andre De Graff gave the ministers hints on how best to win over Canaanites, as church members call themselves.
“My observation has been that the only way you can do this is to be yourself, and not look at this as a job interview,” said Mr. De Graff, a former campaign manager for the Rev. Al Sharpton, as he sat last month beneath the serene gaze of Dr. King in the chapel named in his honor. “The first time everybody came to wow us. They all tried too hard.”
Other guidelines were understood if left unsaid:
Don’t sing too much and preach too little.
Do put yourself in your sermon.
Don’t use the pulpit as a podium.
Do remember to introduce your first lady.
Despite the pressure to perform (without going overboard; one pastor was eliminated after taking along a traveling gospel show of two top soloists from his home church), the candidates’ true colors began to emerge. By the third round, the congregation had a clearer picture of each of the final three.
They saw the crowd-pleaser and junkyard poet, Dr. Smith, a short and stocky 50-year-old dynamo who fearlessly spun sermons out of anything that might have crossed his mind that morning, with the understanding that, as he put it, “If it ain’t my best, it’s just fresh.” (In an address titled “Carry Your Own Corner,” he concluded a riff about abandoning old grudges with the zinger “Something has kept you from speaking to your neighbor because she stepped on your shoe in 1492!”)
They saw the scholarly Dr. Johnson, who arrived wearing the colors of African liberation — red, black and green — on the velvety hood of his vestment, “the choice of the Talented Tenth,” as one longtime member put it, referring to W. E. B. Dubois’s coinage for the African-American elite. A statuesque man of 49 with a patch of white in his hair, Dr. Johnson got a big laugh when a stilted introduction detailing his myriad accomplishments (he is an adjunct professor at three Virginia colleges and is a former city councilman in North Carolina) ended with an unexpected icebreaker about his love for fried chicken.
“I don’t remember submitting that information in my biographic data,” Dr. Johnson said as he approached the pulpit. “But I did read somewhere in the Bible that the truth will set you free.”
Finally, they saw the clean-cut evangelist, Dr. Owens, who discovered his penchant for preaching at 15. Slow to start, he invariably worked up to a fever pitch by the finish, bouncing up and down behind the pulpit as if on a pogo stick. One woman nearly fainted. But while he was a strong contender in the first two rounds, the 48-year-old Dr. Owens garnered mixed reviews for his final sermon.
“He was bold enough to take his text from the Song of Solomon, which is filled with undisguised sensual narrative,” said Micki Grant, a composer and lyricist whose musical “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” was nominated for Tony Awards. “Being a writer myself, I appreciate an incisive, meaningful manuscript, whether or not the audience is on its feet.”
Omar Coleman, 20, added that Dr. Owens had come off as bland and rehearsed. “He reminded me of Joel Osteen, this preacher my mom watches on TV.”
The church hierarchy had its own criteria. An applicant had to be at least 30, have at least 10 years of experience, and have earned, or be earning, a doctorate.
“It is, for me, mandated that our pastor have a background that befits the 21st century, and that includes education,” said Mercedes Nesfield, a human rights activist and educator who was a member of the search committee. “No one wants a fool for a leader, especially Canaan.”
Willie Gaskins, a retired driver who, like many older Canaanites, has ties to the South, belonged to an opposing faction that thought the pastoral requisites were too restrictive. “My whole thing is, we’re not going to find another Wyatt Tee Walker,” he said on a warm evening, sipping a sweet lemonade at Amy Ruth’s soul food restaurant across the street from the church, where he would soon be singing in the male choir. “My idea is that we get a younger person who’s full of fire, and let him learn.”
He continued: “All the people that they brought to us to listen to, I didn’t like any of them. I don’t care what anybody says: ‘Oh, we didn’t come to church to entertain you.’ Well, you better be entertaining, because if you’re not, nobody will come see you next time.” With that, he smoothed the crest of his red satin handkerchief and let out a great big baritone laugh.
Lost in the Wilderness
At Canaan, early autumn means revival, an almost weeklong period of special events during which congregants can recharge their faith batteries, so to speak. But this fall, a sense of unfinished business hung in the air. Worshipers still appeared in their Sunday best — the old men in saddle shoes and smart suits, the women wearing sculptured hats and corsages of red carnations and baby’s breath — but when they left, they seemed more strained than renewed. “See,” one man said to another after an appearance by a spirited guest preacher, the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr. of the nearby First Corinthian Baptist Church. “We need a pastor like that.”
For Canaanites, the panic culminated one evening last month during a gathering in their sanctuary. The purpose of the event was to address the congregation’s worries about the search. Members filled the pews and lined the walls. One by one, they approached the microphones set up in the aisles. “What if it doesn’t work out?” one church sister demanded. She got an answer — the committee was considering including an escape cause in the new minister’s contract — but not before the committee abruptly closed the meeting to outsiders.
Emotions at Canaan aren’t always this raw. But then, the stakes have never been this high. “Like I told the congregation the other night, ‘This might be the most important decision you ever make in your life,’ ” said Mr. De Graff, the chairman of the search committee.
If there is any single individual at the eye of the storm, it is Mr. De Graff, who has not had an easy year. In the past few weeks, his mother had a heart attack and his young nephew was beaten in a gang initiation. All the while, he fielded questions from the congregation about the search and shepherded candidates to and from the airport.
With his manicured nails and a starched collar as sharp as origami, Mr. De Graff is a man who cares about details. He has relied on his sense of order and calm to deal with factions and frayed nerves. Indeed, one faction lined up behind a likable interim minister who was appointed to help the congregation through a transitional period of grieving.
“Candidly, we had a fairly stormy last meeting,” Mr. De Graff said in the chapel as he stroked the salt-and-pepper goatee he had grown as a tribute to Dr. Walker, who ordained him. “The congregation was agitated that there had not been an open flow of information. If you could use the wilderness parallel from the Old Testament, we had been here for so long that people were like: ‘Well, how did they get on the committee anyway? Who are they?”‘
Clasping his hands, he leaned forward. “We’re still a people, we’re still together, we have history,” he said. “But we’re hurt. We’re in pain.”
To ease suspicions, Mr. De Graff recruited Ms. Nesfield, who likened her role as the former president of the congregation to that of an ombudsman. They came up with the idea of having ministries within the church hold receptions for each candidate, “just to add a touch,” Ms. Nesfield said.
Mr. De Graff added: “I think if 80 percent of the people could put it into words, they want to see the pastor’s heart. It’s important to have a pastor who has a position on racial profiling. It’s also important to be able to talk to my pastor when my mother dies.”
The mix-and-mingles were a tremendous success. Church members peppered the final three with questions about everything from choir rehearsal to biblical passages. They also got to know their wives. Though Theresa Ann Walker was the paradigm of a pastor’s first lady, Debra Smith won a standing ovation after talking about her dedication to women’s causes.
The experience set a good tone. As the election neared, the committee became more democratic in its thinking. It planned to keep Canaan’s polls open from 2 to 8 p.m. on election day to cast the widest net possible. Because Canaanites were waiting for God to speak to them before they checked a box on the ballot, they recently entered a season of prayer and fasting.
To help conduct the election, Mr. De Graff requested the presence of the Rev. James O. Stallings, regional minister of American Baptist Churches in the city.
“There’s something about this process that can bring out the very worst in folk,” Mr. Stallings said one recent afternoon from his office in the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive — the God Box, as it is known. “We compare it to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Once you get the ring, you just change. That’s why you have to be very careful about the kinds of folk you put in position during this transition: so they will relinquish their power at the end.” He chuckled. “The person who has to bear the ring is often the one who does not want to carry it at all.”
Eye on the Prize
In recent weeks, as tempers have flared and rifts deepened, efforts to heal the church have increased. Last Sunday, an associate pastor, Lillian Miles, raised the issue of the infighting in a powerful sermon titled “Transforming the Hard Places.” She then extended an olive branch: “Could we sit down and break bread together? Can we Shabbat together?” She added, “There’s room for every disciple in this church.”
Still, the biggest burden has yet to be borne, and it will be up to a stranger to bear it. Canaan’s next pastor might find strength in the experiences of its last leader, who was installed by Dr. King on March 24, 1968, 11 days before his assassination in Memphis.
“Some things I did by instinct,” Dr. Walker said by telephone from his home in Virginia, recalling his first year in the pulpit. “I did know that the first year I should lead the folks biblically: just preach. I knew I should be democratic in my government, and that I should take care of the older people. I had some new ideas, which they weren’t accustomed to, but they were a fine congregation. My aim was to become a great pastor.”
Election day had the ebullient spirit that this year’s revival lacked. As hundreds of Canaanites waited in the sanctuary for the results to come back, some broke out in song while others chanted prayers of “Amen” and “Hallelujah.”
Around 10:30 on Thursday night, Mr. De Graff burst into the pastor’s study to make the long-awaited phone call. “Dr. Johnson,” he said, “this is Rev. De Graff calling from the village of Harlem to formally declare that God has chosen you to be our pastor. Congratulations.”
He had swept the election. As shouts flew up in the Canaan sanctuary, Dr. Johnson, surrounded by his family in Danville, Va., absorbed the good news. For once, the erudite preacher was speechless.