Saturday, November 19, 2005

New Young Pastor at MLK's Ebenezer Baptist Church

His Father's Son
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By John Blake

Saturday, October 1, 2005—When the Rev. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock preaches his first sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday morning, he will walk past an image in the church's lobby that would make many ministers shudder.

That image is a photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon who was once Ebenezer's pastor. King's portrait hangs on the wall of the church's foyer alongside the framed photographs of four other pastors who've led the church during its 119-year history.

But the portrait of the man who inspired Warnock even more than King doesn't hang on Ebenezer's walls. That man was a junkman, and Warnock's father.

Jonathan Warnock raised Raphael and his 11 siblings in a housing project in Savannah by salvaging abandoned cars. He rose at 6 every morning --- "no man lays in bed in the morning," he'd tell his children --- put on a plaid shirt, steel-toed boots and greasy overalls before searching the streets for auto parts that other people threw away.

On Sundays, though, he splashed his face with Brut cologne, donned a suit and searched for abandoned souls. He became the Rev. Jonathan Warnock, the Pentecostal preacher who often "put more money in the plate" than what his small church could afford to pay him, Raphael Warnock recalled. The image of his father praying and sighing over the Bible the night before, wondering aloud if he had enough energy to preach the next day, is still lodged in Warnock's memories.

"The man who worked on broken cars all week worked on broken people on Sunday morning," Warnock said. "That was my introduction to pastoral ministry."

Those who know Warnock, 36, as Ebenezer's new minister invariably cite his credentials. Morehouse College graduate; a Master of Divinity and a Master of Philosophy from Union Theological Seminary; assistant pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City; pastor of his own church in inner-city Baltimore for the past five years.

Talk to those who have known Warnock as a man and they mention his father. Jonathan Warnock, who had a high school education, made a living rebuilding old cars. But he preferred assembling ideas. When he would come home in the evening, the dinner-table discussion would inevitably turn to the elder Warnock's favorite subject --- the Bible, Valencia Warnock, Raphael Warnock's sister, recalled.

Valencia Warnock said her father didn't tell his kids what they should believe. He encouraged them to think for themselves. He would challenge conventional interpretation of biblical passages, ask his children what each biblical story meant, and encouraged them to look at the historical context of Scriptures.

"My brother went to theology school, but his school really started around the dinner table," she said.

Once, when celebrating Easter, the elder Warnock took issue with the traditional meaning of the Easter story --- that Jesus died because of mankind's sins. Did Jesus, he asked his children, also die because he was a political revolutionary who sided with the poor? Valencia Warnock remembered.

"He brought out the political issues in the Easter story," she said. "Can you imagine telling this to kids? We only wanted our Easter eggs."

Yet Raphael Warnock wanted more. He wanted to be a pastor like his father. Valencia Warnock said she recalled hearing her father groan from fatigue one Sunday morning, saying, " 'I don't know what I'm going to bring to the people today.' "

" 'Oh, don't worry. I'll preach for you today,' " she recalled her brother saying. Raphael Warnock was 6 years old at the time.

Emotion and scholarship

By the time he was 11, Warnock had preached his first sermon. In high school, classmates dubbed him "Rev." While some classmates quoted pop songs, he quoted the speeches of King.

Warnock also gravitated to the types of churches that supported King. He was licensed and ordained as a minister by Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, a church that was a central staging area in the civil rights movement. He also served 10 years, first as a youth pastor, then as assistant pastor, at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, another historic church known for its activism.

He said he tries to meld the emotion of his father's sermon with the scholarship of his seminar training.

"I bring both learning and burning to the pulpit," he said.

When he talked about his pastoral philosophy from Ebenezer recently, Warnock said he is writing his dissertation on the tension in the black church between those ministers who emphasize personal piety and prosperity to those that stress social transformation.

The subject isn't just academic to him. It's personal. He said he doesn't like the theology that associates faith with only upward mobility. Preachers need to challenge the root causes of economic injustice. It's what King did, up to his very last campaign where he traveled to support striking garbage workers, Warnock said.

"King didn't preach to garbage collectors [that] they should 'name it and claim it.' He spoke to the social structure that was oppressing the garbage collectors. And for that, he gave his life. To me, that's what Christian ministry is all about."

It's not enough when black churches claim King's legacy by announcing the opening of a soup kitchen or a soup pantry, he said.

"It's great that churches have soup kitchens, but that's not enough," Warnock said. "It's our job to speak to Caesar, to speak to Pharaoh and to tell him to let my people go --- not simply give them more soup."

Leadership style

A passion for social justice, though, doesn't make a good preacher. At least two men who know Warnock as a pastor say he has other skills that will serve Ebenezer as well.

Calvin O. Butts, the senior pastor of Abyssinian in New York, said Ebenezer is getting a solid scholar and a gifted preacher.

"He's not a spinning, twirling, hooping preacher, but he's fiery," Butts said. "His sermons are well-constructed. They appeal to the heart and the mind. I'm very bullish on Raphael Warnock."

Judith Pickens, a member of Ebenezer's search committee, said Ebenezer was impressed with the community outreach Warnock's church practices in a tough inner-city neighborhood. The committee was also struck by how inclusive his church was: Women, youth and senior citizens all had important roles in the church.

"He has a very even-keel personality," Pickens said. "He doesn't seem like one to fly off the handle quickly."

Khalid Smith, a member of Warnock's former church in Baltimore, said Warnock attracted more young people to the 800-member church in Baltimore with his dynamic leadership.

"His management style is very empowering," Smith said. "He is the antithesis of a micromanager. He casts the visions and dialogues with you, but the methodology is really up to the individual."

One concern that Warnock had to address with Ebenezer's search committee was his marital status. He is single. It is an unspoken tradition in the black church that a pastor has to be married before he lands a church. Married pastors, so the thinking goes, reduce the chances of scandal.

Warnock said he faced that issue head-on with Ebenezer's search committee. He told them he had served in several churches and there had been no scandals.

"I told them I very much want to be married," Warnock said. "But I made a decision years ago that I would never get married in order to secure a church. I take marriage and the church too seriously to trivialize them."

Father's legacy

Warnock learned this Father's Day that he became Ebenezer's new senior pastor. The church's search committee called him at home in Baltimore to tell him that members had voted to select him.

Warnock called his father on the same day. "He was very, very happy."

Now that he is a man, their roles have been reversed --- the son is now teaching his father about the Bible. When Warnock returns to the dinner table now to visit his father, he tells his father about what he's learned at seminary through his reading.

His father isn't threatened by what his son shares, says Valencia Warnock, who watches her brother and father get into impassioned discussions that seem to last for hours.

"Dad would say, 'That's wonderful. I never thought about that,' " she said. "They feed off each other. I would wonder, when is this conversation going to be over."

Jonathan Warnock is now 88 years old. His physical strength, his eyesight and his mind sometimes fail him. Warnock's mother, Verlene, is still at his side.

"You could walk into his house right now and he's just sitting by himself, reading the Bible," Valencia Warnock said. "He still seems to find something new in there, something that gives him strength."

When asked about the famous photograph that sits in the lobby of Ebenezer, Warnock said he often asked how he's going to deal with the expectations of preaching in the same pulpit that King once stood in.

But he's already had the experience of following a powerful preacher --- his father.

"Have you ever seen a toddler try to walk into their daddy's shoes?" Warnock said. "It's cute but they don't get too far. I would much rather stand on the shoulders than walk in the shoes. You recognize the magnitude of the legacy, but there is only one Martin Luther King."

Age: 36
Marital status: Single
Birthplace: Savannah
Family: Both mother and father were Pentecostal preachers. Warnock has 11 siblings.
Education: Warnock graduated from Morehouse College cum laude in 1991. He holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Philosophy from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is currently a candidate for a Ph.D. in the field of systematic theology at Union. His research has led him to write about the ministries of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran who was executed by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II for his opposition to Adolf Hitler.
Experience: Senior pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church, Baltimore. He served 10 years --- as the youth pastor, then assistant pastor --- at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. He was licensed and ordained at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham.
What's in a name? Warnock's father named him after the archangel, Raphael. His middle name, Gamaliel, comes from one of Judaism's great rabbis, who is briefly mentioned in the New Testament as a former teacher of the Apostle Paul.

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