Youngblood, Johnny Ray 1948–

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Johnny Ray Youngblood 1948

Church leader

Earned Preaching License at Age 12

Faced a Spiritual Dilemma

Supported a Housing Development

Aimed His Ministry at Black Men


When the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood arrived at Brooklyns St. Paul Community Baptist Church in 1974, it had a dwindling congregation, an empty collection plate, and a community vision that reached no further than its chapel doors. The surrounding neighborhooddescribed by one of Youngbloods colleagues in the New York Times as one of Gods Alcatrazeshad been dismissed by city politicians as a violent wasteland. Within ten years, the charismatic preacher and his extraordinary ministry had transformed both the church and the community around it into a thriving oasis. By 1993 St. Pauls boasted A 5,000-member congregation, a staff of 57, and an annual operating budget of more than $3 million.

In addition to drawing scores of young black men, whose lifestyles have made them outcasts from the traditional church, Youngbloods vision and commitment have inspired the members of his congregation to look withinto rebuild themselves and their relationships. He has also encouraged them to turn their energies outward to rebuild and revitalize their community. Over the years, contributions from St. Pauls parishioners have been used to construct a school on church property, turn brothels and gambling dens into family-owned businesses, and pay college tuitions for local children.

Part of Youngbloods appeal to his congregation, which spans those from wealthy to struggling, is his ability to connect the church and spirituality to their daily lives, wrote Maura Sheehy in the Christian Science Monitor. He eschews the more traditional wait-for-de-liverance - in - the - promised - land brand of rhetoric for an approach committed to change in the present. In the mid-1980s Youngblood played a leading role in developing the Nehemiah Housing Project, an innovative program that resulted in the construction of some 2,300 single-family homes in a desolate area of Brooklyn. The project later served as a model for a federal affordable-housing program.

Earned Preaching License at Age 12

Johnny Ray Youngblood was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1948. Although his father earned a living loading sugar at a local refinery, he spent much of his time away from home, gambling and drinking, leaving his wife, Ottie May, to hold the family together. She worked as a domestic in order to earn enough money to send Johnny, his sister, and brother to Catholic school. With his father largely

At a Glance

Born June 23, 1948, in New Orleans, LA; son of Palmon (a laborer) and Ottie May (a domestic and nursemaid) Youngblood; married Joyce Terrell; children; Johnny Jernell, Joel, Jason. Education: Dillard University, New Orleans, LA, BA, 1970; Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary, Rochester, NY, master of divinity, 1973; United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH, doctorate of ministry, 1990; Boston University, honorary master of divinity, 1993.

Bethany Baptist Church, Brooklyn, NY, assistant pastor, 1973; St. Paul Community Baptist Church, Brooklyn, senior pastor, 1974.

Member: East Brooklyn Congregations, Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Awards; Recognized in the Congressional Record for his work with the Nehemiah Housing Project.

Addresses: Office St Paul Community Baptist Church, 859 Hendrix St, Brooklyn, NY 11207.

absent, Youngblood found solace with his mother and in her religious congregation, the Holy Family spiritualist church, presided over by Mother Jordan, a tyrannical female pastor.

Mother Jordan convinced the child he had a religious calling and carefully groomed him to follow in her footsteps. The church, Youngblood also discovered, provided an excellent forum for his talents as a singer and speaker, and he was soon appearing as the celebrated boy preacher on a weekly radio show broadcast from Holy Family. Within a short time he had created a 35-member youth choir that performed in neighboring states. He was only 12 years old when, at an area conference, the United Metropolitan Spiritual Churches of Christ awarded him a preaching license.

Despite his gifts as a preacher, Youngblood had serious doubts and misgivings about the religious doctrine he encountered in Mother Jordans church. Glimpses of his fathers world of seductive women, barrooms, and gambling halls also led him to question his place in the feminized world of the traditional church. He was ridiculed by his peers when he played football and was forbidden from joining them at movies.

In the church of Reverend Youngbloods New Orleans childhood, as in so many other black congregations, the male presence consisted of boys shy of puberty, elderly uncles and grandfathers, and gay musicians, wrote Samuel G. Freedman in his biography of Youngblood, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church. The larger part of the neighborhoods men, the robust ones, the potential leaders, ventured no closer than the front door to drop off their women. Their sexuality made them blasphemous, and church was for the holy. Years later Youngblood made it his mission to bring in precisely those menmen who, according to Freedman, still harbored the warrior spirit.

Faced a Spiritual Dilemma

After graduating from high school, Youngblood went on to study at Dillard University in New Orleans. He had originally planned to become a high school teacher because of the status and security that profession provided. However, he was soon faced with a moral and spiritual dilemma that changed the course of his life. His high school sweetheart, to whom he was not married, became pregnant. Rather than marry her in the church and suffocate forever under Mother Jordans tyranny, he left Holy Family and turned to his college friend, Eli Wilson, for support.

Wilsons father was a Baptist minister, but unlike the feminized men Youngblood had known through Holy Family, Reverend Wilson combined family life and his work as a longshoreman with service to the Lord. Wilson also enjoyed a ribald joke and the occasional unholy exclamation. He provided an important role model for the anguished and disillusioned Youngblood. The youngster returned to Christ, and within a month he had earned a Baptist preaching license. In the fall of 1970 he entered Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York.

Although divinity school provided Youngblood with much of the intellectual background he needed to become a preacher, it was not until he encountered Reverend William Augustus Jones, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, that he began to understand how he himself might form a ministry based not, according to Freedman, on the empty utterances of Christian brotherhood, but on vital social and community service.

Supported a Housing Development

Bethany Baptist, located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the citys most violent and impoverished neighborhoods, operated a child-development center, a senior citizens housing complex, and a restaurant that employed dozens of local people. In the spring of 1972 Reverend Jones was teaching a course titled The Gospel and the Ghetto at Colgate-Rochester Seminary. When Youngblood completed his studies at the end of that semester, Jones, recognizing in the young man a kindred spirit, invited him to serve as his assistant in the church.

Youngblood followed Jones to Brooklyn and worked with him for nearly a year before becoming pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in 1974. Then located in Brownsville, the church has since moved to larger quarters in East New York. One of the first things he did upon assuming his new duties was to introduce the Biblical tradition of tithing. The members of his congregation were asked to make monthly donations to support church and community projects from which they themselves could benefit. In addition to paying for the creation of a Christian school on church property and the purchase and revitalization of local businesses, contributions from St. Pauls parishioners have made it possible for 30 teenagers to attend private group-therapy sessionsa form of community healing.

In 1984 his parishioners need for affordable housing led Reverend Youngblood to join forces with the Industrial Areas Foundation and a community organization called East Brooklyn Congregations to develop 2,300 neat, two-story houses in the midst of a former ghetto. St. Paul Community Baptist Church provided $100,000 in loans to support the controversial project.

Aimed His Ministry at Black Men

In recent years Youngblood has since much of his time and energy on his special ministry to black men. [Black men] are the missing link in homes, church, the education system and employment arena, he told Alison Mitchell of the New York Times. It was his own need for male companionship in the church, as well as his desire to prove the relevance of Christs gospel to angry and apathetic black men, that led Youngblood to form the Eldad-Medad Mens Bible Study group in 1987. Every Tuesday night, some 120 to 150 men from a rainbow variety of social and economic backgrounds meet for three hours in the sanctuary of St. Pauls to discuss issues of common concern. One such issue was a newspaper report revealing that as many as 23 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in prison, on probation, or on parole.

Some of these dealers, you see how much money they got, Freedman quoted Youngblood as saying during one of his Tuesday night sessions. But we better off. Academic degree? Doesnt mean you gonna get the job. Military? [Former Soviet Union leader] Gorbachev done fed that up. You know what the two rallyin places are for brothers? The cemetery or the penitentiary. Boot Hill or Attica. The tomb or The Tombs. So we gotta think about how we gonna get to those places, get to some of those diamonds in the rough.

Youngbloods tone is inspirational, his language colorful, sprinkled with metaphors his men can appreciate. We want to separate ourselves, and it wont be easy, he continued. The bureaucracy11 still be the bureaucracy. We need to at least start thinking differently. And this dialogue were having tonight is part of it. I mean, we must be some bad motor scooters, the way they all talkin about us. If you look in the Bible, when God got to movin he worked with the people on the bottom of the social order. And thats why were here.

St. Pauls has an all-male board of elders, though the congregation remains mostly female. Youngblood has also introduced a mens chorus, as well as an annual Fathers Day Weekend conference that draws men from all denominations. Some years ago the men of St. Pauls raised all the money needed to purchase elementary school desks for the Christian school. You been told youre a dog,Youngblood was quoted as saying to his wounded warriors in Freed-mans book, but you turn dog around and you got God. And God is doing a recall on black men.

Unlike his better-known contemporaries in the black church, such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Reverend Al Daughtry, who have participated in widely publicized political protests around the city, Johnny Ray Youngblood has channeled most of his anger and activism into concrete community action. Of the many gifts he has received from the members of his congregation, his favorite is a sweatshirt printed with the phrase, Just Do It. Perhaps it is an appropriate motto for the wide-ranging ministry he and his parishioners lovingly describe as church unusual.



Freedman, Samuel G., Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, HarperCollins, 1993.


Black Enterprise, August 1993.

Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 1993.

Emerge, March 1993.

New York Times, May 7, 1992.

Publishers Weekly, December 14, 1992.

Caroline B. D. Smith