(This article originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 1996, issue of Christianity Today.)
Some 30 or 40 worshipers shuffled in on Sunday morning to the basement of Freedom House, a community center in inner-city Boston that is part of Azusa Christian Community. The "altar" (a folding table draped with a brightly colored African linen) was circled by three rows of folding chairs on which had been placed, on alternating chairs, NIV study Bibles. There was no bulletin. The worship songs were familiar choruses, raucously proffered—the love of King Jesus was "tumblin' down" that morning.
"Julian" (not his real name) came in and sat down nervously, clutching his Bible. His gold earring jumped out like the exclamation point to his shaved head. His sweater glowed white, and his crisp white pants almost crackled when he sat down.
Julian asked for prayer for his Jewish neighbor during the prayer time. "Yes, Lord. He's my buddy, Lord," he repeated, throughout the petition.
At other junctures during the service, Julian had other things to say. "Pastor," he said, "I thought you were going to be gone today."
"No, Julian," the pastor replied in a quiet voice, "I'm leaving later this afternoon. It's time to settle down, Julian."
And for a while, Julian settled, blurting out random comments only now and then. But at the conclusion of what had become a two-hour worship service, just as the pastor dismissed the worshipers, Julian had one more thing to say. "I have a prayer to the Lord," he said standing up. "Everybody open your Bibles." Those who had started to shuffle out stopped and turned. "Everybody get your Bibles!"
"Julian," the pastor said, "It's time to go. Now say your prayer."
"I'm not going to 'til everybody opens their Bibles," Julian snapped. "This is prayer to the Lord. You mean nobody cares enough to say a prayer to the Lord?"
Departing worshipers looked at Julian and at one another, thinking, Maybe we should open our Bibles.
"Okay, Julian," the pastor continued. "My Bible is open. Say your prayer."
That wasn't enough. Julian wanted everybody's Bibles opened. He grew agitated. As far as he was concerned, nobody was going anywhere until he said his prayer to the Lord.
Then, heaven-sent, an older woman from the congregation stepped up to Julian, shook her finger in his face, and said, "Julian, you're out of order."
That's all it took. It was enough that only "Pastor" had his Bible open. And Julian said his prayer. He read out loud from Psalm 136: "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good." Waving his arm, he signaled everyone else to echo the refrain: His love endures forever. "To him alone who does great things," Julian bellowed. "His love endures forever," the assembly answered. "Who by his understanding made the heavens" "His love endures forever … "
And on it went, until the psalm had been recited in its entirety by Julian, and its refrain echoed by the reassembled congregation.
Julian's prayer to the Lord, belligerently imposed though it may have been, ended that morning's service with spontaneous, unanimous adoration. Julian, a former street pimp, had been used by God.
He is but one example of those whose lives have been rerouted as a result of the courageous, in-your-face street ministry of the pastor in that church, Eugene F. Rivers III.
Rivers is a man who evokes strong responses. Some, when asked about his crusading campaign to transform Boston's ghettos through the Ten Point Coalition, have derisively dismissed him as an "agitator," a "philosophical gadfly," a "very problematic force," even a "bad joke." Others have hailed him as a champion of "ministry to the marginalized," a "conscience-raiser who afflicts the comfortable," and a "prophet." The Boston Globe, too, has trumpeted Rivers and his colleagues as "a band of Christ soldiers" who "deserve praise for their courage."
Detractors and promoters alike agree, in any case, that his "quick tongue" is both the boon and bane of his calling. "He speaks his mind in your company or not in your company," says colleague Bruce Wall, copastor of the Dorchester Temple Baptist Church. Adds long-time friend Ray Hammond, pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Jamaica Plain, "The way he expresses his urgencies can be—alienating." But, says another colleague, Hurmon Hamilton, pastor of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, "he challenges and rebukes in a way that gets people thinking," which also, says Hammond, "challenges the church's assumptions of what the gospel requires of us."
Pioneering the Ten Point Coalition, a growing network of religious entities in Boston (and more recently, nationally) committed to reclaiming the inner cities, and being a key fashioner of the Ten Point Plan, the definitive map for this outreach, exemplify some of what Eugene Rivers has done. But who he is is not so easy to define. He is a man of contradictions, not easily pigeonholed. He has been called the "Socrates of black Boston," though his emotional connection to the "brothers in the 'hood" triggers discomfort for him in polished settings; he has excited the wrath of the Nation of Islam, calling them (among other things) a "nationalism of fools," though his own father—personally recruited by Malcolm X—was one of its key figures; he has railed against the days of Reagan and his "domestic war on the poor," though, in the same breath, he calls the liberal Democrats "brain dead"; he is a champion of a rising black intelligentsia, though he left Harvard College after his third year of study; he asserts that the only hope for the renaissance of the black ghetto is the black church, though he is quick to say that the inner-city "nightmare" is due in no small measure to the black church's own failures.
He is a hustler, says sociologist Anthony Campolo, who has known Rivers for over 20 years. "But he has raised hustling to new levels—coupling it with intellectual savvy and baptizing it for the service of Jesus." But what he is "hustling" is, in the words of one local pastor, "controversial, to say the least." He is on a jihad (Rivers's word) to reclaim the city streets from gangs and drug dealers, to repaint the picture of black self-understanding, and to redefine the terms of racial reconciliation. And he is not looking to white people for strategies.
Before the black poor can rise from the urban ash heap, Rivers maintains that some well-guarded doctrines of civil-rights orthodoxy need to be dismantled, then reconstructed under a new model. The very underpinnings of the black identity (Rivers consciously avoids the term African American—"it's too narrow" to include Caribbeans and others who don't identify with the term) must be radically redefined.
His ideas and his intensely personal commitment to them have earned him a serious hearing among black and white spiritual leaders, intellectuals, and political innovators. "Any minister who has been effective enough to get people to shoot into his house is having an impact," says Hurmon Hamilton. "I don't know anyone who has sacrificed more," adds Ray Hammond. He is "on the firing line," says Perry Smith, elder at Roxbury Presbyterian, "in the courts with the young people, and fighting the battle on the turf." In December he stood with Ron Sider, Cornell West, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and others when they protested welfare cuts in the Capitol's rotunda. He participated in a forthcoming Bill Moyers special on the relevance of the Bible for modern life. He has conferred with Boston mayor Thomas Mennino, Massachusetts's Gov. William Weld and Sen. John Kerry, and he has been solicited by both Newt "at-least-he's-not-brain-dead" Gingrich and President Clinton. In addition to his coleadership in the Ten Point Coalition and his pastoral responsibilities at Azusa, he also serves as a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School.
He is busy. And, revere him or revile him, "he's an African-American evangelical leader that we're going to have to deal with," says Campolo. Because, adds Wall, "he's a voice that is not going to go away."
Each day, 1,118 black teenagers are victims of violent crime; 1,451 black children are arrested; and 907 black teenage girls get pregnant. A generation of black males is drowning in its own blood in the prison camps that we euphemistically call "inner cities." And things are likely to get much worse. Some 40 years after the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, younger black Americans are now growing up unqualified even for slavery.
So wrote Rivers in the Boston Review last summer. This is what he calls the black inner-city "nightmare," which he knows about firsthand—and not because he has become a champion of its redemption. Born in 1950, Rivers's parents separated when he was three. By age 12, he was "drafted" into the Somerville gang in Philadelphia, which meant that he was told (while being baptized in a toilet bowl) that he would either join the gang or "be routinely beat every day or killed."
He grew up under the Christian influence of his mother, who, he says, made attending Sunday school and reading the Bible "obligatory." He dutifully attended a "lukewarm"Baptist church, which "lanted the seeds for his conversion." At the age of 13, shortly after his unceremonious initiation into the gang, he was being harassed one evening by a gang of boys waiting outside his home to beat him up. Billy Graham's Hour of Decision radio program was playing at the time, and in response to Graham's call to faith, Rivers committed his life to Christ (and went to bed praying for deliverance from the bullies). The next day he faced the gang leader, Mad Dog—age 16—and, says Rivers, "the Lord delivered David from Goliath. Mad Dog was miraculously defeated."
Rivers began attending the Deliverance Evangelistic Church, a Pentecostal congregation in North Philadelphia. There he came under the tutelage of one Reverend Benjamin Smith, Sr., who helped the young Rivers break out of the gangs and grow in his spiritual life and sense of evangelistic mission. Under Smith's inspiration, Rivers boldly evangelized many of his former associates in Philadelphia's gangs, many of whom became Christians.
Smith was a man of "impeccable propriety" and a "prayer warrior" who took weeklong retreats to fast and pray about the development of the church. He became a father figure and a source of moral authority for Rivers at this critical juncture in his life. But it was also through his relationship with Smith and the Deliverance church that Rivers began to see, in the late sixties, how the black church was failing to address the shifting cultural tide within the black community.
In 1968, Rivers won a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. "We went away, our hair was short. We came back and we're wearing bushes and saying things like, 'What does the black church do for the black community?' But most black churches were not prepared to minister to the needs of the first generational cohort of young black people who went to college during the sixties," he says. "I was being confronted with a series of questions that were a product of the period that the black church had not prepared me to answer. For example, why was the Black Panther party—and not the black churches—running a free food program for hungry children?
"And Pastor Smith, understandably, represented a different generational outlook that didn't understand what all the noise was about. So this autocratic, working-class pastor who loves the Lord and thinks he's defending the faith against this creepy stuff tells us to either pick up our King James Bibles, keep our mouths shut, and get a haircut, or leave. So we all ended up leaving. It was very traumatizing."
With other Pentecostal intellectuals, he began in 1970 to organize street outreach ministries and a storefront church in Philadelphia. This put him in relationship with Randolph Jones, a black charismatic Methodist, who introduced Rivers to the works of Cornelius VanTil, Carl F. H. Henry, and Bernard Ramm. Also at that time, Rivers caught the interest of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who served on the board of Eastern College and Seminary. Wanting to encourage the aspirations of up-and-coming black leadership, Koop raised the funds for Rivers to audit courses at the seminary. There his attraction to philosophy and Christian apologetics led him to study the works of E. J. Carnell and Francis Schaeffer ("figures unknown to the black church, liberal and conservative").
Rivers also began to observe the social trends of the early seventies that were taking root in the black community. The Black Panther party was spouting a new, secular nationalism, and the black middle class was beginning to "evacuate" the cities for the suburbs. The rise of the Black Panthers "radicalized" and "secularized" the civil-rights movement, which up to that point, says Rivers, had been rooted in the church. "By '65 the religiously based expressions of the movement were losing ground to more political and secular initiatives—the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the South and the Black Panthers in the North," he says. "By '68 King is dead. Without a focal leader, the black church has no real sense of direction, so the Black Panther party emerges as a dominant force."
Coupled with this, the "middle-class evacuation" exacerbated an already deteriorating situation in the cities. For "35 years there had been physical and spatial proximity in the neighborhoods with the black middle class—civic-minded and church-attending folk—who functioned as 'standard-bearers' for the black lower classes." When they left the cities, not only did the black urban poor lose "a generation of young intelligentsia," says Rivers, but also "the weakest members of what was already a weak social class were left to fend for themselves."
With the loss of a spiritual anchoring in the civil-rights cause coupled with the void of the civic leaders and role models, says Rivers, the situation in the cities degenerated, and the black church was not prepared to address this cultural shift. "They did not have a contemporary 'semi-popular' apologetic. They did not have their equivalent of a Francis Schaeffer," he says. His study of Henry, VanTil, Ramm, and others helped Rivers—as he interpreted the changing sociological forces surrounding him—to formulate an intellectual, sociological, and fully biblical frame of reference that, he hoped, could bring an intellectual and spiritual underpinning to the cultural disintegration within the black ghetto. As he assimilated these social phenomena and processed them through these intellectual and theological lenses, he developed a "clear recognition that the black church would have to undergo some major transformation."
After being drummed out by Smith and the Deliverance church, Rivers, at the urging of some friends at Yale Law School, spent three years (1973-76) in New Haven auditing classes at Yale. These were painful, searching years for Rivers, as he tried to come to terms with his alienation from Smith and the intellectual impulse that drove his thinking and, to some degree, radicalized his faith. It was there that he met Francis Schaeffer, who encouraged him to develop an apologetic for the black church to deal with the concerns that were unique to the black community.
This intellectual undergirding, in conjunction with his work with the storefront ministries in Philadelphia, eventually led him to Boston, where Rivers moved in 1976 with hopes to attend Harvard College (he didn't enroll until 1980). But, as the saying goes, "you can take the boy out of the streets, but you can't get the street out of the boy," and, suffering from what he calls a "terminal case of survivor's guilt," he pulled out of Harvard in 1983 after his third year. "Eating in chandelier-laced dining halls, I couldn't stop thinking about my brothers dying in the 'hood. I couldn't figure out, 'Why am I here?'"
He moved to north Dorchester in 1984 along with a half-dozen other intellectuals from Harvard, MIT, and Northwestern. There they began laying the groundwork for what would become the Azusa Christian Community, his vision of how the church should become the arms and legs of Jesus to the marginalized. In 1986 he married Jackie (a Harvard grad), and he has lived in Dorchester ever since.
In 1993, he was invited to become a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, where he has coordinated a seminar on the Black Church and Social Policy. And with his ministry at Azusa, his family life, and related commitments, Eugene Rivers is busy putting flesh and muscle to his heady ideologies.
II. Bankrupt Idealogies
For a long time, Rivers has pondered why the civil-rights impetus, as defined by Martin Luther King, Jr., had faltered. He concluded that the inner-city "nightmare" is rooted not only in the secularization of the black cause and the evacuation of the middle class from the cities, but also in misguided civil-rights ideologies from the fifties and sixties. And singing the same civil-rights choruses to address today's struggles has only exacerbated the situation. The secular black leadership of today does not have the capacity to address the "psychopathology of dependency and criminality" in today's ghetto, he says. "I have a dream" is old news for Eugene Rivers. "As of 1995, the black political leadership infrastructure, the protest faction of the declining civil-rights industry, is dead," he says.
He stresses that today there exist 8,000 black elected officials, yet black unemployment and criminality are more rampant than when there were only 300 blacks in office. These 8,000 officials "haven't got a clue that the universe has changed," he says. They are "bankrupt philosophically," "obsolete politically," and "void of policies that work."
When Newt Gingrich stormed Washington in the 1994 elections, he says, there was no philosophical and political prescription offered by the liberal Democrats in response. "You did not hear anything from Jesse Jackson," he says.
But the failure of today's policies is not the root of the problems. Rivers argues that the ideological assumptions behind these bankrupt policies were misguided from the start. He argues that two key concepts that have defined the black cause for decades must be re-examined and redefined: the notion of integration and the definition of black nationalism.
Rivers contends that the whole idea of integration that inspired the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 was "a ruse." The decision arose out of the "integrationist" notion that blacks and whites ought to live side-by-side, work together, play together, and attend the same schools. Minutes after that decision, Thurgood Marshall told the New York Times that segregation would be stamped out in five years. And for the black middle class, the idea was a dream: affirmative action, better incomes, better schools, better neighborhoods. But, says Rivers, Marshall's views were "utopian." "The middle-class leadership at the time assumed that the U.S. political system was racially inclusionary and politically capable of fully integrating the black Americans into national life." But the secular liberal notion of an integrationist vision of America was unrealistic from the start, and it was never a realistic option for the black poor.
He is quick to add that integration was not unrealistic because white folk were bad ("the Dutch Reformed who live in Grand Rapids keep to themselves, not because they're racist—they don't deal with other white people"). "It was unrealistic for cultural and organizational reasons," he says. "Progressive modern evangelicals confuse reconciliation with integration. The theologically conservative community, black and white, got caught up in the integrationist language, and so we ended up accepting the view that everything had to be salt and pepper for it to be equal and godly. Now, I love my Calvinist brothers, but let's get beyond this notion that somehow I've got to sit in your one-hour service where you can hear a mouse yawn, or that the Calvinistic children have to come to my high-octane black service that lasts for four hours. We don't have to be together around everything to be reconciled. We may need to look at Brown v. Board of Education again. Could there have been circumstances under which separate could have been equal?"
Prior to Brown, he adds, black schools were producing good students. "Thurgood Marshall went to a segregated school. Colin Powell went to a segregated school. It's amazing to note that some of our best leadership was produced in a segregated environment." But as a result of Brown, black schools were weakened (the best students went to white schools), black teachers were weakened, black colleges had the integration legislation used against them so that they no longer controlled their institutions. Things are worse now than when blacks and whites were completely segregated, Rivers contends. In the end, integration did more harm than good. "What I'm saying," he concludes, "is that Brown v. Board of Ed. needs to be looked at again, because it may have been, in the last analysis (and with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight), that we should have fought for separate and equal."
Two Kinds Of Nationalism
The failure of integrationist strategies is not the only bone Rivers has to pick with today's defining ideologies. The black nationalistic identity needs somehow to be reshaped and not in the image of Louis Farrakhan. "Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan are widely regarded. … as representatives of the Black nationalist perspective. This is a serious misconception. Jeffries and Farrakhan. … represent the nationalism of fools. They are cynically antisemitic, mean-spirited, and simply incompetent. … all demagoguery, uniforms, bow ties, and theater," wrote Rivers in the Boston Review. They lack both ideological credibility and programmatic ingenuity, which, for Rivers, makes them not "black nationalists" at all but "ambitious competitors on the game-show circuit posing in nationalist red, black, and green." He says, "Their trains, like Mussolini's, do not run on time."
But the ascendance of Farrakhan is attributable, says Rivers, to the "leadership vacuum" created by the failures of "a bankrupt integrationist project." This arose from (among others) King's "liberal optimism," which was largely shaped by theological liberalism of the time. After the Brown decision, black churches assumed center stage in the civil-rights movement, spurred on by King. "The white evangelical church could have exerted a greater intellectual influence on King," says Rivers, "but King could not get into a conservative theological seminary in the fifties." So where did King go? He went to Colgate-Rochester and Boston University, "where they weren't sure who God was." So King's vision for racial integration arose largely from his own "privileged class experience" and its attendant utopian notions spawned in these seminaries, and thus it possessed no "pedagogical relationship" to the poor and did not speak to the "intense alienation of the colonized urban metropolitan centers in the country." That, in turn, set the stage for the ascendance of the Nation of Islam and its visceral connection to the psychopathologies of the black poor: "Muslim ministers, symbols, and metaphors spoke to the political experiences of those in the bars, cell blocks, and back alleys of blackness." The Million Man March and Farrakhan's "triumph," says Rivers, serves as a "rebuke of the black church leadership for our failure—with minor exceptions—to meet the spiritual, cultural, and economic needs of black men. God used a false prophet to render judgment. You had a million men at that march, and 600,000 of them were black church laypeople without their leaders.
"People have incorrectly assumed," he continues, "that the black nationalist stuff means the 'kill whitey' rhetoric of a Farrakhan or the Black Panther party talking about 'killing the pig'" But historical black nationalism, he argues, is rooted in the church and is not separatistic. "Up until the thirties, every major black nationalist movement was, for the most part, Christian. Black nationalism in the United States began in the black church when, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, blacks were refused admission into white churches." They came together under the common history of slavery, cultural practices, and traditions—and a very distinctive Christian faith. And throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century, all of the nineteenth century up until the thirties, "all of the major initiatives for black self-help—emphasizing self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-reliance—were driven by the black church," he says.
A "sensible" nationalism, then, for Rivers, in keeping with the tradition of W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and others, is principally about advancing the interests of the community—the "nation-within-a-nation," aiming to rebuild the institutions of black civil society—black schools, black churches, and black neighborhoods. This is not so much to be separate from whites, but to thrive autonomously without the need to be "like them" or to be held hostage by whatever public programs they may confer. This nationalism is rooted—not in melanin—but in a shared "culture and history." It is derived from the sense of solidarity in their heritage of slavery and in their common struggle as freed-persons forging a destiny in a hostile white society. "The Black experience in this country has been a phenomenon without analog," writes historian Eugene Genovese. Blacks constitute "a nation-within-a-nation, no matter how anti-separatist their rhetoric or pro-integrationist their genuine aspirations."
Rivers allows that many needed freedoms were won by means of the civil-rights thrust toward integration. "Access to public accommodations, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act—those were all wins," he says. "But the downside of those things has been that integration resulted in the decline in the quality of black institutions."
Rivers's vision of nationalism is no different from the tacit and implicit nationalistic identity that predominates in the white community and in white churches, he argues. "Most evangelicals do not have a problem with nationalism in that they love America and they identify as citizens on the basis of a common history, political traditions, and a range of experiences which are distinctly American. And so, they're nationalists. Just as it does in the larger [white] society, our Christianity and nationalism can coexist in a creative tension. I am a Christian black nationalist, in that order."
What The Church Can Do
Glenn Loury, in his book One by One from the Inside Out, delineates two "paths to black progress": the "inside game" and the "outside game." The former, writes Loury, embodies the "philosophy of self-help, of good old-fashioned 'uplift'. … striving for moral reform" (the Booker T. Washington school). The latter "aims to secure one's rights by petitioning for redress of grievance" by means of societal structures (the W. E. B. DuBois school). Rivers, borrowing Loury's language, argues that only the church can give meaning to inner, personal renewal (the "inside game") and also define the role of civil structures (the "outside game") within the black context and experience. Only the church has moral authority—and the vocabulary—to introduce transcendent concepts of personal worth and the sacredness of life that will both inspire responsibility on a personal level and introduce purpose and definition to the role of civil government on a societal level.
On the one hand, Rivers calls the black church to repent for "closing the doors" on the inner-cities' underclass. ("It is easier for a teenage girl to find sanctuary in a crack house, a speakeasy, or a bar than it is for her to get refuge in a black church on a Friday night.") On the other hand, he vigorously advocates that the church is the only true hope for reform and the only viable instrument for instilling new life in the cities.
The missing element in the secular policy-oriented strategies is the transcendent sacredness of life. "Faith makes all the difference in how humans respond to adversity," wrote Rivers in Policy Review (Fall 1994). "With faith, one can see beyond discrimination and poverty to a future that has meaning. Without faith there is no identification with the Divine." And without "identification with the Divine" there are no rules, no restraint, and no sacredness to life. "Secular agencies," wrote Rivers in Globe Magazine (July 17, 1994), "don't explain to you why human life is meaningful, why there is a moral difference between spitting on the ground and killing another black person." The church has what no other institution in the country has, he says. It has "the moral language to resurrect hope in the face of insurmountable obstacles."
In addition to fostering individual worth, the church can also advance a model of the civil society. PTAs, crime watch programs, neighborhood councils, and the Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts are the stuff of a healthy, robust civil society, says Rivers. All of these build the fabric of a community, and black churches are uniquely positioned to advance these models—"if," says Rivers, "they'll open their doors to do it.
"Last night I was lecturing students in the middle of the neighborhood where ladies of the night were working. So I said to the students, 'See those sisters over there? Do you know what the greatest plan for presenting the gospel is going to be as we conclude this century?'—and these guys are all liberal kids. I said, 'Sunday school.' The bottom line is, Shaniqua Jackson [read: black Jane Doe] needs to be brought into a church, and her child needs to be taught the basic moral teachings of the Christian tradition, which begins in Sunday school."
This is not easy, and it does not come without a cost, says Rivers. "The biblical vision of discipleship and commitment is a vision that demands sacrifice. 'If any person will come after me, let him deny himself daily, take up his cross and follow me.' 'Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin'—that's central to our gospel. That's what makes it so beautiful, challenging, and threatening."
III. Friend of Sinners
The Azusa Christian Community in the Four Corners neighborhood of Dorchester (one of Boston's most violent neighborhoods) is Rivers's "biblical vision" lived out in the city streets. It was named after the street in Los Angeles where the first black Pentecostal church was founded in the early 1900s, and it began (in 1984) as an intentional commitment by Rivers and other black professionals to live out the ideologies they espouse: the black educated, professional class "emptying themselves" by moving into the inner city and establishing a "pedagogical relationship" with the poor—seeing their sights, hearing their sounds, smelling their smells, participating in their fears, fighting their battles. Being intellectuals, they brought a "sophisticated apologetic" to their context interfacing a theological system with a sociological framework; being professionals, they brought needed skills with which to train the underclass toward self-improvement; being Christians, they brought the servant mandate: Jesus was a friend to the people on the margin, and they would follow his lead.
Rivers admits, however, that the adjustment has not been easy. "One of the real struggles was adjusting to the radical difference in class orientation. You've got educated upper-middle-class blacks who are now interfacing with members who would be technically referred to as the underclass. There were a lot of things we learned that were very painful, because it is very dangerous."
Rivers knows this firsthand. In 1991, a young hoodlum opened fire on another young man in his neighborhood, and three bullets flew into his then three-year-old son Malcolm's bedroom. On another occasion, in 1993, Rivers challenged a crack dealer who was setting up an operation at a local playground. "I said, 'Look, I'll get you a job, send you to college—the whole nine.' He rejects that and tells me what to kiss. I make some phone calls, some police and probation officers get to him. He comes back a week later and says, 'You can have your park back.'" But a year later on a drunken spree, the young man drove by at 2:00 a.m. and shot into Rivers's house four times. "The question from all the hoodlums in the neighborhood after that was," says Rivers, "'Is the minister going to cut and run?'"
Some, not all, of the "original crew" who moved into the neighborhood to establish Azusa still live and work there. Others have moved on, and the class composition of the community is changing. "Our base, as we're growing as a fellowship, is getting more rank-and-file working black folk," says Rivers. "It's one thing when you start out as a fellowship and you're all single with no kids and no major responsibilities. So there are not issues like family safety, and where do my kids go to school? But there has to be a clear recognition of calling," he says. The first time the Rivers home was hit with gunfire that almost hit Malcolm, he says, "The reporter asked Jackie, 'What are you going to do?' I looked at her and said, 'It's your call.' She said, 'I feel called by God to be in this neighborhood, and because I feel called, I feel protected. If I'm not where the Lord is calling me, I'm not safe.'"
"We recognize," he continues, "that a community of faith that is willing to really follow the leading of the Holy Spirit can make a difference in the worst neighborhood. Dramatic change will always require dramatic sacrifices. Dramatic blessings have dramatic costs."
The work at Azusa has evolved into what has become Rivers's—and others'—larger initiative: the formulation of the Ten Point Coalition. This strategy for a mobilized, concerted effort on the part of inner-city religious institutions to reach the urban poor emerged after a stabbing incident at Morning Star Baptist Church in 1992. Worshipers had gathered to mourn the death of a resident in a drive-by shooting when the service was interrupted by a spontaneous conflict between a young man and rival gang members. The confrontation resulted in gunfire being sprayed randomly throughout the church and in the brutal stabbing of the young man in the presence of horrified onlookers.
Not only did the shock of that incident convince Rivers of the church's failure ("the church had failed to take the good news of the gospel to the street, so the street brought the bad news into the church"), but perhaps even more troubling to him was what he perceived to be the non-response from some of Boston's leading black clergy. When some leaders "strategized" about how to respond to "Morning Star," they went behind closed doors, shutting out the voices from the neighborhood who wanted to be part of the conversation, and, according to some, the strategies failed to translate into noticeable action. As a result, Eugene Rivers came to the forefront and, along with others, like Ray Hammond, organized the coalition to respond to the crisis, with input from the gangs and other neighborhood voices. Hurmon Hamilton says that, as a result of the coalition's "consciousness-raising," there now exists a greater "climate of support" for what Rivers and his colleagues are doing, and their influence is expanding. The coalition presently consists of 37 churches and agencies in the Boston area. It is supported by the Boston police and probation officers, and new coalitions are being established in other cities nationwide, including Providence, Hartford, Oberlin (Ohio), and Memphis.
The "Ten Point Plan"—authored by Rivers and pioneering members of the coalition—delineates hands-on tactics for reaching the urban poor. "It is the most specific set of action items available in the country now which is labor intensive, with no rhetoric, no fat on the bone," says Rivers. The statement's many strategies include: church-cluster groups "adopting a gang" for evangelistic outreach; commissioning "missionaries" to serve as ombudsmen in court with juveniles; promoting one-on-one street evangelism; introducing economic-development projects; nurturing partnerships with suburban churches; setting up neighborhood crime-watch programs; working with community health centers to prevent sexually transmitted diseases; setting up "brother/ sisterhoods" to serve as a "rational alternative" to gang life; establishing rape crisis centers; and developing black and Latino history curriculum to help youth understand that "the God of history has been and remains active in the lives of all peoples."
Through Azusa's outreach programs, Rivers hopes to evangelize 1,000 young blacks over the next five years. On other fronts, his wife, Jackie, directs the Boston office of Algebra Project, helping neighborhood kids develop math skills through tutorials. Alan Shaw, a Ph.D., offers vocational training by teaching neighborhood youth how to fix basic electrical appliances and then helps them offer their services throughout the neighborhood. "We are also doing night patrols, meeting with drug dealers in crack houses," Rivers adds. "We listen to them and evangelize them. We're going to the courts with some of them and then meeting fairly regularly with them.
"When we moved into this neighborhood," he continues, "there were heroin dealers up and down the block. That corner was controlled by drug dealers. They're all gone, and we're putting up a neighborhood center. And we're hiring more kids in this neighborhood than the drug dealers hired for summer programs. We have been supported by the mayor and the [Roman Catholic] cardinal. We've essentially been a mission. We've got former drug dealers—they're working for the church now."
What About Whites?
But what about whites? Says Rivers: "When people aren't in communication, myths go around in both parties. If I'm not in communication with you and I'm in a bad situation, I think that you're just an indifferent, callous you-know-what who doesn't give a you-know-what about my condition. Conversely, if you watch a lot of TV, you might decide that blacks are just a bunch of lazy welfare recipients looking to stay at the public trough. Those kinds of divisions grow.
"We need to operate from the baseline presumption that we're people of good will, we love God, and we're doing what God tells us to do." So black and white Christians then should, and must, work together. Otherwise, he says, America is destined for "psychological apartheid," the symptoms of which are evidenced in the responses to the O. J. Simpson verdict. "The conservative black and white churches are uniquely qualified to have a conversation about race, to build bridges, and to provide some authentic context for reconciliation."
"As we conclude this century, it will probably be the theologically conservative white Christians and black Christians who will be the greatest expression of some vision of what can happen in this society," he says. "Who would have thought that toward the end of this century you would have the Southern Baptists, of all people, confessing their sins for slavery?"
But the white church has failed its constituency in some of the same ways the black church has failed its people, according to Rivers. "How do we explain how the white evangelical church, as wealthy as it is, has not produced a state-of-the-art policy-oriented intelligentsia?" he asks. "We're good biblical scholars, good biblicists; but at the level of social theory, the blacks will be to the white evangelical church what the Jews are intellectually to the larger American society. The Jewish community has been the intelligentsia for the larger, white American society as a fruit of their marginality and urbanization. The urban culture develops a certain kind of sensibility because you're marginalized from the mainstream. The black experience is the most marginal experience there is, symbolically, anyway—more than Latinos, who can be white or black or in-between. When you're black, that experience gives you a unique lens on the larger society.
"So here we are in 1996, and there is an opportunity for the white evangelical church to produce a sophisticated policy-oriented intelligentsia, to break out of this insular warm milk and cookies, kum-ba-ya vision of the world, and say 'We're going to step up to the point of challenge and bring the best of our intellectual and moral traditions and speak to the crisis'—and then be willing to say—'I am going to articulate a morally consistent vision.' After we tell the blacks that they have to own their issues and be morally responsible, are we then also going to ignore the biblical commands that require a redistribution of godly gain to meet the needs of the widow and orphan? There's no agonizing over the damaging effects of welfare assistance in the federal subsidies given to McDonald's and Chrysler. Nobody worries about the damaging psychological effects of welfare for the rich. So if there's no free ride for Shaniqua Jackson, then there shouldn't be any free ride for the Fortune 500 corporation that doesn't want to pay taxes.
"Evangelicals are in the best position to provide leadership for the country. I'm actually fairly optimistic," he continues. "There is a new wave of policy-oriented black Christian intelligentsia emerging," he says, that includes such noted thinkers as neuroscientist S. Tiffany Cunningham of Rutgers, Eva T. Thorne at mit, A. G. Miller of Oberlin College, Randall Jelks of Calvin College, and Jeffrey Brown and Ray Hammond of Boston. And, he says, "I see higher levels of collaboration because there is growing recognition that the society is being polarized in ways it wasn't polarized 30 years ago. The only thing that is going to keep the United States from going in the direction of resurrecting apartheid is the church. If the church doesn't do it, it's apartheid in the future."
A Reason For Hope
The sermon text at Azusa's worship service that morning came from 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." And Pastor Rivers, the street-hustler-turned-street-preacher, has reason to hope. Growing up in the streets of Philadelphia taught him the complexities of urban psychology and the ways in which these pathologies have not been successfully addressed. His Christian vision has informed a new ideology that he asserts and through which he and his fellow-laborers are attempting to redeem the streets of Boston's ghettos. His work at Azusa embodies his philosophy and fleshes out his commitment to reach the disfranchised urban poor.
Some detractors question Rivers's motivations and his accomplishments. What has he really done, they ask.
Well, he got Julian to church. And it's not so important that Julian know when it's appropriate to speak in church and when it's not, but what is important is getting Julian inside the church; getting him to ask for prayer for his Jewish neighbor; getting him to want to lead a congregational prayer to the Lord. That takes going out onto the streets where the Julians are and bringing them to church where they don't know how to behave.
So when Julian's prayer was completed that long Sunday morning at Azusa, and the worshipers had been dismissed (with Julian's blessing), Pastor Rivers took a few minutes to chat with worshipers. But his conversation was cut short. Someone from outside rushed in and interrupted him mid-sentence to tell him he was needed. With a quick good-bye, he was gone. As cars pulled away from the community center, Eugene Rivers could be seen on the sidewalk outside speaking intensively, trying to calm a young man. It was Julian. He needed his pastor.
This article originally appeared in the June 14, 1985, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Wendy Murray Zoba was Associate Editor for the magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The New Republic examined Rivers in a May 2001 issue.
Christianity Today's sister publication Books and Culture interviewed Rivers for "The Word on the Street."
Another Christianity Today sister publication Leadership Journal looked at River's methods for building a Christian community where it doesn't come easy.