Brooklyn: Mt. Calvary Baptist Church (for Thou Art with Me)

by Tim Gilmore, 7/8/2017

Joseph Jack waxes ecstatic when he thinks about the emotions, the spiritual experiences, the community crises and resolutions fostered in this old forsaken structure for a century.

He feels that God has drawn him personally to this abandoned sanctuary. Three years ago, when he first became aware of Mt. Calvary, he placed an old Bible on the pulpit. He left it open to the 23rd Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

That Bible still lies open to the psalm, like some kind person’s hands held out and together, palms up, offering sustenance, the recent rains dripping from the roof around it, so that even now, though Joseph Jack walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he will fear no evil.

“For thou art with me.”

Mt. Calvary Baptist Church held its first services in 1896, with a number of former United States Colored Troops, who fought against the Confederacy in the Civil War, among its members. Just after the Civil War, a Confederate veteran named Miles Price sold some of the first lots of a new neighborhood called Brooklyn, former plantation land, to former slaves and black Union soldiers. By the birth of Mt. Calvary at Spruce and Dora Streets, more than 1,000 people lived in Brooklyn in more than 250 houses.

Where less imaginative and less attuned observers might see only the corpse of a church whose soul, its congregation, has departed, Joseph feels in his heart and his fists and his jaw and his temples all the glory that shook these walls in 1910 and 1930 and 1970 when Mt. Calvary’s congregants worshipped their hardest and most full of love and life.

Steep steps rise up the brick façade. The grand open worship space waits, still lined by the old pews that face the pulpit, anticipating some new utterance of great truth. It’s as though the congregation stood, all at once, and walked away from its home forever.

The periwinkle blue of the walls fades slowly across time like the blue of distance, for it’s distance that makes blue of green lands beyond arrival.

The old stained glass frosted blue and green and turquoise in the arched windows louvers open, out over Brooklyn, a hull of its former self, where 6,000 people lived and ate and worked and worshiped and laughed and fought and dapped and danced decades ago.

Climbing stairs, we peer down into the baptismal font and across the stage and pulpit to more stained glass. Descending two stories, we walk through the basement where Sunday School services were held and where a battered old piano, its wires standing plucked crazily from its head in every direction, slowly slides, quarter of an inch a day, across the green fungal film on the mud from the summer rains. (For the earth accepts the return to itself of pianos and churches alike.)

“I know,” Joseph says, “this old church could be like it used to be.” He can see it, feel it. He acknowledges, “The church is the people, not the building,” but says, “This building is history, and history’s right here. It’s just full of the spirit!”

cont’d Brooklyn: Fat Round’s Place