Brooklyn: Mt. Calvary Baptist Church (The Newman Years)

by Tim Gilmore, 7/8/2017

cont’d from Brooklyn: Fat Round’s Place

Joseph Jack asks Fat Round about when he attended Mt. Calvary Baptist, a block away and on the other side of the street. Fat was 15 or 16. Middle 1970s. He says he remembers the day Reverend Newman came to town.

I can’t verify his story, but Fat Round’s right when he says, “Near about ever’body ’round here, them that’s left, despise that man!”

Fat says Reverend John Allen Newman walked into town one day in a blue suede suit with a big hole in the back of his jacket. “He wudden here long when he bought himself a brand new Cadillac.”

Much of Brooklyn still attended Mt. Calvary in the early years of Newman’s pastorate. He convinced the congregation it needed a new sanctuary diagonally across the street from the old one, across the street to the south of Fat’s townhouse. Fat says Newman asked the whole community for donations, said he’d build a walkway across Spruce and Dora Streets between the sanctuaries.

“They near about finished the new building,” says Fat. “It was near about big as the old church.” Fat says Newman asked Mt. Calvary’s old Brooklyn longtime church members to mortgage their houses to help pay for the new sanctuary.

The new structure stood unfinished until the city demolished it. Then Newman moved Mt. Calvary across town and left the original sanctuary to rot, its pews and piano and pulpit still standing patiently inside, longsuffering.

The Sanctuary at Mt. Calvary stands about three miles northwest of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, at Kings Road and Division Street, in the former Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church, built august and brick in the 1970s.

When the congregation first left Mt. Calvary Baptist in Brooklyn, it moved into a prefab former car dealership on Walgreen Road. A stubby plaster square tower topped by a cupola topped by a cross rose slightly from a front corner.

In its first five decades in Brooklyn, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church worshiped in a small white woodframe building. After nine pastors, Reverend William Hill came to the pulpit in 1942 and led Mr. Calvary until his death 30 years later. When Hill became pastor, he decided the church needed a new sanctuary, a tall grand edifice that would accommodate the church’s growth and announce, in its very presence and form, the importance of the church in the city.

Hill commissioned James Edward Hutchins, one of the few black architect-builders in the city. Hutchins would design and build at least six other black churches in Jacksonville and homes throughout the segregated black neighborhoods of College Park and Durkee Gardens, where prominent black physicians, educators, and business and civic leaders lived.

Hill had served Mt. Calvary as pastor longer than any of his predecessors, having begun his pastorate by christening a newer and grander sanctuary. When John Allen Newman became pastor in 1983, he hadn’t yet the means to do the same, but the idea of marking his line in the church’s history with his own monumental architecture haunted the chambers of his mind, biding its time.

In early 1988, Newman asked church members to donate to the church of behalf of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. After all, Jackson was with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis just before King’s assassination. After all, Jackson came closer to a major-party presidential nomination than any other black American before Barack Obama.

Newman told the press in March 1988 that he believed “in holistic salvation, not just personal salvation, but the salvation of a person’s environment.”

Increasingly, he left traditional and strictly biblical black Baptist teaching behind. And he certainly failed to guide Brooklyn’s residents to the “salvation” of their “environment.” Les Paul Garner, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, minister at Fresh Start Temple on nearby Cherokee street, says, “Reverend John Newman was never a community person in Brooklyn.” Those few longtime Brooklyn residents left feel he betrayed the neighborhood.

original painting for Mt. Calvary Baptist’s late-90s’ gospel album

Rather than saving their personal environment, Newman walked away from Brooklyn 15 years ago and never looked back.

Les Paul Garner tells me, “Then the official line was that the church board wanted Newman to start a new building, but he said God did not send him to start a new church. So the church left Brooklyn and moved to Walgreen Road.”

He left the walls of the new sanctuary standing, but the structure unfinished. The church building he’d taken over almost 20 years before, he abandoned, pews and pulpit untouched.

cont’d Sanctuary at Mt. Calvary / Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church (Grant Park)