Part II of His Sermon at Bridge Street Church’s 250th Anniversary Celebration, Sunday, February 28, 2016

 

“This Place: Not Merely Historic but History-Making”

 

The Rev. Dr. Cornell William Brooks, National President & CEO, NAACP
The Rev. Dr. Cornell William Brooks, National President & CEO, NAACP

Some would say that you’re at Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church; one church with two great histories.  Some might say that you’re in a beautiful urban cathedral with majestic architecture.  Some might say that you are in a silk stocking church with pointed pews with a well-educated pastor and first lady.  Some might say there’s much to brag about, much to take pride in, much to get our heads swelled up about, but some might say we’re standing amidst the Promised Land.

 

We’ve come today.  We are in a place where how many ministers have preached from this pulpit; how many choirs have sung in that choir loft; how many soloists have sung with the despair and the depression and the hurt and the humiliation of Wednesday and Tuesday and Monday, but when they arrived here on Sunday, they sung to the glory of God?  They sung of God’s power; they sung of God’s anointing; they sung of the Holy Spirit; they sung; they sung of the Father; they sung of the Son; they sung about all God has brought them through.  How many choirs have sung from this choir loft?

 

How many brothers and sisters have come to this place having gone through a difficult and hellish week only to sing about heaven on Sunday? Ask yourself, how many parents have come to this church with prodigal sons and daughters lost to the streets, lost to heroin, lost to meth, lost to cocaine, lost to alcohol?  How many parents have come to this church, knelt at this altar, knelt and prayed in these pews and seen those prodigal sons, seen those prodigal daughters come down those aisles and give their lives to Christ?

 

How many parents, how many grandparents, have seen miracles on Sunday, miracles on Wednesday night, miracles throughout the week?  How many parents have seen God deliver his people in this church?  Where are you?  Like these Israelites, you might yet declare today, I am in the land of God’s promise.

 

Somebody may say, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, preacher, you’re not talking about biblical geography, or that this not the Sinai; this is not Hebron; this is not Jerusalem; we’re in Brooklyn.  Well, you are yet in God’s promise.  When you walk down those aisles and when the Lord yet says to you “give and it shall be given unto you” pressed down shaken together and run over, you are in the land of God’s promise; When God yet declares that he came so that you might have life and have it more abundantly, yes, you are in the land of God’s promise.  When you come into this church worried and fearful and God yet declares that he, Lord is your Shepherd and you shall not want, you are in the land of God’s promise.

 

Watch where you are.  Know where you are …

 

…. Is this a collection of wood and carpet, and plaster and paint and stained-glass windows … ?  Miracles have happened here.  …  Somebody has been delivered here.  Somebody has been anointed here.  Somebody has been saved here.  Some preacher has found solace here.  Somebody has found peace here.  We are in the land of God’s promise.

 

So we don’t come in form nor in fashion.   This is not some ceremonial parade after 250 years of ministry.  This is not some liturgical cake walk.  We can’t come here knowing that our God brought us here and we’re standing on hallowed ground.

 

… This altar has been anointed with the tears of God’s people.  These pews have the fingerprints of those lives that have been saved or transformed.  …  This for us is no academic, intellectual, historical moment.  We are in the presence of God.  This is a holy moment.  Not out of happenstance or consequence.

 

I’m gonna simply ask that you look back over 250 years.  Imagine, if you will, a church that starts on the banks of a river, not the Tigress or the Euphrates, running through the fertile-crescent, but a river running through New York.  Imagine a group of Native Americans, European Americans, African Americans, the descendants of slaves worshipping together.  Now imagine that group of people growing over time so much so that some decided we are going to segregate the sanctuary of God.  We’re going to charge African Americans the price of admission for being a member of this Zion.  Can you see a church like that? Can you imagine a church like that? That church multiplying by the hundreds.

 

Imagine a church in the midst of fugitive slave laws in this nation, daring to house fugitive slaves seeking to escape the dungeon, the debasing dungeon of slavery.  Imagine a church.  Imagine a church that when Harriet Tubman showed up the church was filled to near capacity.  Though she was an outlaw; though she was corrugated by a constitutional democracy, this church welcomed Harriet Tubman, the Moses of the people.  How many churches would welcome Moses in America instead of Moses in ancient Israel?

 

Now imagine a church that opens its doors to an abolitionist with lion bearing, prophetic eyes, and a ruggedly handsome countenance by the name of Frederick Douglass, who might have said from this pulpit “there is no progress without struggle.  Those who profess the favor of freedom yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening; they want the sea without the roar of its might waters.

 

“There can be no progress without struggle,” Frederick Douglass might have said, to your forepeople, to your forebearers, to your foremothers, to your ancestors, this church welcomed him.  Not only that.  In 1928 (a) radical upstart outlaw organization known as the NAACP, mind you, looking for a home to have a Mass meeting,  might have gone to the cathedral downtown; they might have looked across the length and breadth of this country, but they came to Bridge Street.

 

James Weldon Johnson, who held my job before I could ever imagine holding such a job came and spoke from this church.

 

Where do you come from? The history of Bridge Street is the biography of this nation.  You’ve dealt with segregation.  You’ve dealt with lynching.  You’ve dealt with poverty.  You’ve dealt with discrimination.  You’ve dealt with all the constitutional crisis that have swept the nation here in New York City.  This is a historic church.  This is one of the most historic churches in the nation.  Power and majesty emanate from the walls of this church.  So there’s much to be proud of; perhaps even a little to be arrogant about.  You can compare yourself to the storefront down the street.   You can compare yourself to the other churches that don’t have the august civil rights and the august denominational history that you have.  But can I suggest something to you today, that at 250 years young Bridge Street is not merely historic, it’s history making.

 

You can turn the gilded pages of history, but if you go to your Twitter feed, go to Facebook, go to Instagram, I speculate that there’s somebody here talking about the fact that Bridge Street has a Headstart program.  Somebody’s talking about the fact that Bridge Street works with and serves seniors.  Somebody’s talking about the fact that Bridge Street is not the kind of church content to damn and condemn, and castigate our young people.  They’re in the business of loving, serving and caring for our young people.  Not merely historic, but history making.

 

We’re in the city.  We know about race and division.  A city in which a policy of stop and frisk became the poster for police misconduct and police brutality for the whole of the country, but here’s what I’ll note: we’re not merely historic, we’re history making.  The members of the NAACP in this church, members of this church, who lifted up their voices against stop and frisk.  You brought stop and frisk to a stop.  That’s not merely historic, that’s history making.

 

Pastor Cousin, there’s some who might say Bridge Street – what they say about the NAACP – you all look old and geriatric.  You need to content yourselves to retiring to nursing homes sipping Geritol in a semi-senile state.  I would say about you – what we say about the NAACP – we understand that history is a floor and not a ceiling.  We stand on our history to reach toward our future.  We refuse to be relegated to the past.  We’re about the present, the now and the future.  We are not merely historic, but history making.  That’s who we are.   You think Bridge Street is gonna allow New York City to go to hell as we vacuum extract poor people, working class people, people in the middle? You don’t know the history of this church.

 

You fought against housing discrimination.  You fought against employment discrimination.  You fought against police misconduct.  You fought for every progressive, every prophetic advancement that this city has known since its founding.  Why? You were here before Emancipation Proclamation.  You were here before the Declaration of Independence.  You were here before the US Constitution.  You were here before the birth of the nation.  You were here before the NAACP.  You were here before the AFL-CIO.  You were here before SCLC.  You were here before SNCC.  You were here before more of the churches that are still standing in the borough of Brooklyn, and in the city of New York, and in the state of New York.  You were here, and as a consequence of you being here, you know you can stay here, and change here.

 

… Wait a minute.  Pastor, wait a minute, these souvenir booklets are fine.  They’re great.  But what happens when we take the souvenir booklet and we download it into our children’s moral imagination?  What happens when we take our history, our stories and create a twitter feed for their hearts?  What happens when we take the black and white pictures of yesteryear, the portrait of days gone by and we post them on the Instagram of their minds and hearts?  What happens when we tell our children if we did this what more could you do because I yet believe that our foremothers, forefathers, forebearers yet ask the question, if we did all that we did with what little we have, why, why, why can’t you do more with all that you have been given?  Brothers and sisters this is a powerful age.

 

… All across the length and breadth of this country our young people are taking to the street.  Our young people are marching.  They’re marching asserting that Black Lives Matter because they understand that Black Livers mattering is a moral predicate to the moral conclusion that All Lives Matter.  Unless the first is true the second can never be true.

 

In the midst of this age of activism, it’s a time to be active.  It’s a time to take to the streets.  It’s a time to partner with the NAACP.  It’s a time to take up arms against the forces of injustice.  When people are literally robbing, stealing, and taking away your right to vote; when our children are being killed day in and day out; when people say your first African American president will not be treated like his predecessors; he will not get his pick on the Supreme Court; we will not treat him the same, which means they insult him and they are insulting you.

 

But I can tell you this.  There’s a church called Bridge Street AME that will not take it, that will not give up, that will not give in, that will not roll over because we’ve been here and we will continue to be here, and we will fight till hell freezes over, and when it does we will march on the ice.

 

If you think that we’re about to go to sleep; if you think we’re about to retire; I’m looking at some 60 year olds, some 70 year olds, some 80 year olds, who will tell you I’m collecting a Social Security check, but I’m a long way from retiring …

 

For more information on Bridge Street Church, located at 277 Stuyvesant Avenue, please visit: www.bridgestreetbrooklyn.org

 

 

 

 

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