The Rev. Dr. Curtis L. Whitney, retiring after 32 years in the pulpit of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, was born in Ivor, Virginia, is a graduate of Queens College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and holds a Master’s of Divinity from Union Theological and a Dr. of Divinity from Drew University.
Our Tim Press
Sir, Ivor Virginia. Population 309 in 1930. What was it like growing up around there?
Oh, it was different. It was different. It was, you know, sometimes very lonely. It’s only a few people that we knew and they were people that they said we were related to, in a sense. We stayed in our part of the, you know, town. Community, it was not really a town because they had one grocery store, one clothing store. And so, you know, we only went there weekends. It was, as I said before, it was very. Our activity was school and church.
School and church?
School and church.
Was your time in the Army the first time you were really leaving there?
Actually, the day I graduated from high school I have already determined I was not going to stay there any longer than that. I was going to venture out and see what the rest of the world looked like. I had my bags packed and I remember so vividly that my dad took me into Route 460. That was the main highway that was in Petersburg to Norfolk. [Route 460] And there was a certain spot where the Greyhound bus stopped. And it was that day my dad took me and I waited about 15 minutes and I see this bus and even though there were seats available in the front of the bus, I had to go way to the back. And I looked out of that back window and did that (waves his hand)… my dad.
And you were going off to…
I was going off to the, at that point, I was going to an elderly great-great aunt–95 years old. Owned her own home right on the campus of Virginia Union. In fact, there was a big, maybe 10-12-foot fence that divided her house on the campus and students had a way of making a hole. It was like a shortcut. So they had a hole made in that fence where they can take that shortcut. And I stayed with her for a while until I decided I was going to go further and that’s when I went to New Jersey and went into the service. Signed up for, did not get a draft call but I knew it was coming so I went and boosted my draft.
So as they say, you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris. You decide to stay in the big city. What brought you to the ministry?
Well, when I came out of the service, I was what you might classify as a 90-day wonder. In fact, I was almost ready to re-enlist and go back in the service. But I happen to see a buddy that I met in service and he always told me about the church that he was going to and that he always wanted me to visit. And I did. And it was at that time I really was exposed to a level of Christianity that I had never been exposed to before. And I began to do a lot of introspective study myself.
Now you’ve been here for thirty…
2 years. A lot of times, if you will, First Ladies of the Church, people don’t understand how much they contribute. Can you speak for a moment about what your First Lady has been doing supporting you with the church.
Yeah. That’s a good, good question. She had grown up around a minister and Leading Lady, First Lady. In Newark, New Jersey. And she had seen what they went through and she and her girlfriend had decided they would not come anywhere near a minister. They didn’t want no parts of it. But guess what? She and her girlfriend both end up marrying ministers. And it took her a little while to get accustomed to it. And even now, there’s some issues that she’s still dealing with. But she accepted the call. And then she got involved. She became president of the New York State Interdenominational Minister’s Wives Association. So she’s been very, very, we both have been very, very busy in our extension of our service to the community.
There’s a, now there was a time when religion was the nearest thing black people had to being free. What is the role of the church now in the African-American life? What do you see? What role is the church playing now in the African-American life.
I think now more than ever, church has a responsibility and role of going out in the community and making a positive impact in the lives of the people in that community. The Scripture talks about, a beacon light, or a city that is set on the hill that cannot be hid. Having a light that cannot be hid. A city that sits upon a hill and people can come for restoration, people can come for encouragement and guidance. And that’s my raison d’être That’s a (French) word meaning “reason for being”. Raison d’être. My reason for being is to make a positive impact upon the lives of the people. And help them come to grips with the heart issues of life that face them on a daily basis. In other words, “it goes beyond the four walls”.
How’s that been expressed here at Mount Sinai. I know you have a food program, that kind of thing. But what physically on the ground does the church do to achieve that?
One of the things we have is a program for AIDS. We have a HIV and AIDS ministry. And many of the activities that have developed had their genesis here at Mount Sinai. And we got a grant which gives us more leverage in helping those persons.
Our Time Press: Changing times… after your 32 years here, how has the congregation changed? How has the environment changed around here? What effect is all this having on the church?
Pastor Whitney: That’s one of the issues that I have wrestled with. Number one, this church, Mount Sinai Baptist Church, has predominately attracted people from the South. At a point in time there was a, especially after the 10-year mark and the work of my predecessor, there was a great influx of people from places like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida. Those places. So much so that they had clubs. The North Carolina club, South Carolina club and so forth and so on. And when I arrived here, it was apparent that there were members of this congregation that did not fit in any of those big clubs. Number one and number two, people in those clubs were beginning to migrate back South. Those that had reached retirement age, they were going back South. So that trend of influx coming in just flipped around and was the opposite.
I came up with the notion of the 12 Tribes of Israel. And everybody in the congregation–whether they were from Georgia, Mississippi or wherever–were a part of those 12 Tribes. And the way we separated it was by birth month. If a person was born in January, they were automatically part of the tribe of Benjamin. And so that, some had resistance on the part of something, the congregation, because they had that club mentality. And they thought that pastor was breaking up that club. But I did it by default because the clubs were becoming so small they did not justify their existence.
Migrating back South
And so that was one of our main challenges, to make sure that everybody felt a part of one of these tribes. And by virtue of their birth month, everybody was in a tribe. So it eventually caught on. But at the same token, people were still migrating back South. You know, families… I mean whole families migrating South. And also the congregation was an elderly congregation. So between the migration back South and people that were passing on to the great beyond, the congregation began to dwindle. And people were not that active in joining. We’d get a few here and there. But for the most part, we were losing more than what we were taking in.
Challenges to Face
And then with the building of the Barclays Center, the neighborhood, the landscape of Bed-Stuy, began to change radically. The housing that was being built, a lot of our people could not afford it. And so they ended up moving out. So the whole landscape of our community is completely changed. We have whites that have moved across the street, in the back of us. They have completely taken the area over. And that’s a real challenge.
OTP: How do you meet that challenge? What do you, for the folks coming up behind you, how would you want them to meet that challenge?
Pastor Whitney: I would want them (first of all) to continue to be active in the community, organization, their block association. Having extra services here just to have like a town hall, if you will. Making sure that the congregation is feeling the pulse of the community. In my messages, I always share with them that we have to remember that our community is changing and we’re going to have to begin looking at ways that will draw these people so that they can become a part of ours… There were a few that have been coming, you can tell they’re looking. And they would come and sit in our service, then they will go.
OTP: Are you talking about white folks?
Pastor Whitney: Yes.
OTP: Now you talk about the rising prices of keeping a congregation in place. I know you’ve done work with affordable housing. Is there a role for the church to play in this whole housing situation that folks are facing?
Pastor Whitney: Yes, absolutely. That is why I would strongly recommend, we don’t have it, but this is something that I’ve been working on is developing housing. We have the property. As a matter of fact, we are property rich and cash flow poor. And nonetheless, we’ve been looking at meeting with developers, we’ve been meeting with consultants, that will help us…politicians to focus on developing adequate housing for our people. It’s a shame that we have the property but we don’t have anything on the property and we have people that need housing.
OTP: And as you go through that process is it always the concern that, with the hundreds of millions of dollars of responsibility of the, trustees of the churches, how do you protect yourself when you’re working with developers and that kind of thing…How are you dealing with that?
Pastor Whitney: Well, number one, they know what our mission is to be a positive role model in helping develop the community having facilities where the community can get involved. Through the food program, the soup kitchen, the clothing drive, each ministry is to let them know that we’re not just a Sunday church.
We’re going to look after the soul as our prime responsibility, but secondary we can’t tell people about their soul when (physically) their needs are not being met. And so I try to present a holistic approach to ministry. Ministry is not being served as much as it is to serve. And that’s what I think it’s important for the congregation to be encouraged to continue the community service. To continue the involvement with the political people in the area. And doing networking, networking is a key here.
I don’t know if you ever heard of Industrial Areas Foundation, it’s called IAF. And the originator of this community-based organization was a guy out of Chicago by the name of Saul Alinsky. He developed that model. Getting congregations involved in the community. So we had our congregation involved in that for a period of time. And then we left the IAF and we joined up with another similar organization called PICO, Pacific Institute of Community Organizing. And this is where all the churches came together and developed the laypeople so that they could go out in the community. Confront the powers that be. If there was a red light that needed to be put up on the corner right here, we would go down to City Hall and we would protest. Speak with the person that would represent us. And those were the kinds of things we did.
Development Portfolio Transferred
And part of that came out of what I’m just about ready to relinquish. ABCCD – Association of Brooklyn Clergy for Community Development. Actually, Dr. Herb Daughtry, Russ Roman, they were former founders of this organization. And we saw a strong need for the church to be involved in the community. And that is when we came up with ABCCD. Which at one point had a working staff of about 30 people in Restoration. We had a community health sector, HIV-AIDS, and housing. We had a mental health piece, we had housing development, and during that time Herb Daughtry was the chair. (Mayor) Giuliani and Herb did not see eye to eye. And Giuliani had made it clear that if Herb Daughtry remained as chair, ABCCD was going to close up. Because when Herb was really in full force, was when Dinkins was in (Mayor David Dinkins). And anything that came through the pipeline came down eventually through to ABCCD. But when Giuliani came in, that’s when the organization began to flounder. In spite of that, we were able to do at least 250 units of affordable housing, we had all of our housing as part of the tax credit program. That at the end of 15 years, it would either roll over or we would transfer to another community development corporation. And that’s what has happened.
Our whole portfolio, was transferred over to Pratt Area Community Council (Now IMPACCT). And believe it or not, it still has not completely been finished yet. But we’re just at the point now of dissolving ABCCD and completing the complete transfer of the portfolio. We’ve been doing this for the last six years. And now we are talking about closing the latter part of June.