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New Road to Zion

Eschewing self-help religion and the rise of prosperity ministers, the Rev. Tyrone Nelson leads an historic black church back to its roots.


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The pulsing hum of voices echoing through the meeting hall at Third Street Baptist Church in Jackson Ward buzzes with electricity like a sporting event.

Pacing through the swiftly filling room, the Rev. Tyrone Nelson is nervously conducting a head count on this cool March evening. This is no sports event, but how it turns out is entirely about the numbers, as attendees sign-in at cafeteria-style tables. Nelson fidgets nervously as he watches the broad meeting hall fill to near capacity, a rare state for a man best described as unflappable. Tall but compactly built with a set jaw that rarely relaxes to allow his thin smile, Nelson is not the pastor here, but he most certainly has been selected to lead.

“Last year we had almost a thousand people,” he says, his eyes distracted by more arrivals. Tonight the church members are signing up to become part of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities, a social activist group that's been hammering its civic reform message at city government leaders for the past few years with surprising success. Realizing that the crowd will be bigger than last year's, Nelson's mood shifts to confidence. “This year we'll have more than a thousand,” he says.

This numbers game is about unity. Jew, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, black, white, Hispanic; everyone here tonight is on one team with just one message for Richmond's politicians: Do right. 

The year's successes will eventually include major changes to Virginia Commonwealth University's federally funded indigent care program that make it easier for the city's poor to see primary doctors. Sheriff C.T. Woody, on the other hand, eventually responds with an angry public letter blasting Nelson personally for trying to control jail operations — the group seeks to improve substance-abuse programs offered at Richmond Jail.

It's no accident that Nelson has been selected to lead the group. Pastor of Richmond's historic Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Nelson, 36, is part of a new breed of ministers that over the past decade have taken the reins at some of the city's most historic and entrenched African-American churches — marking a significant shift for black congregations in Richmond.

Where once Nelson tried to gain a seat at the table of government — he ran for the Henrico County School Board two years ago — he now looks to his childhood heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in adapting to a new approach: “I'm glad that I'm in the context I'm in,” says Nelson, who also admires longtime theologian and politician Mayor Dwight C. Jones. “But it's hard to hold a politician's foot to the fire when you're sitting next to them.”

Inside Third Street Baptist's meeting hall, Nelson and his fellow activists are preparing to hold quite a few feet to the fire. The following month at its annual Nehemiah Action meeting, Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities will challenge monolithic city institutions such as Virginia Commonwealth University, the Richmond Public Schools and the city jail to insist they do better for the people at the heart of their respective community missions.

When he takes the podium, Nelson's earlier anxiety appears to have evaporated.

“Systemic evils take years and years and years to become entrenched — our challenge is to hold those systems accountable,” Nelson says, his voice a low, slightly gravelly rumble that doesn't need volume to convey its intensity. “It is our job every day that the church is alive to make sure we speak against … things that are not of the common good. We won't be quiet until we see tax dollars spent in the correct way.”

NELSON IS AN UNABASHED blast from the past: If the 1950s through the 1970s were the heyday of the African-American church as the organizing base from which blacks rallied to challenge societal injustices, then the 1980s and 1990s serve as dramatic contrast.

The era of the “prosperity ministry” grew from similar styles of preaching that fostered megachurches in the modern white protestant Christian tradition. The rise of the megachurch and the “me” generation holds central the popular preaching message that service to God pays off in earthly rewards to the faithful. Serving as living examples, prosperity ministers became kings of bling with big cars and vast business empires to match their message of heavenly salvation through earthly prosperity.

Meanwhile, the old black congregations often languished. While mega-ministers in the prosperity movement, exemplified by nationally known Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. Creflo Dollar, raked in thousands of members and thousands more of their dollars, old and proud congregations like Sixth Mount Zion watched their weekly attendance dip precipitously.

Nelson was brought on board five years ago when Sixth Mount Zion was a mere shadow of the dynamic, socially active congregation it had been during the hundred or so years since its post-Civil War founding in a Confederate horse barn on Brown's Island. Still proud and still seeking to add its voice to community affairs, church leaders sought out a youthful injection and a departure from its comfort zone that largely catered to its declining, older congregation.

“When we called Rev. Nelson, we were a church that had dwindled,” says Benjamin Ross, Sixth Mount Zion's historian. A small, precise man who's given to seersucker suits, bow ties and wire-frame spectacles, Ross recalls a recent low point when the church rolls boasted just 300 members.

“We consciously decided to not go after the pastor some of us would have expected to go with,” Ross says. “We really needed someone fresh.”

They thought they were looking for a strong theologian, but what they found was a young husband with three kids who seemed such an unlikely fit that it surprised the church's board of trustees when his name kept resurfacing during the selection process.

“His documented background was attracting youth,” Ross says, pointing to Nelson's then-position as director for youth services with the Virginia Baptist General Convention. They called and invited him, with other candidates, to guest preach. When the trustees voted to select Nelson, the decision was a game changer.

“He told us that the church is going to get younger,” Ross says, recounting that warning in the ominous tone it might have held for some of the older church members. “But we said sure, take us there.”

Nelson delivered: within four years, Sixth Mount Zion grew to 1,000 members, average age 29. That infusion of youth was on full display at the church's homecoming in September. A celebration that draws back long-gone members as well as energizes new ones, this year's theme included a musical and costumed tribute to many eras. Nelson, born in 1973, dressed as a pimp, replete with zebra-striped platform shoes.

Welcoming visitors to the service, Nelson's gravelly voice somehow conveys a giddy lilt: “They're probably going to think members of this church are craaazy!”

But as crazy as it looks, Nelson stuck to a message evoking a past when overblown 1940s Zoot suits and 1960s turtlenecks were worn by the men Nelson harkens back to.

“Life shapes us, our church is a part of it, but our culture is a part of it,” he says, the church's house band launching into a somber rendition of “Change Gonna Come.” Later, Nelson's sermon clarifies: “It's alright to look back, even if looking back is only a reminder of where you've been. … If I don't appreciate where we've been, I don't understand where we're going.”

With youth comes brashness, and Sixth Mount Zion expects to be in the headlines. Just a month after arriving, Nelson was in the papers talking about renewed interest in the Rev. John Jasper, the church's founder who gained international fame in the late 19th century with his now famous flat-earth fundamentalist sermon “De Sun Do Move.” As anachronistic as Jasper's sermon now seems — even then it questioned easily proved basic science — it was also a metaphoric profession of faith that marked Jasper as a giant of his day.

Nelson easily filled those shoes, Ross says, and proves his willingness — despite his relative youth — to take equally strong stands based on principles of faith.

“Its refreshing because we were an activist church some time ago — before our time — and it's nice to be back in the thick of it,” Ross says. “To be a church that's a catalyst for causes.”

IT'S 1 P.M. ON A WEDNESDAY and the soft light filtering through the pastel stained glass of Mount Zion's sanctuary complements the red carpeting to give the place the glow of divine inspiration. On this afternoon, it's earthly inspiration that Nelson preaches. A dozen men and women of all ages are here for Wednesday Bible study, really a life lessons class dealing with that all-too-human emotion, anger.

“Let's look at how Jesus would handle it,” Nelson says, directing his class to a reading from Luke. As much as this turn-of-the-century sanctuary resembles Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, it's hard to imagine Martin Luther King leading a group therapy session like this. But this is the new black church, where the needs of the spirit can only be attended to once the needs of the person have been satisfied.

Today's lesson may sound like a nod to the prosperity movement Nelson eschews. But it's really a logical extension, the microcosmic version of the same social justice message Nelson holds dear.

“It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs,” says the Rev. Dwylene Butler, the church's associate minister, herself a youthful 30, and brought on by Nelson as part of the changing of the guard. “You have to get those basic needs down before you can move up. If we've got members that are hungry, they're not going to hear a message of God's love while their stomachs are growling.”

To that end, the church organizes outreach that doesn't just challenge politicians, it challenges the low-income urban community that surrounds it. The church focuses on everything from food pantries to uncomfortable and taboo topics for the black community — such as sexual violence against women.

“I think his approach to ministry and to community involvement is reminiscent of what I have read of pastors and preachers about 50 years ago,” Butler says. “I don't think that I can separate what he says and what he does. He has the willingness and the courage to speak about things that are happening in society rather than just to speak about spiritual things.”

The anteroom of Nelson's officein the church's second floor annex is no feat of interior decorating. The only consistent theme — the silver and blue of various bits of Dallas Cowboys ephemera scattered about on simple chairs and a conference table. A copy of Barack Obama's celebrity turn in a Spiderman comic book sits on the window sill.

A wall lined with bookshelves is covered in tomes on ecumenical theory, social justice and family and youth counseling.

Through a door leading into Nelson's empty office, a breathless “Nature Boy” Ric Flair is shouting on the flat screen television. On the otherwise bare walls, a shrine to black civil rights activists — King and Malcolm X dominate — that's probably common to every African-American pastor in America. 
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,” reads a caption under a striking black-and-white framed picture of King.

These are all Nelson's heroes, and while they may be common, Nelson's view of them embraces their very human nature. All of them — even Spiderman — are, to greater or lesser extent, touched by human frailty. A loose theme emerges here, even over the din of Flair's maniacal rants. Don't be afraid to fall down, but remember to stand back up for your beliefs — even to shout about it while wearing a sequined Speedo. But always make sure you're there for the people, not yourself. It's people who matter most.

Nelson is soft spoken, sometimes almost whispering as he considers words. His narrow, heavily lidded eyes are almond shaped, intense, and rarely look away when he's engaging in conversation.

“Regardless of who we talk about or who I look at, you can always pick out the imperfections of everybody,” Nelson says, “from me and even to Martin Luther King. To me it's about the impact — what they do. To me, the model of Jesus that I see in the Bible is never solely about self, it's about inner transformation that's manifested in outward self.”

This is a subtle theological shift from the prosperity ministry movement that precedes him, but Nelson says it's the end goal where the difference is most acutely visible.

“You don't see Jesus going around in a big car, you see Jesus going in and impacting the community for people who have no voice,” says Nelson who drives a beater Toyota. And if following Jesus somehow becomes about attainment of material goods, Nelson says, Jesus' basic “least of my brothers” message is ignored.

NELSON'S VALUES TRULY ARE a throwback to thinking that went out of fashion with some of the basic gains of the civil rights movement of three decades ago. The message today is less about “us” and more about “me,” best exhibited by the words of Bishop Jakes. 

“I'm not against marching,” Jakes told Time magazine in 2001. “But in the '60s, the challenge of the black church was to march. … There's more [now] facing us than social justice. There's personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can.”

Nelson points out the modern activist black minister is a subtle shift from this view. He still motivates and equips for daily life, but in preaching the individual well being of his congregation, he emphasizes the responsibility they, in turn, have to the broader community.

It's a message with roots still planted in the 1950s and 60s, and it even draws on major, if controversial, black theological advancements such as James Cone's seminal 1969 book “Black Theology and Black Power.” Cone's book redefines Jesus' message — often addressed to oppressed or marginalized people — as most relevant to the black experience in America. 

Even years before Cone cultivated controversy, King foreshadowed him in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies.”

To Nelson, that's Jesus' message, too. Spiritual relevance through social activism has returned to the black church. He points to controversial Chicago megachurch leader, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose “God damn America” sound bite bit his most famous congregant, then-candidate Barack Obama.

Shortly after the controversy erupted, Wright visited Sixth Mount Zion and Nelson says there was an “uncomfortable truth” to Wright's full message: as Americans we should not judge lest we be judged. That message — straight from Jesus' lips — is often lost in the prosperity movement that Nelson pushes back against. 

What some might see as mixing politics and religion, Nelson sees as simply standing up for what religion says about every man's obligation to his fellow human. If the church's leaders don't take that stand first, he asks, who will?
“Many of our communities of faith want us just to be priests — to come in and inspire and share words from the Bible or the Koran or whatever, and to marry and baptize or funeralize,” Nelson says. “I also believe the priest has the responsibility to be the prophet too, and that is to speak out about the things that are not right in our communities.”


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