On a Sunday morning, traffic on the southbound Dan Ryan is light. Garfield Boulevard, where I exit and head east, is bustling with cars, but the rest of Englewood is still asleep. Along Garfield, locked grates cover the storefronts, and the sidewalks are mostly empty except for clusters of brightly dressed churchgoers and here and there hawkers trying to sell them Sunday papers. Just past Indiana I pull over and park.
As usual, I step over bits of broken glass and litter on my short walk to the church. But when I get there, men in matching white suits and red neckties hold the doors open for the gathering flock. Our minister says no one should have to open the door to this church himself.
Inside, women wearing white gloves and identical peach outfits silently usher latecomers to empty seats. I find a place to sit under the stained-glass skylight.
The woman seated in front of me turns around and says, “Hi, baby! How you doin’?”
I started attending Life Center Church of Universal Awareness two and a half years ago. My friend Mary Ann had started about a year before that, on the invitation of a friend of hers. Mary Ann described the service as a kind of “spiritual jump start” and said it was the only church she could go to on Easter Sunday wearing a hat and not be conspicuous.
The first time I attended a service with Mary Ann, I was, for the first time I could remember, part of a minority–a minority of two, in fact. I tried to avoid looking down at my hands, and I could forget I was white for a while. Aside from a few stares from babies looking over their mothers’ shoulders, our presence didn’t seem to disturb anybody in the congregation, so I relaxed.
The energy level was so high that I could feel my fingers tingle when everyone stood and held hands to sing the Lord’s Prayer. I started returning there about once a month on my own.
Sometimes famous people, like Jesse Jackson or Eugene Sawyer, came to speak to the congregation. Sometimes “citizen heroes,” like Ann Claxton, the black woman who saved the white policeman’s life last year, received church awards.
But the biggest draw for most of the congregation, and what kept them coming back week after week, seemed to be the minister, the founder and pastor of Life Center Church of Universal Awareness, T.L. Barrett Jr.
Like many of his parishioners, Barrett was raised poor on the south side. He often spoke during the service not just of the spiritual but of matters of practical importance to the community. He spoke of the evils of drug and alcohol use. He spoke from experience of the necessity for teenagers to stay in school. Every week the order of service, or the program, had an insert with a list of “political awareness” questions; the answers were printed in the following week’s program.
One topic Barrett returned to often was the need for economic development in the community, and in the spring of 1988, he announced that he was putting together an economic-development program; he invited members of the congregation to stay after the service to hear more about it. The program would benefit all who could afford to invest. Anyone who wanted to participate simply had to raise $1,500 to invest, and then recruit two others to do the same. After enough people had invested, the person at the top of the list would collect $12,000. This is called a “pyramid game” and such things are illegal in Illinois.
The program took off in a matter of weeks. Barrett held nightly meetings at the church and there were often 500 people in attendance. Barrett once joked on a Sunday morning that he had seen people sitting in the front row at the meetings who had dropped out of his church years ago. He claimed that pushers had told him they were tired of selling drugs for a living and had asked if they could participate in his program instead.
Barrett told the congregation that it looked like his radio ministry would be able to stay on the air without having to beg for funds every week. He was considering expanding into the television ministry he had wanted for so long.
Barrett soon appeared on television–but not to preach. He was shown on local news shows answering allegations of illegal activities going on in his church. Channel Two’s Pam Zekman was given a tip that a pyramid game was operating at Life Center. In a matter of weeks, over a million dollars had been invested by church members and others throughout the city.
It was difficult to trace who had participated in the program because code names were used. After Channel Two’s investigation, the state’s attorney’s office intervened. Last summer the program was halted and the approximately $180,000 still in Barrett’s possession was frozen in an account at Drexel National Bank.
The state’s attorney’s office turned the matter over to the Illinois attorney general’s office.
Because Barrett agreed to halt the program, no court order was needed to freeze the funds. But the court has appointed a receiver to determine who of the approximately 1,800 people who say they lost money are actually entitled to refunds. Barrett contends that some of these claims are fraudulent.
As investors, the claimants are considered victims of the game, though they all probably solicited the participation of others–which is illegal. The 172 participants who have already collected on their investments are now expected to turn their winnings over to the receiver. By mid-September they must do so or show cause why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court. The judge has said that if these people, who have committed a misdemeanor, pay back their winnings he’ll recommend that they not be prosecuted.
So far Barrett is expected to pay back about $2 million, and the judge and the attorney general’s office have suggested he guarantee the debt with church property in case he can’t raise the money. Barrett apparently has agreed to do so. Eventually the results of the receiver’s investigation will be turned over to the state’s attorney, who will then determine if the case merits criminal prosecution.
Since the pyramid game incident about a year ago, attendance at the church has gone down by about half. The nine o’clock and noon services have been combined into one at eleven.
Before the service begins, I look over the inserts in today’s program: the Bible study material, political-awareness questions, and a monthly calendar of events. I don’t know whose prayers Solomon said were an abomination or how much the buying power of a family of four on public aid in Illinois has decreased since 1970, so I’ll have to wait until next week to find out the answers. The order of service used to be printed in full color on white paper. The last few weeks, it has been reduced to black ink xeroxed on colored paper.
The “church mothers,” a group of older women, including Barrett’s mother, some of whom have been with him since he started his ministry more than 20 years ago, are seated in the first row–all dressed in white suits and hats. Across the aisle from them sit the ministers, men who collect the offering, assist the pastor, and take an active role in church activities.
Barrett insists that if Jesus were to return to earth, He would come to the inner city rather than to places like Schaumburg or Barrington. Everyone around me is dressed to a T; no one would be embarrassed if Jesus were to stop by Life Center this morning. I scoot over on my padded pew so I can see between the hats.
We sit facing a golden curtain that obscures the whole front of the church. The curtain is decorated with a triangle inscribed in a circle and the phrases “I love you,” “I bless you,” “I have faith in you,” and “I realize God.” From behind the curtain the Youth for Christ choir, who replace the adult Royal Voices of Life choir once a month, begin to sing. The curtain opens, revealing two dozen teenagers wearing black and white and a band consisting of an organ, drums, a piano, two electric guitars, and an electric piano. Set in the wall behind them and the pulpit are five stained-glass windows depicting a black Jesus, a star, the universal eye of wisdom and knowledge inscribed in a triangle (like the one on the back of a dollar bill), and a Hebrew-looking symbol that, according to Barrett, stands for the acceptance of Judeo-Christian principles.
A woman dressed in a crisp white suit steps to the microphone next to the pulpit, faces the congregation, and spouts a cheerful “Good morning!”
“Good morning!” we thunder back.
“God bless you!” she declares.
“God bless you!” we reply.
“Welcome to the Prayer Palace!” she continues. “For this is the place where we learn to be somebody’s miracle!”
A young woman in her 20s reads the announcements of the week’s events, including a benefit for Barrett at Operation PUSH; she encourages members to accompany him.
A man in the audience pipes up, “The sheriff’s department is hiring.”
“Did you hear that?” she asks the congregation. “Those of you needing jobs should try the sheriff’s department.”
The youth choir again begins to sing. A young girl with round wire-rimmed glasses who doesn’t look any older than 15 wanders to the microphone, grabs it like a seasoned professional, and sings a passionate solo about “walking in the light.”
The congregation cheers and applauds in the middle of it. She sings chorus after chorus as the choir backs her up and the musicians play the last verse over and over. The entire congregation claps in time to the music, which literally reverberates through our bodies. As the song finally ends, the congregation stands and cheers.
A few months ago Barrett agreed to let me interview him about his church and his problems. I arrived at the church a half hour early to be sure I wouldn’t keep him waiting. He was running a half hour late.
Eventually the church secretary escorted me across the empty basement toward his office. The only light was from the morning sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows and the basement was quiet–a stark contrast to the bustle of Sunday mornings, with hundreds of people visiting and small children scampering among the adults.
She knocked softly on the door and an electric buzzer sounded to let me in. The room was long and narrow and looked more like a bachelor pad than an office. Arch-shaped mirrors lined wood-paneled walls, and a cabinet held a TV and stereo system. I walked between two low, beige sofas toward Barrett’s desk. In front of the desk were two straight-backed chairs. In one sat a life-size stuffed gorilla with a red plastic heart pinned to its chest.
“It was a gift,” Barrett said, noticing my glance. “Isn’t he great?”
His desk was covered with papers and stacks of books. Behind him was a wood-and-glass bookcase containing a set of encyclopedias. He was dressed in a black velour jogging suit.
Barrett answered a phone call as I settled in my chair.
“How much do you need?” he asked. “I’d give it to you if I had it, but I don’t. I have 50 and maybe I can borrow some. Look, I’m doing the best I can,” he said softly, then hung up the phone.
“Where were we?” he asked. Then he looked at me quizzically.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “What is today’s date?”
“It’s the 15th.”
He looked at his watch and said, “I think I’m supposed to be in court right now.”
After phoning his secretary to chide her for failing to remind him of his appointment, he told me to meet him in the church parking lot.
“We can talk in the car on the way downtown,” he said.
At least we’d have an opportunity to talk without interruption.
“That’s your car over there, isn’t it?” he asked, pointing to my compact Ford.
He walked over to it and stood at the passenger door, saying “Mine is at the car wash.”
I unlocked it, hoping he wouldn’t notice the overflowing litter bag and dusty dashboard. He squeezed his six-foot frame into the seat.
“I guess I should buckle my seat belt,” he remarked. “I always tell my children to.”
As I pulled out of the parking lot, he glanced around the car and impulsively touched the overhead light.
“So why do you attend my church?” he asked as I turned north onto the Ryan.
I told him about Mary Ann’s offer to take me, and the high energy and love I felt there.
As we rode downtown, he asked me questions about my background.
“So you’ve worked in bookstores before,” he remarked. “Do you think you could help set one up at Life Center? I really would like to have one there.”
I weaved through the mid-morning expressway traffic and into the Loop.
“You can let me off here,” he said as I turned onto Dearborn near the Daley Center. “I’ll be back in 20 or 30 minutes. Look for me,” and he darted across the street.
Sitting in my illegally parked car, I envisioned the courtroom procedure taking hours, but sure enough, Barrett emerged only about half an hour later.
“I told you it wouldn’t take long,” he said as he got back into my car. “This was just the first appearance. Some people are trying to sue me for the money they lost in our economic-development program.”
I hadn’t wanted to ask why he was in court, but I was sort of hoping it was for a parking violation. “How did your economic-development program get started?” I asked.
He explained that he once participated in a pyramid game himself. He had invested $1,500 and it brought him $12,000.
“When I found out that it was illegal, I decided to try and legalize it, since this kind of money could help people out of economic dependency. But it wasn’t approved by the state’s attorney’s office,” he said, “so that left a lot of people without their money back.”
“How many were successful in the program?” I asked.
“Over 200 people,” he replied.
“And how many lost money when the state’s attorney stopped it?” I wondered.
“At least a thousand,” he said quietly.
I calculated the number of people times their $1,500 investment.
“How many people have you paid back?” I asked.
“No one yet,” he replied. “Actually, the state’s attorney is turning the whole matter over to a receiver. A number of people have said they participated in the program, but they didn’t.
“They are doing [pyramid games] everywhere, but I was the only one being open about it,” he commented.
As I navigated out of the Loop, my passenger sat quietly and observed the noon-hour crowds. He yawned and tried to sit up straight as we headed south on Michigan Avenue back to the church. He seemed to be finished with his questions of me, so I asked him some.
Barrett grew up in the Ida B. Wells housing project on the south side, the youngest of three children. His mother worked as a domestic. His father, T.L. Barrett Sr., worked in a box factory until health problems left him unable to do strenuous work. He spent the rest of his life working as a minister in a storefront church and selling scrap metal to provide for his family.
I remembered hearing Reverend Barrett speak often from the pulpit about his tumultuous school days.
“In retrospect, I wasn’t really ‘bad,'” he explained. “I was just a frustrated child. Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually–you name it.
“I was put out of all the grammar schools on the south side. They said I was a discipline problem.” He stared at the dashboard as he spoke. “At the age of 12 I had to leave my family and go live with cousins on the west side. Then they started to put me out of all the schools over there.”
He never finished grammar school, but in the late 1950s children who hadn’t graduated from grammar school could be admitted to high school if they attended summer school. Barrett believes that Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis allowed him to go to summer school because his father was a minister.
“I was put out of Wendell Phillips High School,” he continued. “‘In- corrigible,’ that’s what they called me. I wouldn’t do my homework, wouldn’t pay attention in class. I’d disrupt the other students.
“Like during assembly, in the auditorium, I’d sneak behind stage and start playing the piano, and my buddy would back me up on the snare drum,” he said, grinning. “We’d have the whole auditorium rocking.”
He reminisced somewhat gravely about his last day of high school.
“They had a meeting at school. This lady with manicured fingernails came out of the office and told me I was expelled and could never come back again. As I turned around to leave she said, ‘I just want to tell you one thing, Thomas Lee Barrett Jr.,’ and she pointed her finger in my face. ‘You, of all people, will never, ever amount to nothin’.’
“I had my fill of the world,” he continued. “I was 16 years old. My father had just died. I was put out of high school. Didn’t have any carfare, so I just started walking towards my sister’s house on 57th Street. Started right on that corner,” he said, pointing as we passed the intersection of 39th and Michigan.
“As I walked home that day, I made up my mind never to smoke a cigarette or do drugs or take a sip of alcohol until I had become successful. And I meant it,” he said, looking at me.
“I remember passing the block where Life Center now stands with nothing in my pocket. Twenty years later, I owned the whole block,” he said.
“Now and then I might have a sip of wine, but I still abstain from tobacco and drugs. Anything that makes you smell bad or that will make you unaware of who or where you are is stupid to put in your body.
“I did get my diploma later,” he said, “but I got it outside of high school.”
Although Life Center Church is nondenominational, Reverend Barrett says his current theology is “New Thought” Christian, which views Jesus Christ as a master teacher and healer more than as a personal savior.
“When I realized my father was gone and didn’t leave us any burial insurance, I saw how alone and vulnerable I was and how behind I was. I realized what caused my condition and blamed it on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It had lulled me into a state of quasi complacency. ‘Why study if the return of Jesus is imminent?’ is how I felt.
“There was no challenge. In my church I tell people ‘You’re going to be around here for a long time, so get yourself ready by going to school.’
“When I had my revelation, my manifestation that God is in me and really is me, that’s when I decided to go into the ministry and teach this truth to my people.”
I asked him how he first started preaching.
“I studied at Bethany Bible Institute. Mount Zion Baptist Church was my first church,” he explained. “The church started from a converted house. It’s not far from here. I’ll show you sometime.
“Life Center is an outgrowth of that church. I raised $29,000 in cash and got an $800,000 bank loan to build a church that would seat 1,500 people,” he said.
I asked how many people had left the church over the pyramid issue.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Maybe 300 or 500. Attendance is about half of what it used to be. Our offerings are less than they were when I was at Mount Zion.”
“How does the repayment of people who lost their money in the program affect your goals for this neighborhood?” I asked.
“I still want to see affordable housing here. And we still need a community center for the youth, a performing-arts center, and something for the elderly.”
I turned left onto Garfield Boulevard, then turned right into the church lot. I went into the building with Barrett. His next appointment was waiting patiently.
As I left, he gave me a hug. It felt like embracing an ironing board. Years of weight lifting had taken the “cush” out of his body.
After the girl’s solo a teenage boy steps to the microphone to announce Reverend Barrett’s arrival. He reads the usual instructions: “Don’t disturb the service. If you have to leave, please do so now so that the word of God as spoken through our pastor and spiritual counselor will not be interrupted.”
Barrett enters the sanctuary from a door behind the altar. Dressed in a black robe with a diagonal red stripe across the chest, he walks to a gold upholstered chair several feet behind the pulpit and sits down. The musicians start to play “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day.” The choir sings along, as does the congregation. Barrett rises and the congregation stands and applauds him. We continue singing and he joins in. By the end of the third verse the musicians have stopped playing, so we sing a cappella while clapping to a lone drumbeat. As the song stops, Barrett grips the pulpit and stands perfectly still, surveying his flock.
After a few seconds, he relaxes his grip and makes his usual greeting: “Good morning. God bless you. I want you to know that I do not take your presence here for granted. And I never will.”
This Sunday he stresses it even more. “Remember that you’re somebody and you count. Wherever you go, you do make a difference. So start acting like it,” he admonishes. “Don’t go ’round like you’re better than everybody else. Just act like you know you count,” he says.
“Now point to someone sitting next to you and say ‘It’s you I love!’ and give them a hug,” he orders. For a minute or two, the gathering turns into a giant hug-a-thon with people taking turns embracing everyone on all sides of them. The choir and those who have finished hugging softly sing “How Wonderful It Is to Be Loved” as the others finish their embraces.
Barrett doesn’t refer to the pyramid incident much from the pulpit. Last fall at the end of a service, he did speak candidly about his feelings, and I bought a videotape of that service (the tapes were an attempt to raise funds that has since been discontinued).
As the offering was being taken, he gripped the pulpit and said quietly, “I am a man deeply hurt. For 20 years I have turned the money raised at my annual ministerial anniversary banquet back to the church. And then to get letters from members that I have served saying they are withholding their tithes until they get their money back. When I see our offerings not even half of what they used to be . . .
“I am going to demand that everyone who is putting pressure on me back off. If I die from all the stress, I will be in the ground and you won’t have your money back, so work with me,” he pleaded.
“Nobody made anybody do anything,” he said.
“That’s right!” someone across the aisle from me chimed.
“You did it willingly and had you made it over before the attorney general stopped us, you would be on the other side. So let’s be man enough and woman enough to shoulder our own responsibilities. Help me do what you want done.
“But I am going to ask you to lighten this load,” he said. “I need at least 25 people to give $100 today to help us make the church’s mortgage payment. I have come too far to beg you. Please be liberal in your giving.”
After a few moments of silence in the sanctuary, a woman in a green suit walked up to him, handed him a hundred-dollar bill, and returned to her seat.
This morning the “Little Disciple” for the day, a boy about seven years old wearing a blue cape and paper-and-cloth crown, is ushered to the pulpit by his Sunday school teacher to recite a Bible verse. Before he begins, Reverend Barrett gently tells him to tuck in his shirt.
The boy stands to the side of the pulpit holding a microphone in his right hand and puts his left hand in his pocket as he recites Genesis 1:28, the scripture about being fruitful and having dominion over the animals. After his recitation he asks parents to bring their children to the children’s church each Sunday.
“And so it is!” he proudly concludes.
The congregation gives him a standing ovation as he is escorted to his seat.
“We want to develop leadership in our young people,” Barrett says. “That way, when they become voting age, they will be very comfortable speaking in front of groups.” (Barrett, who is married, has nine children of his own.)
Once a month the youth of the congregation are honored for their achievements; the youth choir is featured, and two or three young people are singled out by Barrett to be commended for their scholastic achievements.
From the students’ autobiographical sheets, he reads their accomplishments and dreams to the congregation. One boy, age 12, has been an honor student all through elementary school. He hopes to discover a cure for cancer. A 16-year-old girl from DuSable High School has had perfect attendance throughout grade school and high school. She is on the high honor roll and vows she will win the new car given to DuSable’s valedictorian by Life Center.
Three years ago, the church “adopted” DuSable to entice students to stay in school. Each student who graduates receives a small gift from the church. The top ten graduates receive a boom box. The salutatorian receives a stereo system or color television, and the valedictorian gets a new car.
“Hey, parents do it on the North Shore to keep their kids in school. Why can’t we?” Barrett says. He also says that the school’s principal believes it is motivating more students to stay in school.
He places white sashes over the two honor students’ shoulders and gives each a hug. He then summons the owner of an automobile dealership to receive an award from the youth as their Outstanding African American Citizen of the month. A church photographer takes his picture with Barrett as the children from the choir stand behind them. Barrett thanks him for serving as a role model for the youth of the church.
As they return to their seats, he asks the congregation to stand and come to the center aisle to pray.
We all huddle together holding hands and close our eyes as we repeat after him, “Yes, Lord, I know you know me very well. And I know you love me very much.”
“Yes, Lord,” he continues, “we know that what we want you to do for us we must first initiate for ourselves. We ask for economic stability. Family unity. A lack of an abundance of alcoholism and dope addiction in our community.”
People around me softly chime, “Yes, Lord,” and “Hallelujah.”
“Bless the black household,” he says.
“Amen,” the congregation replies.
“Make it safe by night and day. Bless every household. Every ethnic group. For we know charity begins at home,” he prays.
The congregation murmurs more approvals.
“Put the vibration of peace in our land,” he prays. “But let it begin with Life Center. Make us truly, in consciousness, the Royal Family of Holiness. Wherever there is right doing. Let it begin here. Love being shown,” he says.
“Here!” we reply.
“And let us praise God for always hearing and answering our prayers,” he concludes.
We applaud and return to our seats.
After we sit down Barrett clears his throat and starts singing a cappella, “We . . . need . . . a . . . word from the Lord. Just a word from the Lord . . .” The youth choir backs him up for a few lines as everyone else turns to the Bible verse for the day. We read aloud with him Luke 4:14, the passage about Jesus returning to Galilee from the wilderness with the power of the Spirit. He scolds anyone who neglects to bring a Bible to church.
“This lesson is about how we should be whenever we return from the wilderness or ‘temptation’ experience,” he begins.
As he speaks, two attendants stand at either side of the altar with their hands clasped in front of them and look out over the sanctuary.
Barrett proceeds to discuss how Jesus’s baptism symbolized a spiritual awakening.
“Some of you experienced that when you joined the church or quit smoking, quit drinking, or changed your life in some other way,” he explains.
“You can say, ‘I’m not what I ought to be,’ but remember to add, ‘I’m sure not what I used to be!'”
I hear a faint clicking sound coming from several rows behind me.
He scolds the anonymous manicurist, interrupting himself in mid-sentence: “Don’t you clip your nails while I’m preaching.”
“You got to feel that everything is going to be all right,” he whispers loudly.
“Yes sir!” the woman seated next to me comments.
“Oh yes,” Barrett says, “then remember after your baptism comes the enigma. Enigma meaning, as I told you in my last lesson, ‘persons or situations that are confusing.’
“My Lord,” he mumbles, shaking his head. “Nothing the same. One way one minute and another minute they’re another way. You’re up one day and down the next.”
“Well?” says an older man sitting near the ministers.
“And, you’re scratching your head,” Barrett continues, “’cause just a few days ago you heard the Voice saying, ‘You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.’
“You came up with a program. It blessed so many people. How could cursings come from so many?” he muses.
“The real message of Jesus Christ returning from the wilderness hasn’t been ingested, digested, and manifested because it hasn’t been told as it should have been,” he proclaims. “Let me fix it for you.”
“Come on, Pastor!” a woman in a blue dress yells.
“There would be fewer drug addicts, alcoholics, fewer murders by mayhem if it were understood,” he points his finger in the air, “that there is no ‘devil.’ God does not share power.”
Barrett’s mother, whom he refers to as either “Royal Mother” or “Mama,” sitting in the front row, nods her head in agreement.
“God wakes you up in the morning,” he explains, “not the devil and not your alarm clock. You should say ‘Good morning, Lord!’ when you wake up, not ‘Good Lord, it’s morning!’
“When you see people on drugs, you can tell they haven’t dealt with their wilderness experience the way Jesus did with his,” he says. “They’re told their problems were caused by the devil, or Satan.
“There’s too much talk about the devil anyhow. All these preachers with radio shows spend so much of their airtime talking about the devil. It’s God’s show! If anyone should get the publicity, it should be . . .”
“Come on!” one of the men shouts.
“Don’t y’all make me start hollering,” he cautions us. “It’s not the devil’s time or station. God paid the price.
“You know who the devil really is?” he asks, shifting his weight. “It’s your emotions, your senses, and your imagination. In order to succeed in life, you must tame your five senses. Be able to look and not touch, listen and not respond. Be able to smell and not eat, taste and not get drunk. Be able to feel and not get carried away,” he says.
“Speak, Pastor!” cries another woman.
“You’ve got to tame your emotions and your senses because they conspire. They’ll have you acting crazy,” he warns. “Your sense of hearing will hear something negative and wake up your emotion of anger and tell him what was heard and then ask him, ‘What you goin’ to do about it now?'”
The congregation chuckles and applauds. Barrett grips the pulpit as he looks back over each of his shoulders at the youth choir and smiles.
“And then,” he continues, “once your senses and emotions get you all upset, then here comes your imagination sayin’ ‘Let me add my two cents.’ Your imagination will amplify what your sense of hearing heard. You may have been called one name, but your imagination will make you feel like you’ve been called a bunch of ’em.”
The congregation laughs again.
“Huh? Isn’t that so?” Barrett asks, looking at the church mothers in the first pew. “Let me know when I get to your part,” he tells the congregation. Several women wave their hands at him and nod their heads.
“My brothers and sisters, the Bible says in Matthew, Mark, and in Luke, that the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” he states. “The only thing the Spirit of God will lead you into is a confrontation with a certain conglomerate aspect of yourself that ‘appears’ to be a devil, or tempter.”
“Uh huh!” a young minister in the front row chimes.
“And that conglomerate corporation of yourself is your senses, your emotions, and your imagination,” he continues. “If you can have power over them, you can subdue them. If you can control them, God knows that you will never ever be a slave in bondage to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, temper tantrums, urges of the flesh, or any other thing that you ‘blame’ on the devil.”
About the time the morning sunlight touches the star in the stained-glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the emotion in Barrett’s voice begins to rise.
“Tradition says to pray to God to bind that devil. New Thought teachings say to pray to God for strength to bind yourself!” he shouts.
“Teach us, T.!” someone calls out.
“I don’t believe y’all hear me! I wish I had a witness up here,” he pleads as he loosens his collar.
The organist gets up from sitting with the choir and quickly slides back on the bench. He adjusts a few stops and proceeds to punctuate every other phrase of Barrett’s with a bouncy cadence.
By this time Barrett is half yelling, half singing into the microphone, wiping his forehead periodically with a handkerchief.
“The devil ain’t nothin’ but a cop-out for a lack of control. You better turn to Jesus. Turn to the Lord to get control of yourself.”
“Yeah,” a spontaneous chorus in the audience sings.
“Oh Lord!” he sings.
“Oh Lord!” the girls in the choir respond.
“Now turn to someone,” he says, “and tell them ‘Beloved, don’t let anything get the best of you.'”
We do so.
As the energy level wanes, he says, “Give it to me one time!” and we all applaud.
He takes a sip of water from a glass on a shelf in the pulpit and begins to shout again. The cheers continue as he chants and sings.
Take the hand–off Pall Mall’s hand.
Take the hand–off Johnnie Walker’s hand.
Take the hand–off cocaine’s hand.
Take the hand–and put it in the hand
Of the man–who knows how to walk the water,
Of the man–who knows how to raise the dead,
Of the man–who knows how to heal a sick heart.
The organ cadences grow louder. A woman in the third row starts screaming, “Thank you! Thank you, Lord!” at the top of her lungs, almost drowning out Barrett’s voice, but he keeps preaching.
“You’ll return with power! Power! POWER!” he shouts.
By the end of the sermon, the rest of the musicians have joined in as Barrett dances behind the pulpit. The organist and the keyboard player grin at each other like they’re racing. The congregation claps in syncopated time to the music. People stand, one by one, as if sprouting to the message. A girl in the choir stands with both arms outstretched. Another dances in place, oblivious to the rest of the group, while her neighbors fan her with church bulletins. About half of the congregation is standing and cheering. One of the elderly church mothers starts dancing in the aisle. Barrett waves his handkerchief in the air.
As my own energy level rises, I want to start dancing, too. But I still feel a little conspicuous, so I restrain myself.
The clapping continues as the music thunders through the sanctuary. By now all of us are standing and applauding. Barrett goes back to his chair and wipes his face with his handkerchief. The applause does not cease.
He comes back to the pulpit and intones “And so it is!”
The music winds down and everyone is seated again, exhausted. My hands ache and pulsate at the same time. Barrett asks if anyone was touched by the message. We all applaud.
He starts his “sing-speaking” again. “The door of the church is open. Somebody ought to come in. Steeeeeeeep . . . to Jeeee-sus!”
“Step . . . to . . . Jesus,” the choir replies, clapping on the upbeats to the music. “Everything will be all right. Step to Jesus. He’ll be your guiding light.”
“Come on now,” Barrett says. “Who’ll be the first to join the church this morning? Spirit tells me there are four people here who need to join this church. Come forward and let me embrace you.”
He scans the audience as a teenage girl and a man in his 30s step past the others in their pews and walk down the center aisle toward the pulpit. Barrett steps down and hugs them with one arm.
A church secretary has them sit in the first pew and complete a registration sheet. Afterward, Barrett orders two of the ministers to escort the new members back to their seats, symbolizing that they are now members of the Royal Family of Holiness and will never walk alone.
He then asks first-time visitors to stand and be recognized. Three people stand. The congregation starts to sing to the old pop tune “Always.” Instead of “I’ll be loving you, always,” they sing “God is loving you.” People sitting near the visitors touch their hands.
“And now it’s time to collect our tithes and offerings,” Barrett announces. Everyone applauds to indicate they are “cheerful givers.” Ministers and ushers pass bucket-sized baskets among the congregation.
As Barrett wipes his face again, an attendant brings a beige cape and places it around Barrett’s shoulders, then returns to his seat.
Barrett looks out over the congregation and then turns to look at one of his assistant ministers seated behind him.
“Yes, I know I told you to keep me from speaking overtime,” he tells her, “but today, I need to talk.”
“Have y’all got a minute?” he asks the congregation, grinning.
Everyone laughs at this weekly question.
“I was on the phone with someone. Can’t even remember who I was talking to,” he explains. “I got a message from ‘Spirit’ telling me that because I have not abandoned my responsibility to the people that need to be paid back, it would give me a way to do so.”
Barrett proceeds to outline “Spirit’s” idea, a new economic-development plan that he believes will create jobs and do good as well. He calls it the “All-American Smile” campaign. He sings a song he wrote called “The All-American Smile,” as one of the church mothers walks up and down the aisles holding up a T-shirt with a design featuring the smiling faces of people of many different races.
The choir echoes Barrett, singing, “When you smile / You bless a child.”
“This is a campaign to unite the American people. All the ethnic groups,” he says. “You know how some people are afraid to smile at strangers? When people see someone wearing an All-American Smile button, they’ll know it’s OK to smile at them. And the person wearing the button can return the smile.”
Barrett lists some other items he plans to have produced: bumper stickers, caps, commemorative plates, jewelry, and decals.
He holds up a sheet of paper, proclaiming “And here’s our copyright of the logo from Washington, D.C.”
Everyone applauds, and he asks us to sing the song with him.
He speaks of his plans to get celebrities and corporations to endorse the products and give them national exposure. He has met with Sears executives and an attorney who represents Stevie Wonder. A member of the congregation has connections to Quincy Jones, who has connections to Michael Jackson. Someone from David Letterman’s show has called the church to inquire about the program.
“There are over 200 million people in this country. If 50 million of them would spend $10 per year on All-American Smile goods, do you realize how much money that would bring in?” he asks. “How many jobs would be created to manufacture the goods? The All-American Smile Production Company could be the largest minority-owned company in America.
“We could start a foundation and donate money to worthy causes,” he continues. “Give money to Native Americans to help them improve their lives. They could build hotels and promote ‘Spend your vacation / On the reservation.’
“This program can promote world peace. We want to bring this program into the schools. Have our schoolchildren make an eight-year commitment to writing to a pen pal in a foreign country,” Barrett says. “Then, when the children are older, they won’t want to drop bombs on other countries, because it might hit their friends.”
Holding the microphone, he steps down from the pulpit and stands at the front of the center aisle.
“You know it takes money to get an enterprise of this size started. To buy the machines to make the T-shirts–get the space to do so,” he says. “When I ask other organizations to donate to this project, they will ask what kind of support there is for it in my own congregation. We need to start here,” he announces.
“I need 25 people today to donate $100 to get this project started,” he says. “And I don’t mean your regular tithes or offerings,” he cautions. “We need that to keep this church operating.”
Slowly, people begin to come forward. Some men. Mostly women. A child carries a check to Barrett and is greeted with a hug and a thank-you to the parent. Over a dozen people comply with his request.
After the last hundred-dollar donor is seated, Barrett asks those who are willing to donate $25 to come forward and hand the money to him. Perhaps a dozen more step to the front of the church. I scribble a check and join their ranks. Barrett smiles and thanks us as he prepares to close the service.
As the congregation stands, he asks, “Won’t you turn to somebody and compliment them? Can you imagine how nice this world would be if all our people would compliment each other?”
People exchange compliments with their neighbors.
“Now repeat after me,” he says. “If everybody loved somebody sometime, then everybody would have some love sometime. I love you all the time. And so it is!”
He steps down from the pulpit and makes his way to the back of the sanctuary to greet people as they leave. The service has lasted two and a half hours.
“Love somebody!” he says. “Hug somebody before you go.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.