In the Name of the Father

 

When Pastor Howard Fauntroy ’89 returned to Detroit to fill his father’s post, he hardly recognized the place he called home.

At 17101 West Seven Mile Road in Detroit, the First Baptist Institutional Church knows two pastors by the same name: the late Howard Fauntroy Jr., the father, and his son, Howard Fauntroy III, whom the congregants call Pastor, or Howard. It was the father who imagined the blueprints, saw the first bricks laid, and preached life into the new church’s cavernous walls when it opened in 1975. But when the father died in 1996, the son saw his work through. It was Howard’s duty, his father’s wish, and an inheritance he could not decline. The congregants would say that God had moved Howard to become their spiritual leader—others, perhaps, that he was bound on a path he did not choose.

On a Sunday evening in December, 14 years after his father’s death, I’ve come to visit Howard in his office. I find him leaning slightly forward over his lectionary, spine straight and upright, as he pencils notes in the book’s margin. His study is dim and cluttered with racks of old choir robes, miniature cars, photos, magazines, and stacks of last Sunday’s programs. A sepia portrait of his father hangs over the folding table he calls his desk. There’s plenty to distract him—a dripping faucet, a ticking clock, his iPhone, set squarely beside the lectionary. But Howard is poised and deliberate. He circles words and summarizes paragraphs; he hums and nods at certain lines. At a break in the scripture, he pauses, folds one arm across his chest and the other toward his chin, resting his forefinger there for a moment before an idea strikes him, and he leans again over the page.

This is his practice: he reads from the lectionary at the start of every week. On Mondays, he begins with coffee and the New York Times, combing troubled headlines for stories to illustrate the lesson. (In hard times, he says, the Golden Rule is the first forgotten.) Fridays, he reviews his notes, and Saturdays, he writes. Sundays, he climbs to the pulpit, and his words pour out as if he’s known them all along.

Even after 14 years, Howard’s duties are anything but routine. Not long ago, First Baptist neared foreclosure when a fraudulent mortgage company, Alanar Inc., snared the church in a Ponzi scheme. Then this year, a utility company overestimated the church’s meter readings and shut off the electricity when Howard refused to pay the bill. Now, between visits to sick parishioners and Bible study, he’s working with an interfaith council to alert Detroiters to the utility bill scam. “People are paying bills they do not owe,” he says. He worries that many will lose their credit—and homes—when they can’t pay utilities this winter.

Howard can list the city’s symptoms of decline like a doctor with a medical chart—a third of its population in poverty, only slightly fewer unemployed. But the story behind these numbers precedes the recent economic collapse. “For such a long period of time, this was the mecca, regardless of race, color, or creed,” says Howard. In Detroit, the working class was once the middle class. A job in manufacturing earned a high wage, a respectable house, a summer retreat, and a new car every three years. By 1950, the city had a robust population near two million. Then, over the next half century, it dropped by half. Racism, crime, and failing schools led to urban flight. Buildings were gutted and whole city blocks razed, as if, in an exhale, the city’s lungs fluttered and deflated within her rib cage.

Though First Baptist fared better, it was not immune to the collapse. In the nineties alone, almost a third of its 1,400 congregants moved south to cities they had called home before the industry beckoned. But there were many, still, who stayed. I once asked a congregant what kept him in Detroit, and he said, “Here at church, I’m around people who understand who I am and what I am.”

The same evening that I visited Howard in his office, we sat in a back pew of the sanctuary to watch the youth group perform a dance. The girls twirled and swayed in long red robes, and the boys, faces painted white, moved their hands and eyes mechanically, like mimes. “Yes, yes,” Howard cooed. Hallelujahs bounced off the walls, and the pianist, Maestro, pounded chords in a new key.

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