In the Name of the Father
Howard is not the kind of man I expected to find preaching on a Sunday in one of Detroit’s oldest black churches. At 43, he is gregarious, with an expressive, youthful face and a peculiar formality, like that of a children’s television host or a Broadway showman. His grammar, like his dress, is precise. When asked a question, he unrolls his answer slowly, nodding to mark the pace of his thoughts, and when he finishes, he throws back his head to laugh as if nothing he has said is conclusive. If Howard wants to distance himself from accolades, he speaks in the third person. “Believe it or not,” he said when he introduced me to his congregants, “this young lady is writing a story about your Pastor.”
Among Howard’s most important influences are his father, his mother, and Mrs. Felton, his sixth-grade teacher. I spent an afternoon with Howard and Mrs. Felton, a short, strong woman with dark, taffeta-like skin and commanding eyes. We were in a restaurant booth, and she was eyeing her former student across the table. “You won’t meet anyone like Howard,” she said.
“Well, that’s very nice of you to say, Mrs. Felton,” said Howard.
Mrs. Felton had been an unorthodox teacher; she taught her lessons from the back of the textbook, where black history was tucked away in a section most teachers never opened. She always liked Howard for the questions he asked. “Howard was smart, and at that time, everyone could accept a smart, black, young man,” she said. But there was something about him she never quite understood. “The other kids liked you. I liked you. But you were different, and I don’t know what it was.” Mrs. Felton looked at Howard, who cocked his head and narrowed his brow as if to help her think. “I always wanted to see the real Howard, but what you see is what you get. I thought no child could be that good, and you really were that good.”
In the seventh grade, Howard left to attend the University Liggett School, in Grosse Pointe Woods, a wealthy, white suburb east of the city. “Don’t let anybody define you,” Mrs. Felton had warned him. “And be sure they know you’ve got it.” To no one’s surprise, he excelled at Liggett. Though one of only a handful of black students in the school, he doesn’t remember being treated differently. His classmates elected him president three years in a row. His sense of etiquette, instilled in him as a child, was only reinforced. In early yearbook portraits, he wears a black blazer, and in his high school photos, a cropped Afro, wide-rimmed glasses, and tight-fitted jeans. His understanding of the world crept beyond Detroit’s city limits, and there was no question he would attend college. When it came time to apply, his English teacher suggested Middlebury, the school Howard eventually chose.
“I didn’t think at that particular time that ministry was going to be in the cards,” says Howard. At Middlebury, he majored in political science and sang with the a cappella group Dissipated Eight. When he graduated in 1989, a friend encouraged him to return to Detroit to teach English. He took a job at Finney High School, where the student body had shrunk far below the building’s capacity and those left were struggling. Once, another teacher admonished Howard for using words his students didn’t understand. He replied, “Well that’s because you’re not teaching those words.” He had learned from his father that to uplift people, you had to challenge them. But access to a challenging education was not the only thing his students lacked; few belonged to a supportive community. “There seemed to be a disconnect in the younger people’s relationship with their faith-based traditions,” says Howard. “I wondered why, and I wondered what could be done to bring younger people in—to show them that faith communities have something to share in terms of helping them live the lives they aspire to live, and move where they want to move, and become whatever they want to become.”
It wasn’t until Howard attended Harvard Divinity School, his father’s alma mater, that he seriously considered the ministry. “I began to think, perhaps this is more than just an educational thing,” says Howard. “Perhaps I am being moved by a force higher than self to contemplate a new kind of service.” He graduated in 1993, and that summer he received an invitation from President John McCardell to serve as Middlebury’s chaplain. Howard accepted the offer, and at 27 he became the first African American minister, and youngest, to serve the College. He stayed two years. In August 1996, his father fell sick and Howard returned to Detroit. A week later, Pastor Fauntroy Jr. died of a heart attack.