In the Name of the Father

If Howard grieved, he did not let it show. His father, many months before his death, had asked the congregation to elect Howard to take his place should he ever pass suddenly. First Baptist agreed nearly unanimously. Howard was honored, though certain such a time would never come. But that August, he became the 11th pastor, and his first duty was to move the church forward. Perhaps he had no time to mourn. There were funerals to conduct, four including his father’s, oaths to administer, elderly to visit, classes to teach, and sermons to study. Or perhaps he accepted the death in the way his father had taught him: life is cyclical, and everyone makes the transition.

Howard had come to understand death at a young age. There was a funeral home next to the church, and his father would bring him along on visits there, to watch as he administered blessings to the deceased. (At the time, the church was in Hamtramck, on Detroit’s east side.) It never scared Howard to peer over the edge of a casket. When he grew bored, a man named George would take him into the funeral office, give him snacks and soda, and turn on the television to his favorite shows. Howard liked George, but after a while, the old man stopped coming to the funeral home. “Where is George?” Howard would ask, and his father would reply, “George isn’t doing well.” Then one day, there was a funeral at First Baptist, and Howard attended. When it came time, he approached the casket, expecting the cold, calm face of a stranger. But at the sight of his friend, Howard pulled back and ran out of the sanctuary to his father’s study. “It’s George! It’s George!” he screamed. Pastor Fauntroy Jr. told Howard to sit, and then he tried, as best he could, to explain the afterlife.

When his father passed, it wasn’t the death itself that distressed Howard, but the things the pastor left behind: an unfinished church of bricks laid in his father’s name and mortared with his vision; a congregation anchored in a city in crisis; the memory of his father, his power and eloquence, a way with words the congregants would never forget; and Howard himself, who, on that first Sunday after his father’s death, spoke in a manner so similar to his father’s that the congregants saw him to be an incarnation—a channel, perhaps—of their beloved pastor.

It had always pleased Howard to remind others of Pastor Fauntroy Jr., but being the keeper of his father’s memory after his death was something entirely different. “Maybe it would have been better if he didn’t talk like him or sound like him or behave like him in some ways, because it wasn’t him,” Deacon George Francis told me one morning.

Francis moved to Detroit from Atlanta in 1975 to work for General Motors. “We didn’t know a soul in Detroit,” he said. “My family and I would get in the car on Sunday mornings and start driving through the city, and we would just let the spirit, if you will, direct us to which church we would attend that Sunday.” It took only two months for Francis to find First Baptist, and he soon became a close friend of the Fauntroys. When the pastor died, Francis was deeply troubled. “I went through this very personal pain of trying to sort out how this young lad could become my spiritual leader,” said Francis. “I think it was complicated by the fact that he was about the same age as my son. How does that work? I don’t go to them for advice or counsel. Those are the kids that come to me.”

It took Francis three years to accept Howard as his pastor. In looking back, he realizes he wasn’t the only congregant who struggled. But Howard, he said, was very perceptive, and over time, the young pastor distanced himself from his father’s image in a way that gave the congregants space to mourn and move on. “We realized that this is not the Reverend Fauntroy Junior,” said Francis. “This is Howard. And he has to move as God directs him to move, which is maybe different from what his dad did. That was an acceptance we all had to make. And as the acceptance grew, the congregation and young Pastor Fauntroy began to grow closer together, and that bond became tighter.”

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