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His faith walk is a marathon

COLUMN ONE

David Brown journeys from church to church, living on donations as he preaches to African Americans and keeps a Southern tradition alive.

March 24, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

Vicksburg, Miss. — THE Rev. David Brown Jr. preached so passionately that he started to shiver. Sweat flowed down his face as words poured out of him.

The gospel gave way to song. The song gave way to a name, and he let it ring out over the pews with a piercing scream that seemed to echo for an eternity:

\o7JESUS!\f7

"There is no high better than a Jesus high," Brown boomed with a wide grin. "I used to drink that California wine. I used to think I was high. But this Jesus high -- it just gets gooder and gooder."

After such a full-bodied religious workout, it was hard to imagine how anyone could have anything left in the tank -- and Brown, who is 60 and weighs 320 pounds, is neither young nor svelte. But when his 11 a.m. service was finished two hours later, the seasoned country preacher confessed he'd held back a bit.

He had many more souls to feed this Sunday, so he had to pace himself. His marathon for Jesus had just begun.

Brown is pastor of seven churches in Louisiana and Mississippi, and preaches one or two Sundays every month at each. He is one of a dying breed of traveling preachers in the Deep South whose calling is catering to numerous African American congregations, many of which date to the plantation era.

His predecessors galloped around on horseback, or rode the rails from town to town, and stayed overnight at deacons' houses. He drives the highways and byways in a 2003 Chevy Impala, and stops for meals at Waffle House or Wendy's, then heads home every evening.

Brown shuttles between churches during the week, leading Bible studies and performing funerals. His seven congregations -- ranging from about 250 to just 30 members -- are within two hours of his small brick home in Monroe, La. He has no salary or healthcare package and survives on whatever worshipers donated that week.

"It's a faith walk," Brown said. "Sometimes I can't even pay the light bill. But I still drive out to see the sick, to go to the funerals. I was chosen by the Lord to do this. Preaching is a God-given gift."

It is a way of life that Brown believes may not last beyond his generation. Younger church members are increasingly demanding full-time pastors instead of itinerant preachers, and are merging country churches to form midsized congregations. They are also increasingly abandoning the lore-filled worship houses of their forefathers in favor of the megachurches that are homogenizing the American landscape, much like Wal-Mart has transformed Main Street.

"A minister long ago told me: When there are no babies crying in your church, your church is dying," Brown said. "Well, in some of my churches, the people are way beyond the baby-making years."

Like everything in Vicksburg, a town of about 26,000 overlooking the muddy Mississippi River, the church where Brown gave his morning sermon has a history. Like the small white gravestones that line the Civil War battlefield down the road, it helps people remember their past.

Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1866 by former slaves who gathered under a large tree to shout and sing. Their descendants still fill its pews one Sunday every month to hum the hypnotic Negro spirituals that summon up their sorrows and struggles and sense of shared humanity.

The women come out in wide-brimmed hats of linen and lace, and the men wear pinstriped suits with neatly pressed ties. They sing traditional gospel songs such as "Down by the Riverside" and "Jesus is on the Main Line" with joyful abandon. They hold their hands high in the air and holler hallelujah.

When their traveling pastor died 14 years ago, Brown accepted the call to nourish their spirit. He helped the congregation move from a dilapidated old wood home to a new brick building.

"He's just a God-sent man," said Mattie L. Brown, 78, who has been worshiping at Bethlehem for more than half a century.

But God sends Brown to two other churches on the last Sunday of each month. So after he dried the sweat off his glittering blue suit, and briskly downed a lunch of barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas and cornbread in the back of the chapel, he hit the road.

BROWN has big brown eyes, gold-crowned teeth and a thin gray goatee that adds a touch of gravitas to his warm, round face. He comes from Sicily Island, a village in Louisiana's Catahoula Parish. He was one of 12 children whose mother cooked for white plantation owners and father worked building highways.

His grandparents served as deacon and deaconess of a country church. They instilled in him a deep love of God, and taught him what he calls the ironclad rules of Southern etiquette: Yes, Sir; No, Ma'am; Please; and Thank You.

When he became a man, he got a job at a funeral home, and he lived above it. One of his former co-workers now owns a funeral home. When the money from circuit preaching doesn't pay the bills, Brown says, he wonders whether he chose the right career. But there was really no choice at all, he quickly adds. God called on him.

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