THE POWER first spoke to Ernest Gibson nearly 35 years ago when he was returning home from World War II. He was sunning, lying prone on the deck of a ship that was nosing toward American shores from Guam. "Go and preach!" the voice commanded. The tall, dark young man looked around in wonder, but seeing no one, resumed his position. Like a spurned lover, the voice returned, this time insisted: "Go and preach!"
Gibson bolted upright, engulfed by a feeling of force. He was weak, and weeping under the open skies. He answered aloud: "I will go and preach, Lord!" His sobs were silenced then, and a calm fell over his trembling body.
"I did nothing about my promise for the next year," Gibson recalled the other day. But since then, he has spent every day of his life trying to act upon his pledge.
The Rev. Dr. Ernest R. Gibson, pastor of First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in Shaw and executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, is a black preacher.
Tomorrow, Easter Sunday morning, from the smallest storefront to the most imposing edifice, is the biggest day in the Christian calendar.It is the celebration of the Resurrection, a day many view as having more religious significance than the celebration of Christ's birth. It is a day of new clothes and new hope in the pulpits, a day that calls forth something special as the preachers raise their voices to the clap of thunder and then drop them down suddenly into purring quiet storms.
There is a certain mystique about black preachers. They are church leaders and civic leaders, theologically conservative and slightly to the right on most social issues except race. Their churches often are power houses, and the ministers power brokers who have endured the "Uncle Tom" barbs of the '60s and now confront the new searching of the '80s. But they have survived, even thrived, taking charge of their flocks from the cradle to the grave. They are Easter men and Monday morning activists.
This is the Rev. Ernest Gibson's story, an Easter story, but also a story of many black preachers.
More than most, Ernest Gibson, at 59, is a study in contrasts. He reflects the black heritage of music and preaching, and he's one of the city's most respected religious leaders for his theological breadth. He's watered the cultural roots of his congregation while celebrating the pluralistic culture and religious diversity of the wider city -- a chasm still too yawning for many religious leaders in our town. His is the classic tale of the boy who grew up in an all-black universe, yet emerged as a man able to straddle the black and white worlds of religion.
It was a woman who once wore chains who helped pave the way for his unorthodox freedom of expression. During his boyhood in Southwest Washington, it was a ritual for his grandmother, a former house slave in Virginia, to seat Gibson and his cousin around the wood-burning stove and tell them: "I want y'all to know that your grandma was somebody and you're somebody too."
She instilled a pride in self, not antagonism toward others -- no easy feat in the rigidly segregated Washington of the Great Depression. Left fatherless at 11, Gibson adopted an uncle as his role model. He helped supplement his widowed mother's earnings with a paper route. Still they often ate dandelion greens for dinner. Once he gave $2 to someone even poorer than they were and dared not tell his mother for fear she would not understand that generous impulse.
Gibson enrolled at Minor Teachers College, but dropped out after three years to enter apprentice training at the Naval Gun Factory. "We were living in one room, my mother and I, and she wasn't working. We needed the money," he recalled. He was drafted and sent to Guam late in the war. At that time, he had no intention of preaching. But the shipboard incident turned him around, and he later enrolled at Washington Baptist Seminary here.
And then in 1952, he was called to a pulpit of his own, the First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church, a 45-member congregation in a storefront on 8th Street NW. He was a soft-spoken young man then, preaching his first sermon. Within two years, the size of the congregation had tripled and Gibson had found a new and bigger home for his congregation in a "real" church building.
"We marched into this building on December 26, 1954, with bands and deacons and choirs. We marched down Eighth Street, down M and onto Sixth," he remembered with a flicker of a smile and a flick of his hand across graying sideburns. "We paid $12,000 down on a $70,000 building and adjoining house. We had raised $13,000 thinking we had $1,000 as a cushion, but we forgot settlement costs. We marched in with a lot of joy but we didn't have a penny in the bank. And you know what? We never missed a payment."
Today's membership is about 1,300. It is big, but not one of the largest churches in town. The membership postponed building a new church a few years ago to complete a $2.6 million apartment complex for 60 residents of Shaw. "My greatest thrill," he says. It was named Gibson Plaza -- after him.
Gibson was now secure in himself as a person, and firm in his faith and religous beliefs. In the world of black preachers, he had taken good care of his flock -- put them in a new church home and placed some in new family homes, too. Now he was ready for an even larger civic role, and he became involved with the interdenominational Council of Churches, a cooperative group of Protestant ministers.
"My members have the sense of my being their extension and they're sharing me with the wider community," he said. "Among black pastors, if you go into institutional work and leave the church it is a stigma. I worked with Rev. [Walter E.] Fauntroy and some others, and we decided we needed the freedom and independence the church brought us. This was a style we developed as black ministers."