Members of the First Baptist Church of Deanwood primed themselves last Sunday for a vote they will cast Saturday to determine which of two pastoral candidates will receive the call to lead their well-established, land-holding church.
"Something precious makes this election more important than the election of the president of the United States, more important than your family, more important than your job," the Rev. Joseph Franklin solemnly told the mostly middle-class congregation.
"We have our cliques, you know that," Franklin preached, scanning the audience sternly. "One group of members may be conniving" to get one candidate and another may be pushing for the other. "(But) God is going to help you make your choice. Accept God's guidance. As (the spirit of God) conceived our Savior in the womb of Mary, let it conceive a choice within your heart."
Ending his sober sermon, Franklin led the congregation in prayer. "Lord . . . don't give us (a) Nixon for a pastor," he said pausing for emphasis. "Give us another Paul or John."
It's taken 18 months for the 1,000-member congregation to reach this point. But now, finally, the church has narrowed a field of about 50 seriously considered candidates to two ministers who will compete for the post in a battle of the ballots. All church members 10 years old and older are charged to meet Saturday at 8:30 a.m. in the church sanctuary to vote.
Deanwood First Baptist, once the largest church in far Northeast, began searching throughout the country for a pastor to fill its impressive, wild cherry pulpit shortly after it was left empty by the death of the Rev. Andrew J. Allen, who died at 67 in April 1979. Mr. Allen led his church for 30 years and "passed" while at work in his church study.
The process of selecting a new pastor at First Baptist has been, as with most prominent Baptist churches, long and tortuous because so many ministers applied and several members submitted nominations.
"The election of a new pastor is always chaotic in a Baptist church," noted the Rev. Andrew Fowler, chairman of the D.C. Committee of 100 Ministers. "It's done by a democratic process. You bring in a lot of ministers and you use the process of elimination, then vote one in. Pastoral candidate submit resumes and state the terms under which they would like to pastor, (including) for instance, salary and benefits."
Their resumes detail educational and personal background as well as missionary work, community activities and the number of members in churches where they have served, as well as their travels. The average salary of a local Baptist pastor is $20,000, Fowler explained, and since each Baptist church is independent, benefits are bestowed according to the wishes of the church; they can include cars and furniture and a house.
But "the chief way a pastor campaigns for the position is in the way he presents himself," Fowler added, just like a businessman would pursue a job or a candidate would campaign for public office. Essentially, a pastoral candidate's "campaign speech" is the Sunday morning sermon he delivers when he visits the church. Fowler, who pastors Capital View Baptist, says black Baptists scrutinize a pastoral candidate much closer than they do a presidential candidate because traditionally their pastors have been the closest and most endeared leaders in their lives.
Baptists watch for several things in evaluating the man who aspires to be the chief administrator, spiritual leader and adviser of their church. For instance, a minister's marital status, his ideas, diction, appearance and leadership ability are all closely considered. Even more important to many members are a candidate's preaching style and the content of his sermon.
Evidence of that is provided by Marie Talley, 67, a member of First Baptist since she was 12, who says that after listening to candidate after candidate preach, she finally "got a feeling for a certain one." a retired "professional nanny," she says, "I'm going to follow my felling when I vote."
Folwer, a minister for 40 years, explains: "Some people prefer zoomers -- they are preachers who get the message and zoom right through there like an automobile. Others prefer hoopers -- they have voices like the rolling of thunder. They carry the congregation over the waves as they go, rising to great heights and easing back down. Then therer's your straight preacher, one with a beautiful, resonant voice who takes you straight to the point."
Deanwood First Baptist Church's pulpit committee, which had been hand-picked by Allen shortly before death, screened about 100 ministers from around the country who applied for the position. About 50 pastoral candidates were asked to speak at the church and be interviewed by the general membership, said Deacon Elisha Boxley, pulpit committee chairman.
After delivering his sermon, each candidate answered questions from the pulpit, put to him by the congregation. The committee had the final say about whom was invited back for a second visit.
Most of the dozen or so officers and members of the pulpit committee adamantly refused to talk to a reporter about the election on the basis that it was church business only. They acknowledged, though, that their new pastor is expected to become a community leader.
Some church officers, however, disclosed the committee's proceedings. They held several closed meetings, they said, during which they reviewed letters of recommendation and resumes. Boxley said the church stipulated just two official criteria: a candidate must be 40 years old (although one candidate is only 39 and Boxley declined to explain the contradiction) and married -- which supposedly reflects a desire to choose a pastor who is experienced and has a stable personal life.
The two finalists in the selection process are the Rev. Joseph Gilmore of Whitesboro, N.J., about 40 miles from Atlantic City, and the Rev. Dr. Serenus Churn, from Yonkers, N.Y., about 10 miles north of New York City.
Eight years ago, Gilmore 39, won an election for the pastorate of the 400-member First Baptist Church of Whitesboro. He studied at Baltimore Bible College, completed his studies at the Philadelphia College of Bible in 1963 and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and religion at Rutgers University in 1975.
A Baptist minister for 19 years, Gilmore is married with four children. He is a graduate student at the Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. He has spent eight years at his present church where he has, he says, taken in 300 members and led the parish in erecting a steeple on the church, buying a bus and acquiring a new parsonage where he and his family reside.
Since 1965, Churn, 41, has been pastor of Messiah Baptist Church in Yonkers. He is married and has two children.
The head of a 106-year-old, 1,800 member church, Churn earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy at Morgan State in 1962. He studied religion at Howard for several years, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in divinity, then earned a doctorate in the field from Drew University in New Jersey. Churn, whose grandfathers, father and two brothers have been Baptist preachers, met his wife in D.C. and married here in 1965.
Of several projects spearheaded by Messiah Baptist, Churn said he has led the church in establishing a college scholarship fund and sponsoring a 13-story apartment complex for moderate-income New Yorkers.
Irvena Brown, 39, who has regularly attended Deanwood First Baptist since childhood and has examined both Gilmore and Churn, is among the those who haven't made up their minds. "I like them both. And I really don't know how I'm going to vote. A lot of people are undecided."
Deacon Moses Taylor, 67 a member of the church for more than 40 years, has made up his mind but won't reveal his choice. "We're looking for a good man. One who's able to lead the church and direct it. That's what we had before and we'd like to get that again."
Another deacon, William Coley, 69, who has been a member 30 years, adds, "We wanted a man that seemed to be a good pastor, not just a preacher. You can't really tell by hearing one preach. But, we have kind of followed up on these men. We sent people from our church to their present churches to sit in on them unbeknownst to them. We wanted to see how they handled people. You got a lot of people to deal with in the church."
First Baptist members say the late Rev. Allen left enormous shoes for the new pastor to fill. Described as a shepherd who watched over all the concerns of his flock, allen's duties were street-corner evangelizing, visiting the sick and shut-in, counseling the troubled, organizing charitable endeavors for the poor and needy and representing the church at various meetings and events.
Built like a powerful heavyweight boxing champion, Allen distinguished himself in D.C. religious, civic and political affairs by his style of "preaching up a storm, then getting out of the pulpit, taking off his robe, rolling up his sleeves and going to work," Fowler recalls. Allen led his church in the building and purchasing its of sanctuary at 45th Street and Sheriff Road NE as well as buying surrounding lots. He also started a day-care center and an after-school study hall at the church.
Allen was president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C., and Vicinity. He also was known for his political clout and was a close associate of former mayor Walter E. Washington. He and his brother, the Rev. Willie B. Allen, pastor of Upper Room Baptist Church, a mile or two from First Baptist, also in Northeast, were known as "Big Allen" and "Little Allen," respectively. Little Allen's son, the Rev. Vincent Allen, is his father's assistant minister and has a radio ministry.
Franklin says that because Allen was so widely known and since hundreds of Baptist preachers around the country aspire to come to the District and pastor a large, established church as First Baptist, the news about the vacancy left by Allen was relayed like wildfire throughout the national network of black Baptists,
"Just about evry minister in the country knew we needed a replacement. We got telephone calls from places like Texas, New York, Detroit and South Carolina," says Franklin, who assisted Allen and leads the church's youth department which holds its own worship services and activities for members younger than 18.
With just days to go before the big election, Lucious Battle, 55, who was a member of the church before Allen's tenure began, says he and his fellow parishioners are ecstatic. "My goodness, to think of getting a Christian leader, we're all elated about it."
"We're looking for something beautiful and great," adds Battle, owner of Battle's Religious Book Store, located across the street from the church. "We hope our new pastor will be able to reach out into the community and win lost souls to Christ as Rev. Allen did."