In the pulpit of Heritage United Church of Christ in northwest Baltimore, the Rev. Wendell Harrison Phillips is a gentle, woolly mammoth of a preacher who reads scripture from a tattered, taped Bible and implores the congregation to pray for and against his pet causes.
And in the Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis, where he is completing his first year as chairman of the Baltimore city delegation, Phillips cajoles just as effectively for passage of the annual bail-out-Baltimore bills.
In the latter role, the motorcycle-commuting, chain-smoking Phillips has won praise even from his nemesis, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, despite vast differences in view and style with the mayor and his administration.
Until this session, relations between Phillips and Schaefer were practically nonexistent since Phillips, as president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, sued the city in 1977. In that suit, he charged that racism had blocked the promotion of blacks in the police and fire departments. "The court found us accurate on 35 of 37 charges," Phillips said.
Prior delegation chairmen had operated as if they were a branch of Baltimore City Hall at the State House, dutifully pushing a legislative program that was criticized by community activists such as Phillips as benefiting development interests at the expense of the poor. As Phillips assumed the 27-member delegation chairmanship last July, it was clear that he would not carry the mayor's water in that regard.
Before the legislative session began in mid-January, Phillips said he and Schaefer had a "frank, blunt" discussion, and after acknowledging that "his Baltimore city and mine are a little different, we agreed to lay our differences aside."
"The best that we can do for the city is to build a bridge," he continued. "If we can, anyone can. Before I am anything else, I am a preacher -- an agent of reconciliation."
Phillips said he must "give the mayor his due -- he put his departments at my disposal." Together, they helped persuade the legislature to give the city money for expansion and modernization of the city jail, shock-trauma unit and convention center, and extra aid for police and schools. The mayor's lobbyists "tried no end runs, which I appreciate," Phillips said.
For the mayor's part, he feels "Wendell has done a good job that has produced satisfactory results," a spokeswoman said.
A delegation colleague, American Joe Miedusiewski , said Phillips displayed "a real sense of fairness. He doesn't try to herd us, or force his views on anyone."
Phillips' performance has been so successful that it is unlikely he will be challenged when he seeks a second term as chairman later this year. His new prominence puts him on a list of blacks who are potential candidates for higher office in Maryland's largest city. He won't talk about the future, but hints that he might like to be in Congress someday, upon the retirement of the 7th District's incumbent, Parren J. Mitchell.
Part of Phillips' success in Annapolis has been a calm demeanor and a willingness to compromise, although he said some matters are non-negotiable. For example, he said, he could never "place capital or property above people."
He has been a consistent opponent of lottery legislation. "They say it's illegal for black folk to play the numbers, but it's okay for the state to run it," he says. "Then why not prostitution, dope, the whole shebang, if the cause is right? The journey is as important, or more, than the destination."
During most sessions, Phillips introduces only two bills, to outlaw capital punishment and to abolish slavery. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he points out, outlawed slavery "except as a punishment for crime," which he said was included "so Northern whites could lock up their blacks." Despite his impassioned floor speeches, the bills have gone nowhere.
Before his entry into elective politics in 1974 -- losing a legislative seat by 190 votes -- Phillips talked it over with his parishioners, explaining that he viewed being a legislator as "an extension of my ministry."
In 1978, he ran apart from the regular Democratic organization headed by state Sen. Clarence Blount "and all it stood for," and led the ticket. Last July, after Phillips had lined up a majority in a delegation whose racial makeup is 14 whites and 13 blacks, incumbent chairman Dennis C. McCoy withdrew and Phillips became the delegation's first black chairman.
Phillips was born 50 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., the fifth of six children of Porter and Dorothy Phillips. His father, a Baptist minister, has been pastor at the Carron Baptist Church in Pittsburgh since 1939. There, later this year, he will observe his 90th birthday, likely preaching on the themes that rang in the ears of his six children over the years: "education, education, education, excel, excel, excel."
The Phillips children practiced what their Daddy preached. Four of his sons are ministers, the fifth is a lawyer, and his daughter, who has a master's degree in education, is married to a minister. Each has made a mark.
The best known of them in the Washington area is Channing Phillips, who served as pastor of Lincoln United Church of Christ in the District from 1961 to 1971. Channing helped start the District's Head Start program, organized a nonprofit housing corporation, was nominated as a favorite son candidate for president at the 1968 Democratic National Convention -- the first black ever so honored -- and finished third in the first election for D.C. delegate to Congress, in 1972. He is now one of four senior ministers with William Sloan Coffin at the interdenominational Riverside Church of New York.
Among the other Phillips children, Porter Jr., the eldest, preaches across town from Wendell at Enon Baptist in Baltimore. Allison (Al) is a minister at Mount Zion UCC in Shaker Heights, Ohio; Treadwell, of Columbia, Md., a lawyer with the Treasury Department, and there's Marie, of Chicago, whose husband, Sterling Cary, heads the UCC Illinois conference.
Wendell Phillips' entry into the ministry was anything but automatic, and his stay there has been far from conventional.
After graduating in pre-med from Virginia Union University, where the 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pounder played football and basketball, he came to Washington for graduate work at Howard University.
About that same time, Phillips said he "began asking questions about the meaning of life," and found that "the only grad schools that were dealing with that were the seminaries." So he enrolled at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.
By the time he earned a master of divinity degree there in 1961, he had discovered that "I didn't work well with pastors, or the church scene." So he went to work as a community activist in Rochester. He organized a community center, was elected president of the local NAACP, and teamed up with Malcolm X, who was to become his hero, to protest police brutality in Rochester.
"I was on my way out of the pastorate ministry," he said of those early days. "I was not willing to spend the rest of my life dealing with boards within the church when I thought the mission of the church was outside its walls."
But when half a dozen families from Baltimore asked his brother Channing for help in forming a new church there, Channing suggested his kid brother for the job, and Wendell Phillips decided to give the organized church a shot.
"It was a chance to build my own church, with a creative ministry," he recalls. "As I interpret the life of Christ, he was an agitator, a revolutionary. Christianity, rather than being defenders of the status quo, can be an exciting, explosive life style, mingling with the disenchanted, confronting men and women to be their best possible selves."
He built a congregation of 600, nearly all-black, middle-class activists. The Sunday service is a blend of two cultures -- traditional hymns from the UCC's New England origins, led by an organist, and toe-tapping spirituals, sung to a piano accompaniment. The church operates a soup kitchen, a community center and hot line, and has helped rehabilitate drug users.
Until a heart attack five years ago, Phillips conducted a "night ministry," in which he prowled the streets on his green Kawasaki, or in his copper Cadillac Eldorado, counseling street people and bar patrons until early morning. He gets along on four hours' sleep, often arising at 4:30 to start his day with devotions.
After 20 years at Heritage, is he satisfied with his ministry? "Hell no," he said, confessing that he misses the activism of the 1960s. (He and his wife Dorothy named their only child, Wendell Fitzgerald, after President Kennedy.)
During last Sunday's sermon, he growled contemptuously that "the cowboy -- your president -- said he needed the MX to preserve the peace, and the Congress agreed with him. That's the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life -- heavy artillery as the ammunition for peace."
Then he asked his flock to pray for "our last week in Annapolis," and to help him ward off political opponents "who think they have worn us down and can sneak those suckers [bad bills, known as snakes] through the grass."
Later, sipping coffee in his book-littered pastor's study, Phillips talked about the problems he has with many traditional church members, problems he said are not unlike those he faces in the legislature.
Most church members, he said, "want to walk on water without getting out of the boat. I see Jesus calling for us to get the hell out of the boat and meet him in the water. But they want to appoint committees to study the weather, take the water temperature. That's why the hungry don't get fed, the naked don't get clothed. Too many study committees."