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A joyful noise grows in Brooklyn

Emmanuel Baptist Church is the cornerstone of this section of Lafayette Avenue

On Lafayette Avenue between St. James Place and Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a New York City marathoner stops in his tracks. This particular runner is keeping pace with the aid of an artificial leg, yet it is not pain but elation that motivates him to pause, raise his arms in the air, send up a cheer over the roar of the crowd. It’s coming up on 1 in the afternoon, under a gold autumn sun. From the steps of the Emmanuel Baptist Church, the members of the Total Praise Choir make a wave of their own, raising up their hands to this runner and the half dozen runners who, one by one, momentarily suspend their race and join him.

For a full minute they hang here in the streets, some spellbound, some filming the moment on phones, swaying, dancing along, the volume of the singing rising. It all swells into a beautiful call and response, the essence of the gospel music that this choir is founded on. “This is what we look forward to!” another runner, later, shouts breathlessly as she films the youth dancers and singers.

Inside the church, Raymond Johnson darts between the singers and the vestibule where Ally Southwood-Smith is monitoring the sound system. Both are members of the tech arts ministry, a division of the church’s sacred arts ministry (“At Emmanuel, we don’t volunteer, we serve,” Johnson says). “Ready to take it up a notch?” Johnson asks music director Troy Ellis. He is only half joking. The choir and an earlier ensemble have been going full force since 9 a.m., as the first of the professional wheelchair marathoners sped by. They’ve been doing this for—no one I ask can agree on the exact date—almost 15 years.

Emmanuel Baptist Church, established in 1881, its building completed six years later, is the cornerstone of this block. Across the street sits a row of classic Brooklyn brownstones, some undergoing renovation; next door is another, smaller church, Faith Apostolic Temple (the two churches are friendly, but share no affiliation), and on the southern end of the block, the Clinton-Washington G train stop dips underground. Marathon runners know this as the last stretch of Mile 8 on the 26.2-mile route. Roughly 11 miles of the course cover Brooklyn, more than any of the rest of the city’s boroughs. On marathon Sunday, the streets fill—and after its early morning service, Emmanuel empties.

“Years ago I was lamenting the fact that the marathon cut off some of our Sunday services because people couldn’t get off the road,” Reverend Anthony Trufant, who celebrates his 28th anniversary as the church’s pastor this month, says. Pragmatically, that meant a significant hit to the collection plate—Emmanuel, which is considered a megachurch, has 900 seats, and Trufant estimates his congregation totals around 3,500 members, including those who stream the services online and those who depend on street parking to show up on Sundays. A minister of music proposed an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em” solution. “And so,” Trufant says, “we put a choir on the steps.”

Emmanuel’s splendid and recognizable French Gothic-style design is the work of Francis Hatch Kimball, the architect whose buildings include a row of terra-cotta townhouses along West 122nd Street in Harlem, the Montauk Club in Park Slope, and the Empire Building in Manhattan’s Financial District. Kimball completed Emmanuel for Charles Pratt, the Standard Oil tycoon and philanthropist who founded the church’s best-known neighbor. The main campus of Pratt Institute is a block west, and Pratt’s architecture building, on the northeast corner of St. James Place, has a front-row view of Emmanuel’s landmarked exterior.

Even without a gospel soundtrack, the marathon has a reputation for wresting tears out of the most stonehearted souls. It is one of more than 130 acts that perform along the route, and the latter half of Mile 8 is particularly rich in music: Farther south on Lafayette Avenue, an R&B band plays classics like “Hearts Afire,” and the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School band continues its nearly 30-year tradition of playing variations of the theme from Rocky. But since the church adopted its marathon ministry, this block has attracted loyal visitors who annually stake out their spectator places.

Brooklyn College professor Matthew Burgess passes out free stickers for a graphic design midterms awareness project, Stick the Vote. “I could walk down the course handing these out but honestly, today I just want to be here. I always come here. It’s the best place to watch,” he says. Thabani D.’s young nephew, Zahir, plants himself by the curb to high-five passing runners. Adrienne Gantt, an Emmanuel member and neighbor, and a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals division, takes a front-row seat on a stone ledge.

Around eleven, when the service lets out, churchgoers stream out the doors, the steps fill with more choir members, in shirts that read I <3 My Church and God Is Dope, accompanied by a squadron of youth dancers. The morning quartet of musicians switches over to the church’s core trio (Peter Rogers on keyboard, Terrell McCollin on bass, Tarrell Lester on drums), kicking into a deeper groove. (Later, when I Instagram a video of the Total Praise singers in full emotional tilt as they delivered an a cappella chorus of “There’s no God like Jehovah!”, a friend comments: “How did you ever stop crying?”)

Across the street, mimosa-wielding revelers on a rooftop unfurl a bed sheet sign spray-painted RUN! RUN! Sam <3 Monica. “Normally on marathon day,” says Ron Armstrong, whose service includes working the front door reception, “there’s a tea party over at 276 Lafayette. I used to live there!” Armstrong grew up on this block, which also bears a street sign for S Anesta Samuel Avenue (named for an aunt of his, who, among other things, directed the church’s day care center from 1958 to 1984). Now he, like a number of congregants, lives at St. James Towers, the co-op apartments that soar from the next block. “There’s a lot of us over there in those three buildings,” says Genéa Martin, an administrator of the sacred arts ministry, fresh from singing a solo in the 9 a.m. service.

Twenty-one years ago last month, at the invitation of a coworker, Martin joined Emmanuel and eventually the Total Praise Choir. She spent six years on a waiting list to buy her apartment in the Towers. Now she crosses St. James Place several times a week for service and choir rehearsal, and she and other choir members regularly sing for members of the congregation who live in the Towers and in the neighborhood and aren’t able to leave their homes.

Raymond Johnson lives in the Towers with his wife and 7-year-old son; his wife grew up at Emmanuel and on the block. “We live on the 22nd floor, her mother on the 17th, her brother on the 20th, we have aunts on the 13th and sixth floor, cousins nearby, my daughter when she’s home from college,” he says. “When we have a party, no one brings a coat!”

They’re not alone. “Sixty-five to 70 percent of our members still live within a one-mile radius of the church,” affirms Reverend Trufant, who lives two blocks away from the church with his wife, Muriel, a lawyer, and their two daughters. “Gentrification has affected the church and it’s affected it largely because younger families are finding it difficult to get a footing in the community because the price of real estate has shot up,” Trufant says with businesslike pragmatism.

Average home prices in Clinton Hill have increased by more than 60 percent in the last five years, which has had a direct effect on the church. “What people tend to do is, even if you can afford a brownstone, and you have kids but you can’t get in PS 11, which is one of the premier schools in the district, you probably wind up going private,” Trufant explains. “So now you’re paying for that, plus a hefty mortgage, and it’s a bit much. People [in the congregation] are moving over to Jersey, is what we have found. Or they’re moving to Maryland, down to Virginia, and so on. It’s the Reverse Migration.”

In Trufant’s 28 years of tenure, the ministry has expanded to make changes for faithful longtimers and to lure younger generations: dancers who perform during services, a theater group, live-streaming services, a YouTube channel. “New York is more secular now,” he says. It’s more religiously pluralistic. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; it’s just a fact.”

Other changes are sobering. On this Marathon Day, eight days after the mass shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, it is impossible not to think about the mass shootings at another house of worship with whom this church shares a name. “Ever since the killings at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina, my antenna went up,” Trufant says. The church hired NYPD security guards, enhanced security features in the children’s wings, and installed security cameras throughout its buildings. Next month, Emmanuel will have its first active shooter training.

“We live in crazy times,” says Trufant. “But as the church grows larger, we also try to grow smaller. We work hard at creating a sense of intimacy.”

When Emmanuel Baptist was founded, in the late 1800s, the congregation was predominantly white. It wasn’t until April 27, 1941, that the church held its first baptism for a person of color, Frances Josephine Jackson, a child who had expressed a desire to be received into the church.

Raymond Johnson points out the inscription in honor of Jackson that adorns one wall of the vestibule. “People of color felt welcome after that happened,” Johnson says. Though many churches in the city move house over the years, he says, “The great thing about it is that Emmanuel Baptist has always been Emmanuel Baptist. But the church changed when the neighborhood changed.”

Frances Jackson’s baptism prefigured the Great Migration; as Southern black families moved to New York and other northern cities, the church’s demographics shifted too. It is now predominantly African American, Afro Caribbean, and African. In 1975, Rev. Dr. H. Edward Whittaker became the church’s first black minister, and introduced spirituals and gospels into Emmanuel’s musical repertoire.

“We’re open to everybody,” Johnson affirms, “but we talk about issues that are culturally relevant to this community.” The church doesn’t endorse any political candidates, though local and state leaders come to speak, and New York’s newly elected Attorney General Leticia James is an active member. Two years ago, the day after the 2016 presidential election, Trufant convened the congregation for a spontaneous service.

“We just put the word out,” Johnson recalls. “Church was full. We talked about what this may mean, especially for a predominately African-American community, where you have someone who talks so vehemently about race and gender and other things and tries to stir up hate.” Trufant gave a sermon that night comparing America after the 2016 elections to the Biblical story of the Israelites delivered from Egypt, wandering the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.

“These few years, Rev said, these are our wilderness,” Johnson says. “They are the difficult times that teach you how to survive.” Later that week he found himself among his Department of Education colleagues who exhibited raw nerves and visible tears. “I told them I wasn’t where they were with it. It helped me, coming together that night.”

Arriving on the first Sunday in November, the marathon is a reprieve from midterms. The choir goes into a higher key, singing refrains of “Glory Hallelujah” as a more unserious crowd processes past: a marathoner dressed as a Harlem Globetrotter, dribbling a basketball down the course; a pair of Blues Brothers in full suits, a Smurf whose blue body makeup had mysteriously not yet begun to melt away.

When they talk about the marathon, choristers and their sacred arts colleagues tend to sound like long-distance runners themselves. “We get geared up for this,” Johnson tells me. Genéa Martin: “You feel the adrenalin from the crowd—it pumps you up.”

A former teacher of the Deaf from Atlanta, Charlotte Thomas serves in the church’s sign-language ministry. Signing as the choir works the lyric “Rock, rock, rock,” swelling it in volume and then lowering it to a whisper, she makes two fists of her hands, lightly pounding the first into the second, beaming, her long braids swinging as she dances in time. At 2 p.m., the five-hour concert on the steps comes to its finale.

“It’s funny,” a woman who lives around the corner on Washington Avenue remarks. “Before I walked over today, I’d always thought they stood inside as they sang. The sound seems to come from all over the place.”

On election night, the choir gathers again. Tuesdays are regular rehearsal nights and the first one of every month brings together the entire sacred arts ministry, who spread out in the pews as Rev. Trufant leads a devotion on a passage from the Book of Acts. At night the rows of rosette and other stained-glass windows radiate color; inside the sanctuary it’s impossible not to let the eye wander along the vibrant stencilwork detailing, the blue-green walls, the painted angels who hover high above the baptismal font, the stone angels perched beside them, the handsome dark woodwork. In 1999, the church undertook $2.3 million in major renovations; now water damage is evident on some walls from burst pipes. In a previous, unrelated incident, an accident with a contractor’s torch caused a fire to erupt in the baptismal font, destroying the church’s pipe organ. Around $100,000 had to be raised to pay for its modernized replacement.

“Truth be told, we only use it for maybe one hymn in the 9 a.m. service,” Rev. Trufant says. The music has shifted from focusing more on traditional hymns to an emphasis on contemporary gospel. For a decade Peter Rogers has helmed the Yamaha and Roland keyboards alongside Terrell McCollin on bass and, in a Plexiglas booth, Tarrell Lester on drums.

Former music director Kevin Wheatley, who returned to sing on Marathon Sunday, recently married and moved to Alabama, and the music direction has since transitioned to Troy Ellis, who was raised on Long Island in a family of minister relatives and church-singing parents, with music roots in gospel and secular music (he’s recorded with both contemporary gospel singer Donnie McClurkin and with Florence and the Machine). “I was dropped in right at Easter, right around the church’s anniversary.”

Tonight, too, after the sacred arts ministry makes a laying on of hands in prayer, there are three brand-new songs to learn before Trufant’s anniversary. Ellis gets right to business. “Tenors, I’m gonna start with you,” Ellis says. Wearing camo-print pants and a Sean John T-shirt, Ellis hops on a microphone, singing line by line in a falsetto as the choir members whip out their phones to follow the verses. “I’ve come to give you life... more abundantly!” he belts out, and several rows of men echo the line resoundingly. “This isn’t a shy song,” Ellis emphasizes, moving on to the altos.

To the sopranos: “This last part, you’re singing by yourselves a minute. So you gotta be real clear with every single word—you gotta...spit it out! All y’all can’t just ‘go into worship’ at once.” A little laughter erupts in the pews.

He leads them straight into a little breakdown—each section singing the word joy in quick succession, as he points to the altos, tenors, sopranos. Bright refrains of “Joy!” “Joy!” “Joy!” build to form a dazzling harmony. “Good, good!” Ellis says. “Now let’s do this as fast as it’s supposed to be. Let’s bust it now. What’s that—90 beats per minute? Bring it up to 118.” The choir members get to their feet, singing full strength, full tempo. One plaid-shirted tenor, so caught up in the fervor of the music, animatedly air-conducts from the pews.

As the sound rises to the vaulted ceilings, it begins to feel practically visible. If I were fast enough to chase it out of the church, I imagine I’d hear it the way neighbors say they do, reverberating from the stained-glass windows, maybe slowing the anxious pulse of election night, returning the balm of the marathon singing to the streets.

But I remain in my seat, rapt, as the members of the Total Praise choir hold the note, pause, waiting for Ellis’ signal. “All right!” he says, exultant but firm. “Everybody got that? Always end on joy. Always, end on joy.”

Rebecca Bengal lives in Brooklyn and writes fiction and nonfiction. Recent and forthcoming publications include the Guardian, Aperture, Vogue, Bookforum, the Paris Review, Oxford American, and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Chris Mottalini is a photographer based in New York City. Much of his work deals with the photographic preservation of Modernist architecture and its place in the American landscape. His most recent book is Land of Smiles.