The Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock strode acress the altar of the 333-year-old First Congregational Church of West Tisbury and surveyed the weathered, expectant faces of its Yankee parishioners. Mr. Warnock hails from Atlanta, Ga., where he leads the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Let the church say Amen!” he announced. The congregation, though unpracticed, made a solid reply; still it was no doubt fainter than the amens Rev. Warnock usually elicits.
“You have invited a Baptist preacher. We engage in call-and-response in my tradition and I would just ask you to meet me halfway.”
It’s the second year of an unlikely partnership that has united a small West Tisbury church with puritanical roots to a preacher who carries the weighty mantle of the civil rights movement in inner-city Atlanta. The seeds for the union were planted in Union Theological Seminary in New York city, where West Tisbury Congregational Church pastor Cathlin Baker met Mr. Warnock on the fertile intellectual playing field of a nondenominational divinity school, steeped in the ethos of liberation theology.
She said that their friendship was forged at the seminary by a shared passion for social justice.
“Cathlin has always had a deep passion for the poor,” said Mr. Warnock in an interview alongside Ms. Baker at the church, “and so her understanding of the gospel is commensurate with my own and consistent with the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr.”
While Ms. Baker’s calling came as a byproduct of her academic training at Union, Mr. Warnock’s vocation came much earlier. As a child in Savannah, Ga., the son of two pastors, it wasn’t long before he was doing the rounds of local congregations preaching on youth Sundays.
“I developed a little bit of a reputation in the community,” he laughed. A lifetime of sermons eventually led to his installation in 2005 as pastor at one of the most hallowed Baptist churches in America, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s father and grandfather served as pastors and Martin Luther King Jr. himself served as copastor.
“It’s a very humbling experience, but it feels like much more of a blessing than burden,” he said. “It’s not my job to walk in the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr. My job is to stand on his shoulders and the shoulders of those who paved the path for the sort of fellowship between our two congregations that’s so easy for us to take for granted.”
While the two congregations are tied spiritually, there exists a gulf of economic disparity.
In Mr. Warnock’s community in Atlanta, unemployment hovers over 20 per cent. In response his church has established programs to prepare urban workers for the information economy that the people there hope will replace the disappearing manufacturing base. The church also has been at the forefront in encouraging financial literacy to combat the plague of pay-day lending.
Ms. Baker said that fiscal education is a universal problem, one that many in her own parish have struggled with as well, especially during the current downturn.
“The church is a place where you can critique consumer culture,” she added, “But it also has to give people the tools to respond to it.”
Ms. Baker, who visited Atlanta to witness Mr. Warnock’s installation as the fifth pastor in the history of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, said that many in her parish, fired by Mr. Warnock’s call for dialogue, have expressed their desire to do the same. Mr. Warnock has even invited her to come down to preach at the multi-thousand seat church, in a sort of cross-denominational exchange program.
“We want to deepen our relationship,” said Ms. Baker. “How can our congregations share the friendship we share?”
For his part Mr. Warnock has connected to the West Tisbury congregation over the past two years through preaching.
“Preaching is at its best when the preacher and the congregation get caught up together in a kind of dance,” Mr. Warnock said, “where each is responding in some ways to each other.”
At the service on Sunday that dance was evident as the reverend’s timbre and cadence ebbed and flowed with the spirit of the parishioners.
“The earth is the Lord’s , and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” he quoted Psalm 24. Mr. Warnock’s theme was environmental stewardship, an easy subject for Vineyarders to appreciate. As he began to preach Mr. Warnock’s PhD scholarship invariably bubbled to the surface.
“Owing to a sort of Cartesian worldview, we have seen ourselves as something totally different from creation,” he announced from the pulpit. “In this Western theo-ethic of dominance we see ourselves as something different from the Earth. But the Earth does not belong to us. It belongs to God.”
He recounted in his sermon how his inner-city parishioners often dismissed his environmental message as a problem for middle-class white people to worry about.
“Save the World? We’re just trying to save the neighborhood,” was a common reply, he said.
But on Sunday he argued that the problems were inextricably linked.
“Those who are concerned about racism and poverty have to become more concerned about the environment,” he declared.
It was a welcome premise in a community that prides itself on being ecologically minded. Mr. Warnock cited a slew of horrifying statistics: the most likely indicator of where a toxic waste dump will be sited is race; black children are five times more likely than white children to get lead poisoning. These are environmental issues, he said.
The correlation was more challenging. “Those who are concerned about the environment in turn have to become more concerned about racism and poverty.”
The words hung over the audience imploringly.