The Rev. Brad R. Braxton calls it an assignment, but really his five-year stint in West Baltimore was a choice.
A choice to lead an inner-city church, to jump-start programs for the hungry, to help guide a congregation needing direction - despite a Rhodes scholarship and academic credentials that could have taken him anywhere in the world. Now, after fulfilling what he calls a "covenant" to ignite the spirit at historic Douglas Memorial Community Church on West Madison Avenue, he's leaving to take a teaching position at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. The church has yet to name a successor.
Yesterday, Braxton led his final service, an affair brimming with emotion but plain in message. The City Council president came to thank Braxton, preachers from all over the country came to wish him well in academia, photographers came to capture the moment. But all that, Braxton told the congregation of 600, shouldn't blur one's focus on a Sunday morning.
"Let's take the edge off," the 31-year-old said in opening the 11 a.m. service. "We're not here for anything else but to have church. Let's have church, y'all!"
Have church they did, as Braxton spent three hours preparing the 75-year-old house of worship for his absence. He preached, sang, lectured and roamed the pews to make sure God knew the "giant" at Douglas Memorial - who was sleeping five years ago, Braxton said - is awake today.
"When a church prays together, it makes hell tremble, and the momentum will not be lost," Braxton said. "Pastors have been coming and going for 21 centuries, and the church has survived it all. Don't y'all worry."
Braxton came to Baltimore almost on a whim. He was completing his doctorate in New Testament studies at Emory University in Atlanta in 1994 when he spotted a job advertisement stuck to the bulletin board in the graduate student lounge. Douglas Memorial in Baltimore needed a pastor. Braxton had long dreamed of preaching in the inner city. The match seemed perfect.
"This may have been the calling of God," Braxton said before services yesterday. "I love the city. Whatever renewal is going to happen in this country, the genesis will happen in the city. Many people have given up on the city. I don't think God has."
So he came for an interview, but with low expectations - so low that he expected little more from the visit than an authentic crab cake. But he returned to Georgia with a job offer. For 13 weeks, he flew back and forth between Atlanta and Baltimore to lead Sunday services, until he moved to the city. He completed his dissertation after the move, holing up at home for days on end while leading the church.
"Members of the church would literally bring my wife and I a week's worth of food," Braxton said. "There were many who didn't understand exactly what I was up to, writing this big book. But because it was important to me, it was important to them."
Maybe they didn't understand his doctoral dissertation - it was titled "1 Corinthians 7:17-24: The Tyranny of Resolution" - but congregation members said yesterday they felt touched by Braxton.
Victoria Lewis, 87, even quit smoking. The resident of Clifton Avenue has been attending Douglas for 50 years.
"I'm crazy about him," she said, teary-eyed after yesterday's sermon. "The first time I heard him preach, I turned my life around."
Ellwood Murray, a 55-year-old former school teacher and congregation member, said Douglas Memorial was viewed by some in the neighborhood as an elite place, serving wealthier outsiders more than the local community. But that was before 1995.
Braxton, he said, "opened the church up. He made people feel welcome. Everybody was equal. Nobody was special."
Braxton grew up in Salem, Va., where his father is a minister, his mother a kindergarten teacher. He played offensive guard for his high school football team, but has lost 30 pounds since and looks more like a running back today. After receiving a full scholarship to the University of Virginia, he earned a master's degree at Oxford University in England in 1991, becoming the first Rhodes scholar ever from Salem.
In 1993, the town of 24,000 began celebrating "Brad Braxton Day" each August.
Braxton said he is taking the job as assistant professor of homiletics and biblical studies at Wake Forest because teaching was always his long-term goal, and the idea of training others for the ministry is exhilarating to him. He was the third pastor at Douglas Memorial, replacing the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, an outspoken civil rights leader who retired after 46 years.
At Douglas Memorial, Braxton launched an outreach program for families affected by HIV and AIDS, a prison ministry and a "Mercy Store" that provides donated food and supplies to the needy.
While Braxton ceremoniously handed over the church keys yesterday as parishioners wept, he sought to make the day as normal as possible. Reading from Scripture and speaking from his heart, he told the congregation that the transition from old to new is not as difficult as one assumes.
"The old and new are not adversaries, they are allies. As you move into new territory, take some of the old stuff with you," he said, and then turned to fellow members of the clergy seated behind the pulpit. "That's how I'm gonna close this, preachers."
But he didn't close it. For another hour, the church kept rocking, the gospel choir - and Braxton - kept singing and dancing, the congregation kept clapping. Braxton said he saw no reason to say anything deeply philosophical on his last day, no reason to say anything more than to love everyone, even one's enemies.
"If you came here to see my Ph.D. today, sorry baby!" Braxton said. "That's not why I preach the gospel. I need some old-time religion."