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His faith walk is a marathon

Times Staff Writer

THE Rev. David Brown Jr. preached so passionately that he started to shiver. Sweat flowed down his face as words poured out of him.

The gospel gave way to song. The song gave way to a name, and he let it ring out over the pews with a piercing scream that seemed to echo for an eternity:

JESUS!

“There is no high better than a Jesus high,” Brown boomed with a wide grin. “I used to drink that California wine. I used to think I was high. But this Jesus high -- it just gets gooder and gooder.”

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After such a full-bodied religious workout, it was hard to imagine how anyone could have anything left in the tank -- and Brown, who is 60 and weighs 320 pounds, is neither young nor svelte. But when his 11 a.m. service was finished two hours later, the seasoned country preacher confessed he’d held back a bit.

He had many more souls to feed this Sunday, so he had to pace himself. His marathon for Jesus had just begun.

Brown is pastor of seven churches in Louisiana and Mississippi, and preaches one or two Sundays every month at each. He is one of a dying breed of traveling preachers in the Deep South whose calling is catering to numerous African American congregations, many of which date to the plantation era.

His predecessors galloped around on horseback, or rode the rails from town to town, and stayed overnight at deacons’ houses. He drives the highways and byways in a 2003 Chevy Impala, and stops for meals at Waffle House or Wendy’s, then heads home every evening.

Brown shuttles between churches during the week, leading Bible studies and performing funerals. His seven congregations -- ranging from about 250 to just 30 members -- are within two hours of his small brick home in Monroe, La. He has no salary or healthcare package and survives on whatever worshipers donated that week.

“It’s a faith walk,” Brown said. “Sometimes I can’t even pay the light bill. But I still drive out to see the sick, to go to the funerals. I was chosen by the Lord to do this. Preaching is a God-given gift.”

It is a way of life that Brown believes may not last beyond his generation. Younger church members are increasingly demanding full-time pastors instead of itinerant preachers, and are merging country churches to form midsized congregations. They are also increasingly abandoning the lore-filled worship houses of their forefathers in favor of the megachurches that are homogenizing the American landscape, much like Wal-Mart has transformed Main Street.

“A minister long ago told me: When there are no babies crying in your church, your church is dying,” Brown said. “Well, in some of my churches, the people are way beyond the baby-making years.”

Like everything in Vicksburg, a town of about 26,000 overlooking the muddy Mississippi River, the church where Brown gave his morning sermon has a history. Like the small white gravestones that line the Civil War battlefield down the road, it helps people remember their past.

Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1866 by former slaves who gathered under a large tree to shout and sing. Their descendants still fill its pews one Sunday every month to hum the hypnotic Negro spirituals that summon up their sorrows and struggles and sense of shared humanity.

The women come out in wide-brimmed hats of linen and lace, and the men wear pinstriped suits with neatly pressed ties. They sing traditional gospel songs such as “Down by the Riverside” and “Jesus is on the Main Line” with joyful abandon. They hold their hands high in the air and holler hallelujah.

When their traveling pastor died 14 years ago, Brown accepted the call to nourish their spirit. He helped the congregation move from a dilapidated old wood home to a new brick building.

“He’s just a God-sent man,” said Mattie L. Brown, 78, who has been worshiping at Bethlehem for more than half a century.

But God sends Brown to two other churches on the last Sunday of each month. So after he dried the sweat off his glittering blue suit, and briskly downed a lunch of barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas and cornbread in the back of the chapel, he hit the road.

BROWN has big brown eyes, gold-crowned teeth and a thin gray goatee that adds a touch of gravitas to his warm, round face. He comes from Sicily Island, a village in Louisiana’s Catahoula Parish. He was one of 12 children whose mother cooked for white plantation owners and father worked building highways.

His grandparents served as deacon and deaconess of a country church. They instilled in him a deep love of God, and taught him what he calls the ironclad rules of Southern etiquette: Yes, Sir; No, Ma’am; Please; and Thank You.

When he became a man, he got a job at a funeral home, and he lived above it. One of his former co-workers now owns a funeral home. When the money from circuit preaching doesn’t pay the bills, Brown says, he wonders whether he chose the right career. But there was really no choice at all, he quickly adds. God called on him.

He accepted the call 31 years ago and soon got a chance to give a guest sermon, thanks to a network of older traveling preachers that embraced him.

“I was sweating -- wet like someone had poured a bucket of water on me,” Brown recalled. But he had soaked up the oratorical tricks of the charismatic preachers he heard in his youth, and by the end he had the whole church clapping. Four months later, he was elected pastor of his first church. One month after that, he had four churches.

One of Brown’s old mentors, the Rev. L.B. Oliver, is still on the traveling circuit nearly half a century after he began spreading the word of God. Oliver, 76, serves as pastor of six churches and is optimistic that a new generation of traveling preachers will emerge.

“The little churches are the heartbeat of America. Without them we would be in trouble,” said Oliver, who believes African Americans lose a part of themselves when they leave the churches behind.

Brown is not so sure today’s young preachers would make the sacrifice. For years, he has been augmenting his pay by preaching during the week at revivals, where wayward souls are coaxed back to the Lord. He also has been selling cassettes and compact discs of his sermons, and is planning to start selling DVDs.

On one recording, of a revival in Bastrop, La., Brown bluntly drummed home the message that women should resist the temptation of premarital sex.

“Let me tell you something: The average man will make a whore out of a woman,” he said. “But when he get ready to marry, he don’t want to marry no whore.”

Brown recalled his courtship with his wife, Gwendolyn, whose father was a preacher and whose brother heads a 9,000-member church in La Puente, east of downtown Los Angeles.

“What she let me know was, there wasn’t going to be no layin’ and playin’, huffin’ and puffin’ -- on credit,” he said, as the audience broke up in laughter. “What she told me was ... change my name. And I don’t have to tell you what happened after that.”

The couple recently celebrated their 17th anniversary.

Brown said one lesson he learned as a traveling preacher was that a man of God had to tailor the gospel to his audience. “If you can’t make your sermon relevant to what’s happening now,” he said, “you’re just reading the Bible.”

AS a radar detector scanned for state troopers, Gwendolyn raced across a steel bridge spanning the Mississippi River while Brown rested in the passenger seat.

Brown’s second sermon of the day was about 30 minutes away in Tallulah, La. They arrived just in time for the 3 p.m. service at the Pleasant Grove #2 Church.

Tallulah (population about 9,000) is one of the poorest towns in a poverty-stricken state. A shotgun shack was falling down in disrepair, yet a huge sport utility vehicle with shiny chrome rims sat parked in the driveway -- a symbol, Brown said, of misplaced priorities. Shopping arcades were boarded up. Dogs ran loose in the street.

Inside the small, musty chapel, about 25 people sat waiting. Many were grateful Brown still came.

“Sometimes we have only five people here,” said Diane Kyle, 46, the church usher. “But Rev. Brown will come in here and preach like there’s 500.”

Some, however, questioned whether a traveling preacher still made sense for a town with so many social problems.

“This is what we have. It may not be what we are totally satisfied with,” said Tommy Watson, 45, the church pianist. He argued that if Tallulah’s small churches came together, they could get federal funding for faith-based groups and help people better themselves by offering counseling and other community services.

A sheriff’s deputy took to the altar to introduce a visiting choir but failed to mention that the guests were prisoners doing time for drug crimes. The choir launched into a halfhearted rendition of “Stand by Me,” substituting “darling” with “Jesus” in the chorus. The churchgoers watched passively.

Brown took to the pulpit, and his sermon, about the true meaning of being born again, seemed listless at first. Then Brown made it personal, tailoring it to what he saw as the temptations threatening his audience. He revealed he had a weakness for cheap wine as a young man before he found redemption in Jesus.

“You can get to heaven without a Rolls Royce or a 10-carat diamond ring. Uh-huh, yes you can ... but you can’t get to heaven without being born again,” he said.

His speech gained rhythm. His sentences turned into song.

“You’ve got to be able to walk away from that old life,” he sang, “and into that new life.”

The churchgoers stood to clap and wave their arms. They lined up for communion, wine and bread prepackaged in cellophane-covered containers. Many were smiling.

“You see what our preacher brings us?” Kyle said afterward.

About an hour and a half after arriving in Tallulah, Brown and his wife were on the road again. They made a quick detour to a Wendy’s drive-through, then sped back to Mississippi for a service at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Vicksburg.

Night had fallen by the time Brown arrived at the church, an unadorned bungalow across from a shuttered hospital ringed by a barbed-wire fence. There were about three dozen worshipers, a mix of old women and young families with toddlers.

Brown’s last sermon of the day was his most political. He revisited Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, and wondered whether African Americans were free at last.

He said there was a growing black middle class, plenty of beautiful black people driving Mercedes-Benz sedans and sleeping on designer sheets -- and even a viable black presidential contender. But were black people spiritually free? Or were they becoming “economic slaves” to a mindless capitalism where money substituted for happiness?

He saw a problem, and summoned an answer. His rhetoric became repetitive. His chanting became rhythmic. He began to sweat.

“Jee-sus,” Brown bellowed, again and again.

“It’s just the Jesus in me to bring out the Jesus in you.”

He went on for nearly 50 minutes, until the worshipers were standing in the pews. Afterward, it was 7:30 p.m., and he still had an hour-and-a-half drive before he got to Monroe. He was spent, but satisfied.

The marathoner for Jesus had run the Lord’s errand. He’d held nothing back.

“I know I’ve been to church today,” he said, and headed home.

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com


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