David Dyson is a longtime social justice activist and pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene. Norman Kelley, whose latest book is The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome, recently sat down with Pastor Dyson.
Norman Kelley: What made you decide to become a minister?
Dyson: Well, that’s a very, very long story, but the short answer is mainly Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the one who sort of connected the gospel as I knew it with the possibilities that the gospel could have in society at large. I’d never had anyone or anything make that connection for me. Even observing from afar, the civil rights movement and King’s ministry still was a pivotal turnaround in my life.
Kelley: For a long time you were an activist in the labor movement—with Cesar Chavez, and clothing and textile workers. I’m curious about how the teachings of a dead Jewish carpenter informed your long association with the labor movement.
Dyson: Well, if you read it carefully and faithfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ is absolutely in sync with the highest ideals of the labor movement—which is to advocate for the least, the lost, and the lonely. And if there was ever the least, the lost, and the lonely in the American culture, it’s the American worker, particularly the American low-wage worker. If you’ll notice, I’ve never worked for the Teamsters Union or the Machinists or the United Auto Workers. I’ve always ended up working for unions that represent low-wage workers. And that’s a direct result of my understanding of the gospel.
Kelley: Now, most people would not see the gospel that way. Some of your colleagues on the other side of the aisle—the right side of the aisle, as we say around here—would not see the gospel that way. They basically focus on sin, sin, and sin.
Dyson: Well, they’re only reading half the book. If you go through the New Testament with a calculator—which I have not done, but I know people who have—Jesus talks about justice for the poor three times more than he talks about all of the personal sins combined. So the social justice half of the gospel at least deserves as much attention, if not more, than the personal salvation side. But I believe in personal salvation, I believe in worship, I believe in prayer, I believe in spirituality, I believe in evangelism—all the things that those on the right side of the aisle believe in. I spend more time in pastoral ministry to people in need than I do on broader social justice issues. So, I agree that the gospel has both components, and I try to reflect that in my ministry. But I would challenge the folks on the other side and say that they only concentrate on the personalistic elements of the Christian faith.
Kelley: So while you were a labor activist, you could say that you were actually a member of the clergy.
Dyson: Yes, although I actually did spend a couple years in a church before I went to work with Chavez. I’d been active with the United Farm Workers Union in seminary, in particular, and I was visited by Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the UFW with Cesar Chavez. She came to visit me at Middletown Presbyterian Church, outside of Philadelphia, and she said, “You know, you’re really not happy here.” And I said, “I’m not.” And she said, “No, you’re not, you know, you’re sort of going through the motions. You should come to California and work with Cesar with me.”
Kelley: Hmm, this sounds almost scriptural.
Dyson: (laughs) Yeah, know, I could see the disciples, fishing, casting their nets and having Jesus come by and tell him they weren’t really happy being fishermen.
Kelley: So what brought you back into pastoral work?
Kelley: Oh, that’s honest.
Dyson: Being a labor organizer, being any kind of an effective organizer, is somewhat like being a guerrilla fighter—there’s a window of years where you can do this effectively. And it’s very hard when you get older to live this sort of suitcase, cheap motel, on the run, never knowing from one week to the next where you’re going to be sent kind of life. And that was one of the factors that drew me off the road and back into the church because I wanted to establish myself in a church where I would actually have a base of operations and be able to continue ministry there. Even though I worked for the labor movement for fifteen years, I always considered it ministry. I always saw it in the context of ministry, so it was just a return from one kind of ministry to another.
Kelley: You went through a series of churches—one of the most prominent ones was Riverside—before landing here at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. What’s the makeup of this congregation?
Dyson: Well, Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church is very reflective of the type of community it’s in, in Fort Greene. It’s about two-thirds black, one-third white. There are Caribbean people, African American people, and also a smattering of Latinos and Asian people. There are African families at Lafayette Avenue, and it’s very reflective of the world around us. I have to say that was one of the draws for me coming here. One of the statements of King that always haunted me through my whole ministry was that the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday is one of the most segregated hours in American culture. I didn’t want to come from the labor movement back to somewhere that was a segregated hour.
Kelley: This church has an interesting abolitionist history, correct?
Dyson: Yeah, this church was actually formed by a group—as far as I can figure out—by a group of abolitionists, including a former mayor of Brooklyn. There were about thirty-five of them that organized the church originally, and they were meeting in a one-room school house, and then they wanted to go big time. In the mid-nineteenth century you had to get a big-name preacher to go big time. And they seduced Theodore Cuyler of Manhattan to come over to Brooklyn and help them found what they wanted to be a large and substantial church. The building that we’re currently in was built in 1862 and was meant to be a big church and a force in the neighborhood. In its early days it was known as the temple of abolitionism. It was never a full-blown underground railroad stop because we came to that part of the movement too late. But from Cuyler’s memoirs we know that it was used at least a couple times as an emergency stop.
Kelley: Now, correct me if I’m wrong on this, but wasn’t it the first place where a woman preached—and it caused a big brouhaha?
Dyson: It was the first major Protestant church, as far as we know, where a woman was invited to come and speak. Cuyler was quite progressive and liked doing big, bold things, and so he invited not only a woman but a Quaker woman. Back then, Quakerism was not even seen as within the family of American Protestantism—it was really seen as something almost separate. Her name was Sarah Smiley, and her family was famous for their summer home being that great Mohonk house in upstate New York. She was a prominent social justice lecturer, and Cuyler brought her in 1872 to preach at Sunday service. All hell broke loose in the church world and certainly the Presbyterian world, and Cuyler was run up on charges of holding—I love this word—a “promiscuous” assembly, because anyone who had come to hear a woman preach in church must be promiscuous. The church fathers tried to seize the church from him, and Cuyler had to hole himself up inside the church, and people brought him picnic baskets all week. Cuyler eventually faced down the graybeards and saved his pastorate. The church galloped off into the sunset with its mission and its vision intact.
Kelley: Tell us about the church’s recent work. What is the People of Faith network?
Dyson: People of Faith network is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Lafayette Avenue Church. It’s a project we started in 1995 when we were heavily involved in anti-sweatshop and anti-child labor work. It’s basically a rapid response network, a database of e-mails and snail mail addresses of people that we know are inclined to respond to credible social justice campaigns. It gives us a group of people to go to for letter writing, for attendance at demonstrations—it’s a list of activists. We’ve engaged some major U.S. corporations around their outsourcing practices and labor practices in the third world and have been successful at least in raising the profile of the anti-sweatshop issue and the child labor issue in the American churches.
Kelley: Let’s come back to Brooklyn. This church is a hop, skip, and jump from the epicenter of the Ratner plan to turn the Atlantic Yards into an arena. What’s the church’s position on this, or is there not a church position but just your own personal position?
Dyson: There’s not a church position on this. Our position here as a mainline Protestant church is really not to take positions on specific political issues or to endorse specific political candidates. Certainly we feel the gospel informs our positions on moral and ethical issues, and I personally have become very involved with this, because I’ve been very upset by how this project has come about. I just wrote a letter to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in which I said that I was not anti-development but that I was anti-corruption, anti-sweetheart deal, anti-eminent domain, anti-environmental chaos, anti-lack of transparency—in short, anti many of the things that have been the hallmark of the Atlantic Yards Project. I had a private meeting with Borough President Marty Markowitz, where he asked me why I had a burr under my saddle. I said it’s because one guy—Ratner, who I actually know a little bit—has this sort of private pipeline to this project. There’s no open bidding, there’s no transparency, there’s no community forum. The only people who are being brought in on a community level are being brought in as business partners, not as advocates for the welfare of the community. I told Marty that the deal is being handed on a silver platter to Bruce Ratner because he’s an old college buddy of George Pataki. I said that it just rubs those of us in our community the wrong way. It’s not merely a question of jobs, as our city councilwoman, Tish James, has pointed out many times. Any development scheme or idea is going to bring jobs. The question is about this particular development idea, which is so fraught with corruption, cronyism, and favoritism that I object to it from a moral and ethical standpoint.
Kelley: Well, this is interesting because some of the alliances that you and the church have with ACORN and Reverend [Herbert] Daughtry, who have signed onto this project, are now threatened, which is distressing. Would you say that Ratner is playing the race card?
Dyson: Yes, and it’s very depressing. This project has actually split lifelong partners in the progressive movement. We feel that Reverend Daughtry and ACORN have been brought in by Ratner not as advocates for the community but as private business partners in the deal. We’re trying to prevent the misuse of eminent domain, trying to increase the number of affordable housing units, trying to decrease the number of high-rise luxury office buildings. Those are the kinds of issues that a community group should have, but the Reverend Daughtry—who’s also an old friend—and our friends at ACORN are trying to cut a personal deal so that they can be brokers over whatever little piece or crumb of this pie falls from Ratner’s table. Ratner has been to Brooklyn what Karl Rove was to Ohio and Florida—brilliantly able to play on people’s worst instincts in order to get what he wants in a way that he wants it.
Kelley: Summing up, where do you see this church in the next five years?
Dyson: Well, hopefully, doing more of the same, with more people. When we got here, back in the early nineties, this church was really barely able to sustain itself and had sunk pretty low in terms of morale and membership. So we want to continue to be the kind of church that naturally attracts and doesn’t scare people into coming to church. The great demographic about this church is that it actually has gotten younger per capita in the last seven years, which I think is very encouraging. Young people in the neighborhood, young families with children are coming and joining the church, because they see it as a place that is open, progressive, and forward thinking, yet is firmly rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.