Real hope in Oak Park

St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church

St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park.

St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

In November, the nation will elect a new president, and in June, Sacramento will elect a mayor. But the country is trillions of dollars in debt, and Sacramento is tens of millions of dollars in debt. The state is cutting jobs. Unemployment is up. Gas is $4 a gallon—and rising every day. People are nervous. Some are scared. Hope is in short supply.

“If there ever was a time when we needed Jesus Christ, that time is today.”

Or so says the Rev. Kevin Brown. His message is one of hope, so prepare to be stirred. Prepare to be moved by the bass and the choir and the foot-stomping and the praising and the thanksgiving and the hallelujahs! until you can’t take it anymore. You’ll get that tingling beneath your skin, that uncontrollable urge to rise to your feet.

Hot damn, life is worth living!

Or you can just sit there. That’s OK, too.

St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, located at 14th Avenue and 40th Street in Oak Park, is a great big brick building whose spacious parking lot is jampacked on this Sunday morning. I arrive in the nick of time and hustle into the foyer, where it feels like an amphitheatre of rock fans. Everyone’s happy to be there, especially the lead chorus lady, who greets the congregation with an ebullient, “Good morning!” I’m one of the only white people here. I find a place to sit near the middle of the sanctuary, returning every welcoming smile.

I know this is the right place the minute the singing starts. The choir, flanked by two megascreens for those in the nosebleed seats, opens the service with a gospel hymn beckoning the Lord to join us. People are up from their seats, clapping and shouting in agreement. After a short prayer, there’s more song. Then another prayer, the passing of collection baskets, a call-and-response-style scripture reading—and then more singing and grooving.

Ooo-ee,” the choir croons. “Another blessing!”

At the song’s end, a presiding pastor says a note about gratitude. “Ooo-ee!” he exclaims. “Let’s hear that song again.”

As I watch beautiful men in suits and elegant ladies with flowered lapels and lavender hats, I think, “Man, how come I didn’t grow up in this religion?”

I’ve been to churches where monotone sermons felt like the modern-day equivalent of wearing a hair shirt. Like watching Congress on C-SPAN—a bunch of white guys droning on about Very Important Issues in the most lackluster tone possible, as if to ensure that nobody might listen. St. Paul Missionary Baptist, by contrast, is interactive and stimulating, with both men and women taking the pulpit.

The sermon, delivered by the guest speaker Rev. Kevin Brown in the absence of regular pastor Dr. Ephraim Williams, is on “Developing Your Confidence in Jesus Christ.” He tells us these are dangerous and uncertain times. This country is engaged in an endless war. The poor are getting poorer. The rich getting richer. And he reminds us, again:

“If there ever was a time when we needed Jesus Christ, that time is today.”

Brown assures that Jesus Christ has a plan for each one of us. To illustrate this, he tells a story of a man marooned on an island whose few comforts and belongings accidentally are set on fire. In the midst of his anguish, a plane appears. “How did you find me?” he gasps. “We saw your smoke signals,” the rescuers reply.

“Your present situation might be instrumental to your future happiness,” Brown intones.

When he declares, “A faith that can’t be tested can’t be trusted,” he pauses—rhythmic, deliberate, repetitious—then rhetorically asks, “I’m preaching to myself, aren’t I?”


At the end of the service, anyone in attendance for the first time is invited to stand, follow an usher and be formally welcomed to the church. People ask questions, share where they’re from and can receive private prayers if they wish.

“We’re grateful that it was part of God’s plan to bring you here today,” the welcoming woman says with hearty sincerity.

I walk out into the spring sunshine with one word on my mind: Ooo-ee!