A hot week in Brooklyn

Published 8:32 pm Thursday, January 15, 2015

For a week in 1988, Brooklyn was the mission field for a group of youngsters from First Baptist Church on Main Street in Suffolk.

The kids spent most of the time across the street from a crack house in a low- to middle-class neighborhood on 12th Street. The dominant religion was Roman Catholic. Several of the young Brooklynites had no religion.

The Suffolk kids were strangers in a strange world.

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The 20 young missionaries entertained with some pop Christian songs. The Park Slope residents crowded on the street to hear “Back To the Street” and other pop gospel items.

The kids, accompanied by 10 adult advisors, conducted a Bible day camp at Park Slope Baptist Church, Brooklyn’s only Anglo-English Southern Baptist congregation. In ‘88 most of its few members worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The kids travelled by church bus, and each traveller (I went along, too) chipped in $120 for modest lodgings at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Center.

We got up at 5 a.m. and went off to work with about 50 summer camp attendees: black, white, Hispanic and Middle Eastern urbanites.

The Rev. Carl L. Smith, a South Carolina transplant, was pastor of the church, which provided the items needed for ministering to the kids.

Randy Bailey, who was First Baptist’s advisor, noted that the young Brooklynites, “are more mature (than ours), the result of growing up in this city.” Spiritual maturing was the aim of the young Suffolkians.

“We’re not looking for converts,” said Kassandra Williams, day camp director. “We want to teach them about Christ so they can have a chance at salvation and everlasting life.”

A typical day found a quartet of girls, accompanied by keyboardist Faber and two other instrumentalists, singing for residents and folks passing by. Folks in the crack house opened their windows to listen. The Suffolk youngsters also offered an impromptu show at Prospect Park, about a block up from the church.

“I thought people would come, listen and leave,” said Debbie Williams, one of the members of the quartet. “But they stayed and listened. It amazed me.”

Lee Blanchard, another Suffolk teen, worked with children in grades four through six, and noted, “They were so knowledgeable about the Bible. They listened and did well in Bible school.”

Robbie Harris added, “In some ways they’re more mature. I found that, more than the kids back home, they needed to be around somebody. But they’re more independent as far as getting around.”

The ability to learn quickly might be a survival technique in Park Slope, where life combined the good, bad and ugly. It was a neighborhood of close families and, it was a neighborhood with a drug problem. The crack house, neighbors told me, was an object of police surveillance.

Jessica McCourt, a 13-year-old resident, minced no words. “It’s terrible,” she said, “and I’m scared.”

The crack house was the bane of a neighborhood where children divided their time between playing in the streets, on sidewalks, and in alleys. Green grass and backyards were unheard of. To stay cool in the summertime, fire hydrants were turned on.

But the important things were those lessons. Nancy Khoury, a 12-year-old Lebanese Christian whose parents were born in Jerusalem and settled in Park Slope, said, “We all talk about Jesus. That’s one thing we have in common.”

Bailey described the weeklong experience as, “rewarding. Our youth had an opportunity to work with a lot of kids at the day camp, unlike backyard Bible clubs, where there are fewer children.”

On a day off, and when the lessons were done, the kids visited the Statue of Liberty, Macy’s and NBC. Blanchard described New York as “weird, different. I’ve never seen anything like it. I might like to go back, but not anytime soon. It’s so busy.”

On the other hand, Robbie Harris, whom I semi-adopted for the week, said she would like to live there. “I love it. I found it exciting.” She and a couple others were my guests in Coney Island.

I was born and raised in New York, and my first wife, Beverly, was a Brooklynite. Talk about mixed emotions.

I can’t help wondering what some of the church — and Park Slope — youngsters are doing these days.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.