The Word Made Flesh

Ebenezer Baptist Blends the Spiritual and Temporal


Rev. Marvin Griffin
photograph by Minh Carrico
The Downtown view is impressive, but the scene in the near distance is more depressing -- blasted blocks, decrepit housing, and chronically vacant lots, the popular image of East Austin, crowded in the shadows cast by the Gothic heft of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Dr. Marvin Griffin, pastor at Ebenezer since 1969, aims to change this scene. Over here, he points out, the church is building subsidized homes for senior citizens. This building here, the one larger than the church itself, is the Child Development Center, one of the busiest and best-equipped in the city. The almost-finished top floor, the Family Life Center, will become a center for adult day care and other church activities, seven days a week. These lots over here are going to be cleared, some for additional church parking, others for more Ebenezer-sponsored housing and social-service programs. The entire Ebenezer complex -- including undeveloped and un-redeveloped properties acquired over the years -- covers more than three blocks, and Griffin and his congregation have plans for most all of it.

Both physically and organizationally, Ebenezer Baptist -- one of the oldest, probably the largest, and arguably the most prestigious African-American church in Austin -- seems to be growing larger by the minute, and over his career, Marvin Griffin has proven his talents not only as a spiritual leader but also as an administrator, advocate, and, it must be said, dealmaker. A former member of the Austin school board, narrowly defeated in 1983 for what became Charles Urdy's council seat, Griffin falls short of very few others in his power to get his calls returned by the Austin elite. At the same time, during his 27 years at Ebenezer, Griffin has accrued ever-increasing influence within the religious community, culminating in his recent election as first vice-president (i.e., the No. 2 man) of the Texas Baptist Convention -- the first black clergyman to attain such a high position within the Baptist hierarchy.

So, if you are among those Austinites who've been critical of Griffin's and Ebenezer's commodious influence in the temporal affairs of East Austin, your protests have been in vain. Certainly Griffin sees no conflict between his spiritual mission and his church's worldly accomplishments. "I think it's always been part of the African-American churches' endeavor to minister to the totality of life," he says. "The church's role has been to liberate people in every dimension of their lives."

Griffin, whose advancing age -- he's 76 -- has, if anything, intensified the clarity of his vocation, points out that previous Ebenezer pastors have "always (been) strong leaders who are involved in social issues, champions of freedom and liberation. The church has always attempted, as best it can, to prepare people to walk through the open

doors of opportunity. We've just continued to minister to the critical needs of East Austin."

What has changed, though -- as Griffin freely concedes -- is the degree of overlap between Ebenezer's congregation and its clientele. Come Sunday, the semi-official parking lots around Ebenezer gleam with late-model cars bearing the black bourgeoisie from homes in distant ZIP codes; come Monday morning, the child care center fills with kids whose mothers walk them over from the nearest bus stop. "We have about 155 children in the center now, and not five of them are the kids of church members," Griffin says. "This is definitely a mission to the community. Many years ago, we were a neighborhood church" -- Ebenezer is Austin's third-oldest Baptist congregation, founded in the 1870s -- "but we've become a downtown church serving the entire area. And we have, if not an actual middle-class congregation, a middle-class flavor. But our programs are still serving this neighborhood and people in need here."

A perhaps unintended, but welcome, by-product of this evolution is the degree of integration one sees in Ebenezer's community programs; while the child-care center (both students and staff) is largely African-American, it's hardly monocultural, and certainly more diverse than the typical Eastside congregation. "We have to meet people's needs across the board," Griffin says, pointing as well to Ebenezer's collaborations with West Side Baptist churches and with East Side congregations of all faiths. "We're all in this together; each congregation, and for that matter, each denomination, has to work to save this whole community. As the people go, so go the parishes."

This calling announces itself now more stridently than ever, as shifting political winds blow more responsibility for the community's social as well as spiritual sustenance into the churches' laps. "I don't think the churches can do it alone, but I don't think government can do it alone, either," Griffin says, voicing his general support for the ideas, if not the tactics, of welfare reform. "We can serve as a vital partner in the kind of partnerships we need to bring people from the margins to the mainstream of American life. It's never been outside the mission of our church, but it's clear that in the 21st century we'll be pushed to do more."

Which will likely only further highlight a critical challenge facing the churches -- where, if anywhere, to draw the line between social and spiritual endeavor. After all, as undeniably positive as Ebenezer's social services have been for at least some East Austinites, and as clearly untrue as it is that East Austin is inherently dysfunctional, it's also stone-cold fact that you can throw a rock from the Ebenezer bell tower and hit a mess of moral turpitude, most egregiously the sex and drug traffic around the 11th Street/Rosewood junction. Is there, perhaps, something more specifically "religious" that Ebenezer might proffer to its neighborhood? "It's a question the church has asked itself," Griffin notes. "We've had members tell us that we should be saving souls instead of buying real estate. But the majority saw (the latter) as a means to meet real needs.

"We believe in the Word made flesh," Griffin continues, "in the blending of the spiritual and the temporal. We try to `spiritualize' the material and `materialize' the spiritual. It's not an easy task, but it's ultimately produced a lot of good. The black churches often get knocked for being pie-in-the-sky" -- that is, for promising salvation in the next life as an incentive for enduring the privations of this one -- "but I don't think it's been the case at all. It seems to me that the black churches have led the way in bringing religion down to earth."

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