“The doors of the church are open.”
That’s how the Rev. Grady A. Yeargin Jr. ended almost every one of the hundreds of sermons I heard him preach at the City Temple of Baltimore (Baptist), the Bolton Hill church I attended for half my life. Technically, that meant Sunday’s lessons were now ready to be carried from inside the walls of the building into the world. But if you knew “Rev,” as the kids who grew up at City Temple called him, you knew that openness started with him.
Rev died last month after a long fight with cancer. So this Saturday, we’re coming back through those open doors to say goodbye.
“If you ever needed anything or had a question, you could knock on his office door or call right over to [his home] and he would answer the phone,” said Tiffany Bailey, one of those church kids who is no longer a kid. “We never had to make appointments or go through middle men to talk to Rev.”
“He had an open door and an open candy jar,” said Lynne Streeter Childress of Annapolis, who is my twin sister. “He never talked down to us. He always made us feel important. It’s not like, ‘Everything you think is wonderful and you’re a genius all the time.’ But he was very approachable, and he lived that.”
You may have driven by the stately spire of the City Temple church at the corner of Eutaw and Dolphin streets, which was designed by Thomas U. Walter, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol building. But the lively and multigenerational congregation, from infants to elderly, that Rev built inside over almost four decades, is the most important thing.
He seemed to have a special heart for the youth and a gentle, conscious understanding that his words and actions were crucial building blocks in our faith and character. His daughter Adia Crawford suspects his approach may have been formed in his philosophy studies at Morehouse College “because he really thought about things.” Now that he’s gone, we can feel the strength of that foundation.
“Everybody feels this void. Pop was the first person who taught us about the Bible, about spirituality and faith. He made it so simple,” said Candace McNeal of Essex. Rev married her mom, Patricia, in 2000, when Candace was 16, but he always referred to her as his daughter, never his stepdaughter. “His true passion was to teach. He always wanted the younger person’s perspective.”
That candy dish that my sister mentioned, which sat on Rev’s desk, was a key tool letting us kids know he was interested in our perspectives. When I say that I and the people I interviewed for this column grew up in church, I mean it literally: Our parents were heavily involved in the choir, in youth ministry or as trustees. We were the first people there on a Sunday and the last to leave. And Rev made that time not only more delicious, but interactive. If I had questions about things like other faiths or dating, he listened and answered thoughtfully, never judging me for questioning.
“When there was choir rehearsal, he would be done there, working on something, and I would sit at his desk and color and eat candy, and we would chat,” remembered Jai Rice, 37, who now lives in Los Angeles and is the godfather of Rev’s grandson. “You could always find kids hanging out in his office. It was a safe space to be.”
Rice’s sister Jasmen, my godsister, felt the same about the space Rev created for us to safely explore our faith. “He was really interested in getting to know everybody in the church, not just the tithe-paying members but the little kids running up and down the aisle. There was never an air of superiority or hierarchy, or ‘I know so much about this, therefore you have to listen to me.’”
My lifelong best friend, Nikki Turner Lewis, jokes that my sister and I “tricked” her into joining City Temple after coming to rehearsal for our choir, the Temple Teens. Before that, “my experience at church had been people yelling at me about Hell and damnation, and I wasn’t looking forward to that,” she said. “I thought I’d just sing and zone that part out. But I noticed his [Rev’s] voice, the smooth calm and the chillness about it. He was reassuring. I liked that way that he talked, like he was just talking to me. It was one of the first times I ever paid attention to the sermon — not just something to get through, but something to enjoy.”
Unlike Lewis, most of the rest of us had been around the church since we were tiny. My first pastor was the church’s founder, the late Rev. William W. Payne, who retired when I was in high school. After a few interim pastors, they hired Rev. Yeargin, a young father and husband from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who turned out to be a distant cousin on my grandmother’s side. The world is small.
“We were used to Rev. Payne, who was older than our parents. I couldn’t plug exactly what was different ... but he was different,” remembered Derrick Pittman, now 54 and living in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. “He brought this small, country-town preacher who knows everybody vibe into a big city. He had a way of tearing down that mystical curtain between the pastor and the people.”
We were thrilled to have him, but Crawford admitted that initially moving from the “tiny little country town to this big huge city was heartbreaking for me.” As she became part of City Temple, she appreciated that her father brought a defining part of his ministry to big-city Baltimore — an annual Children’s Day, where he shed his robe and “came out of the pulpit. He would sit the children in the front pews. The sermon was just for us, but he still got the message out to everyone in church. He never talked down to us. He let us know Jesus was for us, too.”
To me, Rev’s version of Jesus was not this judgmental, nasty, misogynistic person many present him to be in current culture, but the one from the actual Bible. You know, the guy who ministered to the sick, like the AIDS ministry Rev started, or who opened the church to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the hungry. When teen pregnancy was at epidemic levels in Baltimore, including a few young mothers in the church, Jai Rice “wanted to do a talk about safe sex that was tied to the Bible because you cannot just teach abstinence. I stormed into Rev’s office and said, ‘We need to do this,’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
He wanted us to know that our personal interests were not distractions but ways to praise God, like the dance ministry, which helped Candace “realize what my spiritual gift was.” When I went to college and got involved in some evangelical spaces that didn’t always recognize women in Biblical authority, I realized how lucky I was to be raised in a place with female pastors right there in the pulpit. Mia Lee, now a minister and speaker in Texas, said Rev took her call to ministry seriously. “I believed I could do it when the call came, because he invited women in,” she said.
Perhaps Rev’s greatest gift as a pastor who continuously recognized the humanity of his congregation was letting us see his own humanity, even at his most vulnerable and tragic moment. His daughter Kimberly died suddenly at 21 after a brief illness, the official cause diagnosed as sepsis. Pittman said that he was deeply affected by watching a pastor and spiritual authority publicly wrestle with “being mad at God. They had beef. He [Rev] had to wrestle to understand why, and that was OK. He was like, ‘We’ve got to sit down and talk about this. This was my baby girl you took, and I have questions you have to work out with me.’”
Ultimately, Crawford, Kimberly’s sister, said he helped her understand that “God’s love was bigger than my anger, because I was pissed.”
Decades later, now that the kids of the church are adults — and many of us parents — we see the strength of that foundation we were allowed to build, at our own pace, in our own way. When Pittman’s daughter, who coincidentally is also named Leslie, was little, she asked Rev why we were taught to look people in the eye when we talked to them, yet “if praying is talking to God, why am I bowing my head if He’s up there?’” Pittman said. While older pastors “would have shut her down with a flat platitude, he [Rev] said, ‘Absolutely, there’s no reason you can’t look up at God when you’re praying.’”
If pastors are supposed to be God’s representatives, Rev exemplified that because he encouraged us to look at him, to talk to him directly, and he respected us as individuals. We don’t all still go to church regularly, but we all still, in some way, feel the presence of the kindness we were taught. “He was like, ‘God is love. God is acceptance. I am acceptance,’” McNeal said.
To Pittman, “he was the preacher I always needed. I can’t go back and undo time, but I’m pretty sure that if he had not been there, I’d have left the church and forgotten about God a long time ago.”
Saturday’s memorial service is absolutely going to suck because saying goodbye is hard and sad. But through the tears, it’s going to be a bittersweet joy: Rev has called us back through those open doors, one more time.
“Home,” Pittman said, “will be here for you.”