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Originally published Monday, November 23, 2009 at 10:25 AM

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Kent preacher is busting the notion of a 'black church'

At New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in Kent, the Rev. Leslie Braxton is on a mission to diversify his congregation — breaking down racial barriers and busting the notion of a traditional "black church."

New Beginnings Christian Fellowship

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photographed by Ken Lambert

THE 11 A.M. service at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in the hinterland between Renton and Kent is an hour of power if there ever was one, with its pastor, the Rev. Leslie Braxton, cajoling and conjuring in suits so sharp they could cut paper.

He has the body of a linebacker, the grace of a cat and a voice that hurls gymnastically between supple and scintillating.

His organist punctuates his sentences and fist pumps precisely on cue. When he implores, "Can I get an amen?" he can count on a room full of them. You might break a sweat just watching him.

But Braxton's sermons come embroidered with references as disparate as ancient Greek and hip-hop. He has all the tricks of an old-style black preacher-man. But he's putting that tradition to a revolutionary new use.

When Braxton gazes at his mostly African-American flock, he sees beyond the physical reality staring him in the face. He's preaching to a crowd that dwells largely outside his church's doors.

By sheer force of will, and with no small amount of swagger, he's attempting to redefine the very concept of a "black" church, to preside over a congregation that is African-American by origin, multicultural in practice and universal in spirit, one that includes whites, Hispanics, Asians and racially mixed members in healthy numbers.

"We're living in what I call the Barack Obama Era," he says. It's a reference that pops up often in his sermons. "We call him African American, but he's really biracial. As a church family, if a Barack Obama-type family walked through our doors, would they feel as a family unit that they belong here, and feel that their souls are at rest here?"

Braxton insists there's nothing novel about his inclusive outlook: "This is what the gospel has been about since the beginning." But historically, and even today, American churches have not embraced diversity.

Of some 300,000 Christian churches in the United States, more than 90 percent are racially exclusive, according to national surveys. And of the few congregations that are mixed, half are transitioning from one racial or ethnic group to another, as the demographics of their communities change.

We work together and often play together, but seldom pray together in America.

Braxton faults ministers of all races for not doing more to remedy a situation he believes goes against Christian teaching. "Bad theology leads to bad anthropology," he's fond of saying.

It will be a test to see if the multicultural vision he's laid out becomes the church's everyday reality. At New Beginnings, Braxton at least has his own laboratory.

BRAXTON'S APPROACH didn't work out so well during a rocky six-year tenure as pastor of Seattle's most storied black congregation, Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District, which proudly guards its legacy as a bastion of what used to be a tight-knit African-American community. Now that community is dispersed. What the gentrifying Central District has lost by way of black representation, more affordable South End cities like Renton and Kent have gained. It's no accident that New Beginnings is based there.

Braxton's outreach efforts at Mount Zion — aimed, he says, at making it more responsive to and representative of the community — didn't always meet with the approval of church stalwarts. Some were also concerned about his sermons and management.

Four years ago, he stepped down and founded New Beginnings in the cafeteria of Renton High School. Astoundingly, 600 people showed up for the first service, many of them former Mount Zion members. He was hungry for a change, but evidently, so were his followers.

New Beginnings celebrated the opening of its permanent home, in a cavernous former athletic center south of Renton, in August. Braxton and company raised $1 million over two years to help secure a bank loan for the property.

But while New Beginnings is in an area with a growing black population, the numbers are still less than 10 percent. Asians and Hispanics live there in similar numbers. As a practical matter, he has to reach beyond the familiar.

Fashioning a congregation made up of people just like him, the way black churches have developed for generations, would be absurd anyway, Braxton says. "That's like going back in time — Sunday morning shouldn't be a cultural retreat."

The Rev. Ray Bakke, chancellor of Seattle's Bakke Graduate University for experts in ministry and global causes, has worked with Braxton for nearly a decade and says he's in the vanguard of movements within the black church and in society at large.

"The church was about the only institution blacks owned and felt safe in for generations," Bakke said by e-mail. "But, for a couple decades now, I've been seeing many black young people opt out of the black church for large, mostly white mega-churches. They are rejecting authoritarian pastoral styles, much as I see Asians, especially Korean Americans, leaving Korean churches for mostly white American churches in New York and Los Angeles."

Sitting at his desk in New Beginnings' administrative offices in Kent, Braxton lays out the difference between his church and more traditional ones: "There are 21st-century churches that 'get it.' And there are 20th-century churches that are stuck in the past — still entangled in the isms of the past."

By that Braxton primarily means racism, but he says sexism is another huge problem in church leadership and promotion policies.

"You have to challenge people's goals and visions in life," he says, spicing his remarks with a flurry of aphorisms illustrating the virtue of going against the grain. "The measure of people's morality is how well they can steward power."

You attend services at New Beginnings not knowing where Braxton will take you intellectually or emotionally. But the theme always comes back to challenging perceptions.

Just days after it was announced that President Obama had won the Nobel Prize for Peace, he pricks ears in the crowd when he says the news surprised him.

"I love Barack Obama — I voted for him," he tells a crowd waiting to hear more words of praise. But "he may be the first person to win the Nobel Peace Prize who will have to earn it after he received it."

Braxton can't get a single amen on that. A cold silence fills the room.

The pastor warns his flock against blind adoration of political leaders, even ones as beloved in the black community as Obama.

"The fact that you couldn't say amen to that shows that we've got some work to do," he chides, then moves on.

Other times, he endears himself to the congregation by relating stories about overcoming cultural tension from his own past, and that's when it becomes clear that his views about racial reconciliation didn't spring from some textbook, or even the good book.

During one sermon, he recalls playing baseball in sixth grade in a largely white school far from his impoverished Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma. The coach, who was white, would drive some of the players home after practice. Braxton was the only black kid and the only one who lived in Hilltop. He remembers feeling so much shame when the other kids remarked on the shabby houses they saw as the van approached his home.

Then, without prompting, the coach switched his route and made Braxton's stop the last, "so that I didn't have to suffer the humiliation" anymore. "To me," he says with a brevity that cuts to the bone, "there's some God in that."

BRAXTON'S MOTHER, Claudette Nash, has witnessed his evolution from wayward boy to man of purpose.

Nash describes Braxton as a quiet middle child among five siblings who, when she'd tell him to go outside and play, would always respond, "I don't have any friends."

"He'd rather stay in the house, lie on the floor and watch TV," she says.

Her son didn't care much for church, either.

As Braxton himself says: "The message I got was the Bible has some good stories, but you don't really have to do any of it."

Braxton read a lot, mainly sports publications, and dreamed of becoming a pro football player. He was intellectually curious and seemed to have an old soul. He loved a challenge and never took people, including his mother, at their word unless they could prove what they were arguing.

Despite being quiet, he possessed an explosive temper. In elementary and middle school especially, Braxton sent plenty of his classmates running home with bloodied noses.

"In Hilltop back in the day, they said you had to be fast, funny or able to fight," Braxton says.

Nash reckons her son had bottled up years of anger and shame over not having a stable father figure in the house. His dad was in prison, and Nash's second marriage was a stormy one.

Nash says her son's life changed dramatically as he got older and played football for the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma in the early 1980s. A running back, he suffered many injuries on the field, so many that his team would issue him a roll of bandage tape at the beginning of each season, his mom says. In the span of a week one season, he was injured twice. His concerned mother couldn't hold back any longer.

" 'I think God is trying to tell you something — that where you want to go is not where you're supposed to go,' " she counseled him. "It came to me one day just as clear as can be: He should be a minister."

Braxton recoiled.

"He looked at me and said, 'What?' You've got to be kidding.' "

But two or three months later, Nash saw her son go forward in church and announce his calling to become a pastor. On July 4, 1982, he delivered his first trial sermon.

"You almost have to be a believer to understand what I'm saying," Nash says. "God really placed his hands on him. You know how you say some people are gifted? He has a gift that most people don't have. He has visions."

He's also been endowed with supreme self-confidence.

At First Shiloh Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., where he spent 12 years, he succeeded a family dynasty that had presided over the pulpit for six decades. At Mount Zion, he came on the heels of the Rev. Samuel McKinney's 40-year legacy.

"He was coming behind people that had history there, and had done things in their communities," Nash says. "As a young pastor, everyone was like, 'He's got some big shoes to fill.' He would always say, 'I wear my own shoes.' "

BRAXTON'S EMERGENCE isn't just a changing of the old guard, but a direct challenge to it.

"You don't try to put the new wine of diversity into the old wine skins of tradition," says the Rev. J. Alfred Smith Sr., pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., and a friend of Braxton's. "He's not going to lose sleep over whether the traditionalists are going to buy it. That's not his market."

Braxton was certainly testing the waters two years ago when he hired the Rev. David Ankcorn as New Beginnings' executive pastor, the person who runs the building's daily operations. Ankcorn — tall, lanky and, most noticeably, white — usually sits behind the lectern during Sunday services, next to the choir, but he also gives benediction and delivers church announcements. He is Braxton's right-hand man, a straight-laced counterpoint to Braxton's flamboyance.

Smith recommended Ankcorn for the job after observing his leadership at a mostly Spanish-speaking church in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Like Braxton, Ankcorn has a wife and two children who attend the church. The Ankcorns don't seem out of place, though. Partly that's because Ankcorn is used to being a white minority in church settings, be it in China, where he's also preached, or the Bay Area. But he says it's also because of the welcoming atmosphere Braxton has cultivated.

In most cases, Ankcorn says, it's white churches that try to diversify by reaching into communities of color. "It's very rare that a primarily African-American church would seek to go the other way," he says. He knows that can be a tough sell to churchgoers, especially for marginalized minority groups that rely on church as a social safe haven.

His first trial sermon at New Beginnings, before a sea of African-American faces, was "interesting," he says with a shy grin. "There was a bit of a challenge because the African-American church has a very strong preaching tradition," he says, noting the political commentaries and calls for social justice often heard in black church services.

Those are big shoes to fill. Like Braxton, Ankcorn decided not to try to fill them.

He looks back on a sermon he gave on the eve of this year's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which happened to coincide with the week of President Obama's inauguration. Here's a white guy from Spokane standing before a mostly black congregation filled with people who'd waited their entire lives to see someone like them become leader of the free world. Now it was Ankcorn's job to speak to that incredible moment.

"All I could do was speak about God's call for justice and go from my insights into the gospel," he says. "I couldn't speak from my own experience . . . It was humbling."

Braxton's mother, however, says she's noticed a slow acculturation in Ankcorn.

"He's got a little more bounce in his step — he's learned to rock and move with us," she says with a giggle. But she says the congregation doesn't expect him to "act black" around them any more than they feel compelled to "act white" around him.

The whole experience at New Beginnings feels like an experiment still. Ankcorn says about 20 racially blended families are at the church now, up from just a few when he started there.

For those who keep coming back, Braxton is a godsend.

New Beginnings Sunday-school teacher Mary Ellen Bolden, who's white, heard Braxton speak a few years ago, when the church was operating out of high schools. She and her husband, who is black, decided to join the congregation soon after.

"I finally felt like a sheep that had heard the voice of its shepherd," Bolden says.

Braxton says he wants to prevent people feeling like "resident aliens" in his church, a part of but somehow apart from the flock.

Fluent in Spanish, Ankcorn plans to start a Spanish-speaking ministry at the church, and he wants to recruit more Hispanics and Asian-Americans to staff positions.

A smattering of whites, Asians and Hispanics do attend post-service welcome receptions on Sundays. The hope is that they come back.

Braxton is relying on the continued good will of the more traditional congregation that's followed him to Renton and the hard-to-win trust of newcomers in search of a different kind of spiritual home.

"There is an old saying," he offers. " 'The worst place to be is where God was.' "

The Lord may always be two steps ahead, but Braxton thinks there's redemption in trying to catch up.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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