The Rev. David Brawley is sweltering at the pulpit. Beads of sweat sheen on his bald dome under the lights of St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church on a beautiful Sunday in April. The knot of his purple, floral-patterned tie begins to loosen around his neck, as if to liberate his vocal chords.
What began as a measured sermon from Brawley – an acknowledgement of a recent door-knocking effort in the adjacent Linden Houses, a Cedric the Entertainer namedrop, a gentle imploring of more audible participation from his congregation (“Y’all just added three minutes to the service, I’m not hearing enough ‘amens!’”) – has now unfolded into a sprawling soliloquy on the dichotomy between the concept of “fear” and “hoping while coping,” crescendoing with gravelly vocal gyrations that would have made James Brown applaud.
Brawley, sweat now streaming freely down his head, punctuates this theme of overcoming fear with a phrase that could just as easily double as a metaphor for the congregation’s organizing power in the oft-neglected Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville.
“We gon’ turn a CAAAAVE into a CHURCH!”
St. Paul’s faithful erupted in affirmation.
Minutes after the conclusion of his sermon, Brawley sits at a table in his office at St. Paul’s. There is hardly any trace of leftover emotion from his powerful sermon – sweat toweled off, tie neatly re-knotted, and the booming voice that soared through the rafters of his sanctuary now registering softly and methodically.
Brawley, 49, grew up in Deer Park, Long Island, the son of a former New York City police officer, but his roots are firmly entrenched in East Brooklyn. Brawley’s father, a Vietnam War veteran, worked in the 75th Precinct, which serves Brownsville and East New York. Brawley says he found Jesus Christ at age 14 and became a youth minister shortly after. A gentle suggestion from a friend who heard Brawley preach in his early years led him back to his father’s old neighborhood.
“A good friend said to me, I’m listening to you preach and your trajectory … you sound like somebody,” Brawley recalled. “I said, who is that? He said, Dr. Youngblood. I said, who is he?” Brawley needed only to hear the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, then the pastor at St. Paul’s, preach one time to know that he belonged with the congregation, even if the graduation rate for assistant pastors was, at the time, fairly low.
“I served under him for 15 years as his main assistant, which is almost unheard of,” Brawley said. “Usually if you’re the assistant pastor, you’re probably not that good. To be a primary pastor, you’ve been overlooked more than once. It was my belief that this vineyard was large enough to have multiple pastors under the leadership of one, and a guiding vision for the church.”
Since Youngblood stepped down as lead pastor in 2009, there is scant evidence that the church and East Brooklyn Congregations (the larger umbrella organization, which includes more than two dozen member groups across the borough – an offshoot of the national multi-faith community organizing powerhouse Metro Industrial Areas Foundation) is any less of an organizing force than it had been while Brawley toiled as Youngblood’s assistant for 12 years.
“Brawley is the only one, with the other clergy out here, that’s fighting to produce real affordable housing here in East New York.” – Grant Lindsay, organizer for East Brooklyn Congregations
Brawley, and Youngblood before him, abide by the philosophy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community” – forming strength and political power through a rational, common interest in bettering their community – from housing to public safety to education.
The results they have delivered for East Brooklyn are undeniable: construction of 3,187 ultra-affordable “Nehemiah homes” and over 1,500 apartments, including an 80-unit senior living facility; the establishment of several quality charter schools; a national campaign to persuade gun manufacturers to responsibly distribute guns; a massive push for the city to repair thousands of public housing units; and dozens of other quality-of-life accomplishments, including street repairs and clean grocery stores.
In many ways, Brawley and East Brooklyn Congregations have filled a leadership vacuum in the community that would normally fall to local elected leaders.
“(Local elected officials) don’t do anything,” said Grant Lindsay, an organizer for EBC. “Less than zero – that goes for almost the entire City Council, most every community board, Community Education Councils, all these fluff, no-power agency positions. (Brawley) is the only one, with the other clergy out here, not on a big team, that’s fighting to produce real affordable housing here in East New York. Not 20 percent of the building – 100 percent of what is built out here is ultra-affordable.”
The development of the Nehemiah homes is a particularly notable success story for EBC, a decades-old effort to transform a 45-acre site in East New York. Dubbed “Nehemiah” by Youngblood, after the biblical prophet sent to rebuild Jerusalem, the project is a testament to tireless grass-roots organizing and collaboration.
The push for this housing development began in the early 1980s, when EBC held over 100 meetings involving as many as 2,000 East Brooklyn residents. Out of those meetings came the idea to demolish 300 derelict buildings in the area – opening up swaths of vacant city land. A series of subsequent actions and assemblies involving thousands of neighborhood residents and faith organizations across the city led to a massive influx of donations and the creation of an $8 million revolving fund that makes no-interest loans to finance construction of the houses. To keep construction costs low, EBC partnered with developer I.D. Robbins – renowned for efficient residential development as an early innovator of the modular-style apartments that have become increasingly en vogue in major cities.
With that capital in hand, EBC had the leverage to convince the Koch administration to provide the free land, infrastructure and subsidies to target the homes to the neighborhood’s low-income tenants, with the city providing below-market second mortgages to keep the homes affordable. Three rounds of the Nehemiah developments have already been built and the work continues to this day, with a fourth phase underway that will result in an additional 225 homes and 1,295 apartments.
“The Nehemiah housing model is a unique model, predominantly a homeownership model, that’s putting low- and moderate-income families into homeownership,” said Rafael Cestero, a former city housing commissioner and the president and CEO of the Community Preservation Corporation, one of the city’s leading nonprofit mortgage lenders. “If you look at their track record of selling homes and keeping homeowners in their homes, it’s really unparalleled.”
EBC’s organizing principles are simple and consistent. It doesn’t matter if it’s a conversation with the mayor, a city commissioner or a local police precinct commander – there is a basic expectation of respect and reciprocity. You won’t find Brawley grandstanding on the steps of City Hall or taking gratuitous shots at the mayor in a show of political strength. Brawley’s philosophy is to carefully research the issues at hand, come up with pragmatic solutions and, in kind, he expects a genuine dialogue and commitment for tangible improvements from his counterparts.
But Brawley was not entirely sold on this method until he first saw it in action. In the mid-’90s, EBC helped organize a group of high school students who wanted a face-to-face meeting with Rudy Crew, the chancellor of the city’s (now defunct) Board of Education. The roughly 100 teens were pushing the city to allow their charter school to have space in a building in Bushwick, but the city was dragging its feet. Eventually, Crew agreed to meet with EBC at the building, but was reluctant to face the students waiting for him in the auditorium, for fear of walking into a hailstorm. He even accused Brawley of “setting him up.”
“(Crew) came downstairs, he heard them out, spoke to them and said, you’re gonna get your building. And they did,” Brawley said. “On the way back up, he said to me, man, I apologize. People set me up in the past. I said, I understand. But that was the moment that set a fire in my heart around community organizing.”
“If our organization has built one-third of the housing in East New York, you would think that you would reach out to us and have a conversation.” – the Rev. David Brawley
That fire has continued to blaze, even through the inevitable turnover of city government. Brawley mentions with pride his community’s ability to have a constructive dialogue with any administration and hold it accountable, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is mayor. “Relational organizing,” he calls it – straight from the people, with no filter. It’s an approach that, so far, has not engendered solid relationships with the current administration, with Mayor Bill de Blasio apparently reluctant to engage with EBC, despite a clear common interest in affordable housing investments.
The fissures between EBC and City Hall were exposed in an April Daily News op-ed that Brawley co-authored with the Revs. Shaun Lee and Robert Gahagen, fellow Metro Industrial Areas Foundation leaders, blasting de Blasio’s “Input Zero” mayoralty. The op-ed provides behind-the-scenes details on the conversations Brawley and Metro IAF leaders had with de Blasio’s team leading up to a major assembly at the Brooklyn Marriott, two months after the mayor was inaugurated in 2014. Despite previously committing to attending the assembly, de Blasio balked at the eleventh hour, apparently uninterested in answering questions prepared by the congregation. Brawley told the mayor’s aides that he would pointedly tell the entire assembly – 2,200 tickets were sold – that the mayor refused to attend because he didn’t want to answer their questions. De Blasio eventually relented, reluctantly answered questions at the assembly, but has refused to meet or engage with EBC or Metro IAF ever since.
“Sometimes the people you think are your friends, you never really know,” said Dexter Henderson, a minister and church elder at St. Paul’s. “When Rudy Giuliani was (mayor), we got stuff done with him. (The city) knows if we just stay focused on strategy, we can make anybody bend.”
Brawley believes there is a “stark contrast in culture” between EBC’s philosophy of constructive dialogue and the de Blasio administration’s tendency to formulate a plan without community input and worry about getting buy-in later. As it pertains to affordable housing development, Brawley was immediately suspicious of de Blasio when he noticed that the 116-page document the mayor released in 2014 detailing his housing plan included EBC’s planned Gateway Elton Street development, despite City Hall having never consulted with the organization or Metro IAF. (Ironically, the city later dragged its feet on installing necessary infrastructure for that exact development.)
“If our organization has built one-third of the housing in East New York, you would think that you would reach out to us and have a conversation,” Brawley said.
Brawley is similarly leery of the administration’s NextGen plan for the New York City Housing Authority, which, among other initiatives, calls for leasing “underutilized” land to developers to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing. NYCHA developments account for 18 percent of all the housing units in East New York – roughly 16,560 units total – and Brawley believes that the vacant lots the authority controls could be remade into truly affordable senior housing, rather than mixed-income developments that don’t serve the longtime residents.
He cited the recently completed 80-unit Redwood Senior Living apartments, developed by EBC, the Community Preservation Corporation and Common Ground on a former NYCHA parking lot, as a prime example of what the city could accomplish with vacant housing authority land, particularly with a clear need for affordable senior housing in the city.
“We have looked around and we’ve noted that there’s an opportunity to build 10,000 units of Redwood Senior Living all over the city,” Brawley said. “Baby boomers are aging out of the system and retiring. Where are they going to live that’s affordable? If we don’t do something about it now it’s going to be at a crisis proportion later.”
“The city knows if we just stay focused on strategy, we can make anybody bend.” – Dexter Henderson, a minister and church elder at St. Paul’s
The city, however, has pushed back at the notion that it allowed vacant lots to languish in the face of a housing crisis. And at least one of Brawley’s nonprofit housing partners disagrees with his assessment of vacant NYCHA lots, noting that the federal government technically controls the land.
“I don’t agree that there are opportunities that are not being taken advantage of,” Cestero said. “The question is one of timing and process and what’s in the queue. To rezone a property, to try to figure out or orchestrate an acquisition of a property that’s not city-owned, these things take time. It’s a process that has to be undertaken.”
Reflective of the general wariness of the city’s sudden interest in a long under-resourced community, many of Brawley’s congregants see the NextGen NYCHA plan, as well as the city’s planned rezoning of East New York, as the city creating an artificial real estate market that will expedite gentrification.
“I know what it’s all about,” said Maxine Roberson, a longtime St. Paul’s congregant. “When I see (real estate speculators) in the neighborhood walking back and forth, they want to offer you money right on the spot, it’s really not building up the community for us; we were there. I see it as just, you have a lot of money, I’m going to grab your property, build it up and run you out.”
Brawley is quick to point out the irony that the “regeneration” of East New York and Brownsville that make them palatable neighborhoods for public and private sector investment is partly a result of the on-the-ground work EBC and St. Paul’s has done in fighting for improvements for those communities.
“There’s a biblical passage where it speaks about Jesus, with the phrase, ‘Could any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ And we used to use that – ‘Could anything good come out of East New York and Brownsville?’ Now to think that the city and the mayor have highlighted this area as one of his core focuses for affordable housing. It’s like, wow! East New York, huh?”
Brawley lets the sarcasm hang in the air and slowly reveals a wry grin. The loaded words of his morning sermon linger – yes, he’s helped turn East Brooklyn from a cave into a church but he will no longer be solely fighting for further community investment but also against potential waves of displacement and gentrification.
“One of the things that I did when I took over the church, I said, listen, I’m coming up behind an iconic pastor, he was here for 35 years, what do you do?” Brawley said. “I think the first thing any leader needs to do is understand the DNA of their church or institution. I looked at the DNA as being a community-based church, and we’re going to continue to develop in that area and those values.”