The Battle Over Brentwood

To one side, it's a question of power; to the other, it's a question of homophobia. For both it's a question of whether a community, once sundered, can ever be bound together again.

"It was a pretty well-to-do white community," Thompson recalls of Brentwood. "We were just ready to buy a home -- the price was right, and we could buy here! You didn't have to fight. In some communities, you got all these excuses. By the time you fought City Hall, you didn't want to live there. [But] as black people moved into Brentwood, the people who were here, the white people, made you feel welcome. They brought you a cake."

As it turned out, the welcome, if exceptional for those days, was conditional. Thompson bemusedly remembers one white neighbor confiding that she'd be happy as long as the community had an equal number of whites and blacks. If the community began to attract more blacks, the woman said, she would move.

The words were prescient. Over the years, most of the white residents moved out and Brentwood became a sought-after prize for successful black Houstonians tired of the city. And in contrast to the stereotype of what happens when a neighborhood changes hue, Brentwood became if anything more pristine, more fiercely nurtured, as its black residents multiplied.

David Syrus, a retired carpenter, is typical of Brentwood's residents; he's accustomed to seeing his efforts produce. To success. One of his favorite sights these days is the line of saplings that, last spring, he and half a dozen neighbors hand-planted near the "Brentwood" sign in a traffic island near the Eagle Food Mart. "A community's entrance is a good indicator of what's inside," Syrus says. And he has no intention of letting what's inside slip away.

Today, neighborhood kids thump basketballs or lurch through driving lessons on streets so placid that any stranger wandering by gets a careful vetting from watchful adults. Meanwhile, at Brentwood Baptist, elegant, activist parishioners fill the gold-colored collection plates for church charity work at three Sunday services. Physically entwined, historically siblings, the two Brentwoods are educated, driven, self-confident communities strikingly alike in their values, and bitterly fixed on protecting them in separate ways.

Under Brentwood Baptist Church's big dome, the hats have come out in force. The best view this Sunday morning is from the balcony, a wide crescent of purple seats that spans half the sanctuary's circumference. Nowhere else in Houston at this hour can one see so many people so energized, wearing such a quantity of scarlet, turquoise blue and vermilion, or sporting so many towering and turban-like hats.

The huge sanctuary is an exciting place Sunday mornings. In starchy shirts and bow ties, the choir pours out a gospel that soars like a movie soundtrack. A volcano of flowers explodes from a big crystal vase near the pulpit. Two sisters in lavish Swahili outfits, a grandmother dressed entirely in fire red and a middle-aged woman whose huge hat sports a brown plume punctuate the full pews. It's clearly a congregation of people who have something to celebrate.

Yet despite the likeness between this upscale congregation and its neighbors, Brentwood Baptist has never really been a community church. In Brentwood, many people go back to where they were raised, to the wards, to go to church. For several years, too, while the neighborhood changed from all-white to majority black, Brentwood Baptist was a dismal place. When the Reverend Joe Ratliff, Brentwood Baptist's commanding minister, arrived in 1980, the neighborhood transition had hit the always-small church so hard that membership numbered only 400 people; only about 200 came to services.

Ratliff came in just as the Brentwood subdivision had become a mecca for inner-city blacks who had made good. And for Ratliff, then a fiery 29-year-old preacher raised on civil rights activism and schooled at prestigious Morehouse College -- the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a place known for cultivating strong leadership skills in its students -- Brentwood Baptist proved an ideal stage. Even before he arrived in 1980, the church was something of an anomaly, being among the first Southern Baptist Convention churches to accept blacks. But after he arrived, it became more spectacular still. Word of mouth between friends, rather than proximity, became Brentwood Baptist's best lure. Prominent African Americans, including HISD superintendent Rod Paige and astronaut Bernard Harris became linked with the church.

People began to drive from as far as Galveston to attend services. Others came in from Clear Lake, Conroe and Missouri City. "We grew out of the church," Rosetta Thompson, who was church treasurer at the time, says. "For every service, we had chairs all around the doors for all the people who couldn't fit inside." In 1985, the church's signature domed sanctuary -- with a single window placed in the ceiling to face heaven -- was built. Once so poor it paid only the interest portion of its debts to the Southern Baptist Convention, Brentwood Baptist Church in 1995 boasts a nearly 8,000 name membership, and a $2.5 million budget.

Word of the dynamism of both church and minister is what first attracted Robert Frelow, a 29-year-old assistant to Mayor Bob Lanier, to Brentwood Baptist. Frelow, who grew up attending his family's quiet, blue-collar northeast Houston community church, says he grew restless there after returning home from college at Howard University in 1990.

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