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.

"My neighborhood church was good in its way, but it was as if the minister was still giving the same message, year after year: 'doing this or that is evil,'" Frelow says. "I went to Brentwood and realized I could relate to the message. One of the things that attracted me is it seemed to be upwardly mobile people, in positions I wanted to be in. I felt comfortable with the organizations, the outreach programs, the support it gave to young college students."

Frelow says he is also drawn to the church's strong sense of responsibility to the less fortunate. "Brothers and sisters, don't get comfortable," Ratliff is prone to exhort, "just because you have arrived." It's a reminder that resonates deeply for Frelow, a young man whose shirts are always laundered to dress-for-success perfection. Like many Brentwood church members, Frelow says, his mother and father, both blue-collar workers, always downplayed barriers and emphasized opportunities. The habit echoes in Frelow's own storytelling today. "We lived in a nice, comfortable brick house," he says. Only later does he mention this: "We were the second black family to move on that particular street in Chatwood. It was kind of awkward for other people. Never awkward for us. But it was strange waking up in the morning finding that beer cans had been thrown on our front lawn. It took a while to think that people might be throwing them there on purpose."

Today, as the choir subsides and Ratliff approaches the pulpit, Frelow adds that recently he's given more thought than ever to community work. A year ago, his 22-year-old brother Dexter was shot and killed two blocks from their parents' house. The murderers were young black men trying to steal Dexter's car. "I think of my brother a lot," Frelow says. "His death made me rethink my mission and what it is I want to accomplish after I leave this job." It's one reason he so strongly supports Brentwood's community outreach projects including the AIDS cottages, Frelow says.

The Reverend Joe Ratliff likes to think big. In his long, hall-like office at Brentwood Baptist, processions of model elephants line nearly every bookshelf. The elephants are made of wood, brass and rosy stone, and each set features a big lead elephant trailed by a tidy parade of his fellows. Ratliff, a broad man whose girth seems neither flab nor muscle but simply stage presence, says friends and parishioners give him these pachyderms all the time. It's easy to see why: the purposeful little caravans mirror Ratliff's relationship with his church. Incessantly traveling, speaking and planning, Ratliff charges forward flanked by a congregation well-used to reaching its goals. "He has a plan, and a vision, and he makes it clear you're invited to share it with him," Frelow says admiringly.

Unwinding behind his desk this particular Sunday, Ratliff settles back to explain what he sees as the long roots of the AIDS housing dispute. He has just finished his third service of the day and changed into an oversized black T-shirt. Surrounded by the elephants, all marching resolutely his way, Ratliff attacks a large sandwich, still glowing a bit from the day's marathon.

In today's sermon, Ratliff had discussed a favorite theme: hard work and the glory of activism. With the rolling cadence that makes his congregation laugh out loud and applaud, Ratliff called out, "Come on, I'm not the only one here who comes from somewhere!" He was referring, as he often does, to his roots: Ratliff's mother gave birth to him when she was 14, and he was raised by nearly illiterate grandparents on a tobacco farm in Lumberton, North Carolina.

The town was so deeply segregated that its movie theater balcony had separate sections for blacks and for Indians. Yet along with the poverty, Ratliff says, he recollects the rock-solid self-respect and unity that abided in that pre-integration black community. "My grandparents always told me that no one was above me, and that I was no better than anyone else either," Ratliff says. By high school, Ratliff had joined the NAACP and was taking part in lunch counter sit-ins. "That's the kind of activism I grew up with: you defend people's rights," he says.

Today, Brentwood Baptist's activism is so varied that the church provides a small pink handbook to sort through its offerings. There are ministries for young girls; fellowships strictly for young men; a spectacular choir; women's groups; family values groups; even something called the Brentwood Business Chamber, "designed to provide spiritual, educational and motivational exchange with small-business owners of Brentwood."

Such is the precision with which Joe Ratliff aims his religion into his congregation's personal lives. And that purposefulness, Ratliff says, was in action long before the controversy over Brentwood Baptist's proposed AIDS housing exploded.

Brentwood's AIDS ministry began in 1989, after a nonprofit group now called Foundation for Interfaith Research and Ministry, or FIRM, summoned local black ministers to a meeting about the growing crisis of African-Americans with AIDS. "FIRM," Ratliff recalls, "was lamenting that [the African-American community] had so few volunteers."

In response, Ratliff turned to his sister-in-law, Glenda Gardner, who at the time was chief of the Houston Health Department's AIDS education program. Gardner, a member of Brentwood Baptist, arranged for a FIRM speaker to come to the church and explain the group's project of linking AIDS patients with religious institutions.

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