The Man Who Would Be King

Freddy Haynes seemed a shoo-in to lead the NAACP. Then Obama's ex-pastor came to town.

He often found himself in the library, attracted to the section on black literature. He read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Howard Thurman, a Baptist preacher and civil rights leader whose writings had deeply influenced King and gave Haynes his first taste of black liberation theology. Thurman drew a parallel between the struggles of blacks (an impoverished minority oppressed by the white race) and the life of Jesus Christ (an impoverished Jew oppressed by the Romans).

That summer, Haynes met with Thurman in San Francisco. Haynes would consider it a turning point in his life. "It was right before he passed. And he said, 'Make sure you do that which makes you want to get up in the morning.' And that just kind of stuck with me, and I never forgot about that."

Back at school, Haynes no longer rebelled against the possibility that he would become a preacher. He immersed himself in black liberation theology, which at the time was causing a seismic shift in the black church. The movement had begun in the 1960s, at a time in which the place of the Christian church in the black community seemed in peril. Martin Luther King Jr. was giving way to Malcolm X. Young black preachers were leaving their traditional congregations for the Nation of Islam. For many, Christianity seemed a tool whites had used to keep blacks in check.

"I wanted to say: No! The Christian gospel is not the white man's religion," James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, recently told The New York Times. "It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free. But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness."

Cone and others reinterpreted Scripture through the eyes of their slave grandparents, holding out that God cared for blacks, because God himself was black. "It's very important because you've got a lot of white images of Christ," Cone told USA Today in a 1989 interview. "In reality, Christ was not white, not European. That's important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize them."

In a series of books that would become the canon of black liberation theology, Cone called for a new breed of preachers who would speak boldly, even militantly, against the white-run power structure.

As Haynes progressed through college he felt a pull to heed this call. He began to take religion classes and to meditate about what he should do with his life. One day while reading the words of King he came across a quote in which the civil rights leader said his own calling had not been a cataclysmic event, but rather a submission to a deep-seated urge to serve humanity through the gospel ministry. Haynes said the quote liberated him because he had been waiting for a sign from God that he should preach.

Haynes began preaching on campus and quickly caught the eye of one of Reverend Zan Holmes of St. Luke United Methodist Church, one of the largest black churches in Dallas. Holmes was impressed with Haynes' gift as a preacher and took him under his wing. Holmes' church, which was deeply involved in building up the black community and speaking out against social injustice, meshed well with Haynes' vision of the kind of church he hoped to pastor.

In 1982, Haynes took over Friendship West, which then occupied a small building on Polk Road. "I didn't have a clue," he remembers. "All I knew is I had witnessed pastors' preaching, so I just thought if I preach, marry people when they want to get married, counsel, I would do all right."

What he could do decently enough, he says, was preach. But for the church to really take off, Haynes would have to find something that made it unique. So he turned back to the basics of black liberation theology. "In college, black liberation theology was more of a theory, and I readily came to appreciate and identify with it. The problem was how to practically apply it, because there were not a lot of black churches out there really doing liberation theology."

In 1987, Haynes went back home to San Francisco to celebrate the 135th anniversary of the church his father and grandfather had pastored. While there, he met Jeremiah Wright, who was giving one of the sermons. Haynes had seen Wright on PBS, talking about the unique needs of the black community and how the church must adjust to meet them. The two struck up a friendship, and Wright began to teach Haynes how he could put in practice the teachings of Thurman, Cone and King.

In 1991, they traveled to Africa together to attend a summit which sought to stimulate economic development in Africa. At the summit, the two grew closer, and eventually Haynes would begin to see Wright as an adoptive father.

With Wright as his mentor and Zan Holmes his local guide, Haynes involved Friendship West in programs designed to build up Dallas' black community from within. In the mid-'90s, he and Holmes formed a group called the African-American Pastor's Coalition, which, among other things, took over a credit union with the goal of extending small business loans to low-income minorities. The coalition also financed and built around 300 moderately priced homes in South Dallas.

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