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Called by the spirit

A historic African-American church in Newton finds a path to growth in new pastor, 23 years old

The Rev. Brandon T. Crowley (center) presides over a Sunday service at Newton's Myrtle Baptist Church, following Howard Haywood (left) as pastor. The Rev. Brandon T. Crowley (center) presides over a Sunday service at Newton's Myrtle Baptist Church, following Howard Haywood (left) as pastor.
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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As the elders of the Myrtle Baptist Church in West Newton looked for a new pastor last year, they went to hear a young divinity student deliver a guest sermon at a church in Mattapan. They didn’t expect much: Brandon T. Crowley was only 23.

“Clearly the folks went out there and thought they were going to hear some whippersnapper, and when they went out and heard him, they were floored,’’ said Thomas Johnson Jr., a deacon and a trustee at Myrtle Baptist. The search committee was so impressed by Crowley’s preaching that they named him one of the finalists for the position. A few weeks later, Myrtle Baptist asked him to be its next pastor.

And so Crowley, just a year after receiving his undergraduate degree, last summer took over the leadership of the historic African-American congregation, founded in 1874 by freed slaves and the sons of former slaves, and housed in a Curve Street building named to the National Register of Historic Places a year ago. Crowley replaced the church’s longtime, and much beloved, pastor, the Rev. Howard M. Haywood, leaving for retirement.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I would get the church because I am 23 and the church is 135,’’ Crowley said, speaking in his office at Myrtle Baptist. Crowley splits his time between the church and Harvard Divinity School, where he is a Presidential Scholar and expects to graduate with a master of divinity degree next year.

Crowley says he is observing Myrtle before making any changes. “I’m doing a Louisiana tradition, and before adding anything to the gumbo I’m going to taste the gumbo,’’ he said.

But already, he is making his mark. He brought back a youth minister to the church, for the first time in at least 15 years, Johnson said. He is attracting more young people and families to the church. And his preaching, eloquent and forthright, is gaining attention.

“He’s a very unique combination of Southern-style preaching, but he brings an element of preaching to his Southern style that is very erudite,’’ said the Rev. John M. Borders III, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan. “He is a brilliant young man and a brilliant theologian.’’

Borders calls Crowley, who often traveled around the country to preach and speak before he accepted the Myrtle job, “one of the most unique and charismatic young preachers in America.’’ Crowley was previously a member of Morning Star, and considers Borders his mentor, especially in the art of pastoring at a young age. Borders, too, was 23 when he first became a pastor, at Morning Star, where he has now been for 28 years.

At the altar, Crowley moves with confidence in his long white robe. He speaks in the drawn-out cadence of an old-time preacher, his voice rising and dropping. He speaks with self-deprecation, about his youth, about how he was a skinny kid, pants pulled high, who was bullied when he got off the school bus.

“He has a large, tenor-saxophone type of voice to be so small in frame,’’ Borders said.

Crowley doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. One recent Sunday, a deacon handed out red ribbons to parishioners as they entered, commemorating World AIDS Day. “Pastor wants everyone to wear one,’’ he said.

In his sermon, Crowley said his family has lost several members to AIDS and denounced homophobia, arguing that those who have used the Bible to discriminate against gays are reading the text out of context. He speaks out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Borders has cautioned Crowley to be patient with those who are unwilling to recognize his authority because of his age and inexperience.

“The language of the Twitter generation is a really different language from the people who came up from the civil rights movement,’’ Borders said. “Everything the Twitter generation does, they do faster and a lot shorter.’’

Crowley agrees with his mentor’s call for patience - and hopes his parishioners will also be patient with him. Although his iPhone is never far away, Crowley said, being raised by his grandparents taught him early how to talk with their generation.

The new preacher asked his predecessor, Haywood, to stay on as pastor emeritus, and most Sundays, Haywood sits on the altar beside Crowley and takes part in the service.

“He is, in fact, a living legacy in that church,’’ Crowley said. “For him not to be there during this transition would be a loss of mine, not a gain.’’

Crowley was raised by his grandparents in the small city of Rome, Ga., because his parents were in high school when he was born. He came to preaching through a dramatic - and traumatic - event. He had dreamed of preaching from the time he was 4 years old, and grew up giving practice sermons on his grandparents’ front porch and in their backyard tool shed.

But when he was about 12, and his pastor asked whether he’d like to do some real preaching, Crowley demurred. He was too young, he said, and what if no one listened to him? He feared that preaching at such a young age meant giving up all fun.

Four days later, his grandfather suffered a seizure while driving Crowley home from school. The car veered off the road, over an embankment and hit a drainage pipe, flipping through the air before it landed on its side. Crowley says as he waited for help, he knew his grandfather, bleeding and unresponsive, was dead.

“I did not hear an audible voice but it was in that moment and through that experience that I recognized my purpose,’’ Crowley said. “There are so many people in the world who are hurting and dying because they have been in the car wrecks of life, whether that be poverty, or whether that is being born to a family that is not able to provide for you, or whether that means being a minority, or being born into a situation in which you are orphaned.’’

After he was freed from the wrecked car, Crowley said, he was so grateful to have survived that he wanted to repay his debt to the world. “And that’s when I remembered the words of my pastor and I recognized, hey, you don’t have to be a perfect person, you don’t have to have all of the answers to serve. Serving only requires a willing heart. It was in that moment that I said, ‘Lord, I’ll serve you and I will serve your people.’ ’’

But not everyone was convinced that a boy should be preaching. Once, he overheard a woman in the grocery store. “She was talking to a woman and she said, ‘Have you heard that that pastor is going to license that little boy? What can he tell me?’ and I remember hearing that - and she didn’t know that I heard her; she didn’t know that I was standing in the other aisle - and when I got in the car, I cried.’’

Now, even though Crowley is the pastor of a church, some are still skeptical.

After Myrtle leaders chose Crowley as pastor, some members had misgivings about his age, Johnson said. “I’m not going to say we might not have lost a couple members,’’ Johnson said. “But I think the people have mostly gotten beyond this.’’

Both Johnson and Crowley say that the church has grown in recent months, with people attending services at Myrtle to hear the new pastor. In the past month, Crowley said, he has met with 10 families interested in joining the congregation.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.