Sunday, August 28, 2022

A White Guy Walks Into A Black Church . . .

By Ralph Cipriano

It was back in the dying days of newspaper journalism, when the editors were trying to shake things up by experimenting with different points of view.

Thirty years ago, to the shock of my colleagues, as well as myself, I was  named the religion reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In our left-wing liberal newsroom, I got the assignment because I didn't believe in God, didn't go to church and had never read a page of the Bible, or any other sacred or religious text, because the topic bored me. 

I was at the Inquirer, after all, the place where the editors used to say, when everybody zigs, we zag. At the time the editors, facing declining circulation rates and plunging ad revenues, were tinkering by doing thinks like, say, sending a feature writer down to a train station, to write about the rats that come out at night, or dispatching a female reporter to storm a men's locker room. 

I was to be another journalistic experiment; the guy with no faith writing about people who had it, the guy who believed in nothing writing about people who believed in just about everything. 

My boss, Robert J. Rosenthal, then the Inquirer's city editor, was a secular Jew who told me, a fallen Catholic, that he shared my skepticism about organized religion. And that's why he thought I would be the perfect guy to shake up the paper's typically dull and boring religion beat. 

I thought my boss was crazy. And that if I wrote what I really thought about religion and religious people, there might be some serious pushback in a town that was heavily Catholic.

“You’re going to get both of us fired,” I said. 

That premonition, as I have previously written, turned out to be true. My appointment as religion writer led to a historic lawsuit that involved a reporter suing his own editor for libel, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, and a story I wrote that really pissed him off. 

But that's not the subject of today's post. 

Thirty years ago this month, I decided I had to cover the opening of the largest house of worship in Philadelphia -- Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia. 

The place was a brand new $15 million palace that seated 5,140, and was built on the site of the old Connie Mack Stadium. And I was eager to meet the man who had made it all possible.

Two months earlier, I had covered the June 1992 Billy Graham crusade in Philadelphia that was surprisingly sponsored by mainly urban minority churches. That's where I learned that Benjamin Smith Sr. was a legend among the pastors of Philadelphia, whether they were black, white or Latino.

Pastor Smith was known among his colleagues as the pastor’s pastor. Other ministers told me with awe in their voices that Ben Smith could quote more than 170 Bible passages from memory.

The pastor had founded his nondenominational church in a friend’s living room in 1961, with just ten members. Thirty years later, the church had grown to 10,500 active members, the largest congregation in the city.

But Pastor Smith didn’t just care for the spiritual needs of his parishioners. He and his congregation had built a gymnasium and a day care center at the church. And next store to the church, at a time when developers weren't exactly lining up to move into North Philly, the church built a shopping center with a McDonald’s, a Payless shoe store and a Thriftway supermarket.

In North Philly, Pastor Smith was doing a better job of urban renewal than the government.

Before I met him, however, I did the usual journalistic prep work of going upstairs to the Inquirer library, which predated computers. It was an ancient place where the librarians used to clip old stories out of newspapers, fold them up neatly so when they turned yellow they would still lay flat, and tucked inside little envelopes.

I asked the librarian to pull the files on the legendary Pastor Smith, and his church, which had the largest congregation in the city. And what did I discover?

To my surprise, nobody at the Inquirer had ever written a single story about the pastor or his church!
This struck me as ignorance, as well as outright discrimination. And I was in a unique position to do something about it. But I had been told that I might be the wrong kind of messenger.

At the time, the secular religion of diversity had reared its ugly head in our newsroom. And activists were loudly proclaiming that the Inquirer needed to hire more minority reporters, because, they argued, only minority reporters could truly understand and relate to minority readers. 

The flip side of that argument was that guys like me just didn't get it.

Ben Smith was a fireplug of a man who wore running shoes and red paisley suspenders on his suit pants. I watched him skip up the 50 steps of his brand new, enormous sanctuary, all the way to the top pew. 

“You have to be in shape to wrestle the demons,” he told me for a story that ran Aug. 17, 1992 in the Inquirer. I asked the pastor how he explained his success. 

To my amazement, as Ben Smith spoke, a summer rainstorm darkened the sanctuary windows, and thunder sounded. It was right out of Cecil B. DeMille.

“In every generation, God raises up people to reveal Himself to the masses,” Pastor Smith preached to his audience of one awed skeptic.

“That He’s not dead, that He’s very much alive," the pastor said. "He doesn’t want people because they’re great. He just calls them because they’re willing.”

Ben Smith told me that he was born in Halifax, N.C., the son of a farmer who made moonshine. He never knew his mother. He served in the Navy during World War II as a chief petty officer. He came home to his wife, he said, with a “burning desire” to succeed. 

And then, he said, his whole life promptly fell apart. His wife died at 27 of a rheumatic heart. Smith was plagued with migraine headaches. He gave up his interest in a local restaurant, and hit the road. 

“I went wild,” the pastor told me. “I ran, not knowing what I was running from. . . I was a fun-loving, woman-chasing, beer-drinking, train-riding guy, running from God."

But, Smith said, God had placed a hunger in his heart, so he began to seek Him by fasting and prayer. 

He asked God for a new wife, and he met and married the former Jeanette Liggins. He joined a local Baptist church and rose through the ranks of lay leaders. He got a job at a bronze and brass factory, making engine parts.

Then one day he needed a shave.

“I was looking in the mirror, shaving, and all of a sudden, the mirror wasn’t there,” the pastor said. “There was a wide open field and sick people laying on cots, all dressed in white.”

The pastor dropped his razor, fell down on his knees and started crying.

“Jan,” he told his wife, “I believe I’ve been called to preach.”

Pastor Smith recruited church members from the streets, with a team of evangelists. The "Soul Patrol"   stormed the city’s subways and public housing projects on a nightly basis, looking for converts. Many church members were former alcoholics and drug addicts. 

The pastor told me that he actually preferred taking in new recruits with no religious backgrounds, because he didn’t have to retrain them.

I went out one night with the Soul Patrol. Pastor Smith’s rugged team of street evangelists were a bunch of mostly big guys who freely confessed to being former alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals. 

One of the biggest guys leaned over and told me that I was just the kind of mugging victim he used to look for. But that was before he met up with Jesus.

Another Soul Patrol member, Therlowe Paulin, confessed that he too was a former drug addict.

“You know, God literally performs spiritual surgery,” Paulin told me. “He gives you a new heart, a new mind.”

“Before, I used to smoke marijuana and drink liquor and chase women,” Paulin said. “But He has the power to break every yoke of bondage.”

Paulin got saved. And then he told me, “The Lord is leading us to go to the darkest places in Philadelphia to share the glorious light of Jesus Christ.”

The men formed a prayer circle. I stood off to the side, notepad in hand, doing my usual number as the objective reporter. But this time around, it wasn’t going to work. A couple of big guys opened their eyes and with rough, callused hands, they yanked me into their circle. 

For me, this was a new experience. After they got prayed up, the Soul Patrol hit the mission field: the Orange line of the Broad Street subway. 

A thin, bearded man named Huett who wore a “Jesus is Lord” baseball cap stood up on the train and preached the Gospel loud enough for everybody to hear. A couple of bored guys in suits kept reading The Wall Street Journal and Business Week. 

Huett yelled at the two suits, saying that nothing in either publication would save them if today was the day the world came to an end. 

“We used to be out on the street pushing drugs,” Huett yelled, as the subway careened underground. “I know what it is to be high.” 

Since he found Jesus, Huett shouted, “I ain’t never been no higher.”

When we got off the subway, the Soul Patrol formed a circle around me and proceeded to conduct a spiritual mugging.

Huett got in my face and asked where I was at. His eyes were blazing.

I told Huett the truth: I was a spiritual weakling just starting on my journey. 

“At least he’s honest,” Huett said.

Then, Huett and the other members of the Soul Patrol prayed aloud over me. 

“Lord, we know this man is out here just to cover a story tonight, but please Lord, make this more than a story,” Huett said, and then he asked God to change my life. 

I looked around and saw men with eyes closed praying fervently for a complete stranger. For me, this was another new experience. We were standing in a subway station that reeked of urine and engine exhaust. 

But that didn’t bother the Soul Patrol. The men clung to each other and after they were through praying, they sang Amazing Grace.

On Sunday when they opened the new church, the members of the Soul Patrol showed up in suits along with women in wide-brimmed hats and dresses. About 3,000 worshippers sat in brand new oak pews on unblemished mauve carpets.

After a soloist and the choir lit up the place, Pastor Smith stood in his new pulpit. It was built on the exact site of the old pitching mound where Hall of Famers like Robin Roberts and Lefty Grove once went through their windups.

 That's where Ben Smith made his pitch for Jesus.

“You’re not supposed to be here in place like this, in North Philadelphia,” the pastor thundered. “You’re supposed to be in a run-down building that somebody else got tired of. But God said, ‘They’re my people. They called on my name.’ ” 

And that’s why the church was built.

As far as I was concerned, the new church was a miracle. It was hard to be around the people in this church and not believe that God had personally intervened in their lives. The believers I met at Deliverance were so spiritually alive that they made me realize something about myself -- I was dead.

Suddenly, I wanted what these people had. And when I read the Bible, I discovered why I didn’t have it.

“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear,” wrote Isaiah the prophet. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perversity.”

As far as I was concerned, I was guilty as charged. 

But there was hope. As Isaiah declared, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

So one night after I went out with the Soul Patrol, I got down on my knees in the privacy of my own bedroom and asked Jesus to save me.

It happened 30 years ago this month. A reporter who was completely unqualified to be the religion writer for a major metropolitan newspaper, a guy who got picked for the job precisely because he was a non-believing ignoramus, walked into a black church and promptly got converted.

 Living proof that God has a sense of humor.


  1. This is as great a submission that I've read by RC, and I'm a regular reader of his blog and have purchased and read all of his books. Fantastic piece! Thanks again, Ralph. You are the bomb.

  2. Nice story. Catholics, others do the same. For millennia. This church, as all religions, is governed by humans, imperfect, as we are. I'm sure they struggle with the same issues, yet few are so honored with such favorable adulation from a professed atheist. Are we to give this church greater praise for doing what other do? Because of columns such as this?
    Stick to politics, Ralph.

    1. RC here. Congrats, Anon, on missing the entire point of this story.

    2. I miss nothing. You disparage the "experiment " of "new journalism", which wreaks havoc, divides the nation, foments unrest. Then you employ it.
      Your privilege is shoeing in your white guilt.
      Don't atone. Investigate.

    3. You must be new in town. I've done plenty of investigating. That's why I got fired from the Inquirer. As far as privilege and white guilt goes, you're really out to lunch. Have a nice day.

    4. Do a story on Katherine Drexel, why not? Or are the dreaded Catholics still out of favor? I don't see my post in response to your latest. You running the blog like Krasner runs the DA's office?

    5. I see, your problem is that 30 years ago, I didn't write a story about walking into a Catholic church. Words can't express how upset I am over that. Hope you get over it soon.

    6. Katherine Drexel. Is she worthy of recognition? The catholics contribute over $4B annually to the region in services and contributions. Is that not worthy of acknowledgement? Also, while I am not catholic, I do appreciate their vast contributions over millennia. Also, lose the snark. It is unbecoming. Other than that I enjoy reading your column and agree with what you write.

    7. RC here. Big Trial's mission isn't to cover religion, or decide what religious leader is deserving of recognition for doing good deeds. I'm more concerned about the incompetent and corrupt politicians who run this town, a story that every other reporter in town won't touch. So why don't you give it a rest?

  3. God bless you, Ralph

  4. Ralph, long time reader, imho this is one of the best stories you’ve published on the site… why, because I see a lot of you, and a little of myself in the article. Thanks for sharing your story.

    When the suits are settled, you and Stu need to write about the behind-the-scenes discussions at major newspapers (Stinky)? I would buy it to hear the inner workings… like Bernard Goldberg’s Bias… insider exposé.

    Keep up the great work in PHL!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story Ralph. That was how i was converted as well, someone taking time to actually care about my well-being and talk to me like a human being with dignity and respect. We need more journalists like you that are able to ask the honest questions to those that are in charge and take them to tasks.

    We know the local government, especially within a city of 1.5 million people, does not care about 500+ people dying of murder. The people in our gov’t, Kenney, Krasner, Outlaw and City Council are flawed just like we are. But what if our gov’t started to care about the city and actually meant what they said? What if Krasner actually prosecuted criminals and got them help behind bars? What if Kenney actually cared about being mayor and City Council held him to a higher standard?

    What if our local politicians stopped doing the “Philly Shrug” and met with business owners and families not just on election time but throughout their time of service? Ralph, you gained a life changing lesson by stepping out in faith and that is truly commendable. If only our elected officials could do the same.

  6. Ralph, you need to do a better job of proofreading. You're slipping.

    1. Are you volunteering? This is a charitable endeavor here. Sorry we're not up to your lofty standards.

  7. Ralph, did Anthony Cardinal B. know about this? He would have been so proud.

    1. I know you're pulling my leg, but the fun part is that people who knew the cardinal told me he was an atheist. He certainly behaved that way.

  8. What happened to you was that you got changed from being jaded and could not care to somebody who became caring and more passionate into challenging people to remove from office Krasner.

  9. Beautiful story,not just a story but a real account of something very positive and inspiring. One of the best stories I have read, it had me
    crying almost, and I am not one to cry. Very well done.

  10. Longtime reader, native Philadelphian, and devout Catholic here Ralph. Just wanted to say that I greatly enjoyed this piece. And I know personally that a recent Archbishop of Philadelphia called you a "man of conviction" for your work, particularly with regard tk Monsignor Lynn. Just know the door is always open for you, regardless of the sin and scandal Cardinal Bevilacqua caused!


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