Of all the contributions African-Americans have made to our culture since the first slaves arrived during the 17th century, the most profound have often come from an institution little understood by other Americans: the black church. More than a century before today's ''liberation theology,'' as Samuel G. Freedman points out in his fascinating Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, a black religious thinkers invented a kind of ''counter-Christianity... Whites worshiped a Christ who taught that religion should not disturb the political order, blacks a Christ who offended the powerful and redeemed the oppresses.''
But Freedman's vivid, wonderfully affecting the book is no historical tract. Rather, it is journalism of the highest sort, a compassionate if less than worshipful account of a year in the life on an extraordinary man, a charismatic Brooklyn preacher named the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood. Youngblood's St. Paul Church lies in Brooklyn's East New York, one of the most devastated, drug-and violence-infested neighborhoods in the city.
As a ''double outsider,'' the white, Jewish Freedman a gifted reporter whose excellent 1990 book, Small Victories, chronicled the life of a New York City high school-teacher took a sizable journalistic risk The result is a sharply focused, triumphant, hymn-shouting wonder of a book documenting the spiritual and worldly struggles of a people grappling with everyday realities that would test the convictions of a saint.
''There's a coroner's report,'' Youngblood tells a shouting, weeping congregation, ''that we are dead. Prison statistics report the black male is dead... Education dropouts, flunk-outs, dead. Male-less households, dead. Fatherless children, dead.''
But hope nevertheless abides. ''Every time I see a brother come to Christ, there's a resurrection goin' on... Every time I see a man hug his son, there's a resurrection goin' on.'' Together with a multiracial alliance of religious leaders representing various faiths, Youngblood has thrust himself and his church into a vigorous struggle to reclaim inner city neighborhoods, block by hellish block. Not only by reaching out to the drug-addicted and helping to finance affordable, privately owned housing but by building a strong sense of community, the necessary moral foundation without which the best-intentioned plans of government are sure to fail. Truly inspirational. A