One of the Hudson Valley’s most prominent and powerful voices in the civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. G. Modele Clarke, minister and leader at New Progressive Baptist Church, has written a new book, his second. Stories from the Pews relates Clarke’s narratives — some fictional and others not-so-fictional — from “black church” culture.
It’s an assortment of people with a “complex diversity of social values, cultures and spiritual manifestation,” said Clarke of his stories. The stories touch on themes of universal human interpersonal and power conflicts within church membership. Status, family hierarchies and what happens when several different, long-established church traditions meet at the crossroads.
Clarke was born in Trinidad, where he grew up until he moved to the States at age 20 to go to school. His first book, Up in Mahaica; Stories from the Market People, is a sizeable collection of short stories from his daily visits to the open-air markets in his hometown — segregated by class — that Clarke described as arising from his frustrations of living under colonialism. Ruled over by Great Britain until 1958, Trinidad was taken by the British from the Spanish in 1797. “To me, colonialism is a more dignified version of Jim Crow,” he said. “As a youngster, I could never articulate why I felt so frustrated and why I despised my living conditions, until I came to the United States. And then I was able to look back and make some comparisons between racism in this country and [racism] colonialism in Trinidad.”
Clarke’s family saw his unarguable gifts, and sent him to the U.S. for an education. Though Clarke had his heart set on art school, he settled on technical school and got a job working as a draftsman in Manhattan. That’s where met Evelyn, his wife of 48 years, who was a SUNY New Paltz student at the time.
Clarke’s employer saw the same potential in him as his family did and wanted to send him to New York University for advanced design classes. Clarke didn’t take it well — he panicked at the prospect of it being discovered that he did not complete the last three months of high school. After weighing all the possible outcomes, Clarke said he took a cowardly approach — he quickly got himself fired from the job to avoid humiliation from exposure. “One of the hardest things I had to do was walk into that apartment and tell Evelyn I was no longer employed,” he said. At the time, she also had no idea her husband lacked a high school degree.
Clarke went from draftsman to delivery driver for a short while until he hurt his back. He then drove a taxi, until he was robbed and someone was killed. Clarke then drove a school bus which soon led to him teaching at a black nationalist private school when he thought he found his niche.
“Everyone assumed I had my degree,” Clarke said, and he finally decided to make it real. Evelyn helped him study for his GED. And with the help of his childhood friend, Lance Seunarine, who was director of the SUNY Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the family moved to New Paltz. While at [SUNY] New Paltz, Clarke majored in English with a journalism emphasis and elementary education. “I was editor of Fahari, which was a black newspaper,” he said. “I was painting murals on black studies hall walls.” By this point, Clarke had a wife and two kids, with two professional trajectories.
By the late ’70s, Clarke found himself with an opportunity to teach in the Middletown school district, but had dreams of working as a journalist. “But I couldn’t even get a journalist internship,” he said. “They had never seen a journalist of color. I was getting more and more frustrated and angry.”
But Clarke was accepted to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where he got his master’s in journalism. “I was finally able to get job interviews because I had a Master’s degree for an entry-level job,” he mused. “I finally landed a job with the Poughkeepsie Journal writing obituaries, the police blotter and other grunt work.”
But in the summer of 1979, the couple’s 8-year-old daughter Modupe drowned at Tillson Lake during a Town of New Paltz summer program. “I needed to get out of there,” said Clarke. He then got a job at Daily Freeman, where he covered the Town of Ulster and Lake Katrine. He eventually became a political reporter and eventually the Life section editor.
A new path
Clarke switched gears and started his own business creating newsletters for area nonprofits. In 1984, he became the public information officer for the state Department of Civil Service in 1984. But something else beckoned.
“By then, I had been called to ministry,” he said. “I started taking my moral obligation very seriously, and there were conflicts between my legal obligation on my job and my moral obligations as a minister of the Gospel.”
Clarke was writing speeches, among other things, and simultaneously preaching at Beulah Baptist Church in Poughkeepsie. But he often found the requirements of his job as department spokesman working conflicting with commitment to truth-telling. “I had bent the truth as far as it could go without snapping.”
When his tenure in Albany ended, he returned to SUNY New Paltz as writer-in-residence for EOP where he helped graduating seniors with their theses. Clarke was later hired by Marist College as editor of college publications. He also taught journalism as an adjunct. Marist ultimately created a space for him as a full-time faculty with the School of Communication and the Arts, where he worked for the next 16 years. Clarke attended New York Theological Seminary during the early Marist days before switching to Trinity Theological Seminary. He graduated from Trinity with a master’s degree in divinity and a doctor of ministry.
Clarke was called to be the senior pastor at New Progressive in 1995 while still at Marist. “We are a [the] social justice church. Not everyone is comfortable with that. But I look at Jesus as the ultimate social justice advocate. When I come to these crossroads in my life, I have learned to trust God to make the right decision for me,” he said.
Clarke said he cherishes information, which has been for him the binding thread throughout his lifetime of careers. “And the ability to communicate information is what I do as a teacher and a preacher. It is the acquisition of wisdom. Wisdom comes from the application of that information.”
Peeves in the pews
Clarke said that some of his pet peeves in almost three decades in ministry are revealed in Stories from the Pews. “I have a pet peeve around family churches — families take over a church.” Another pet peeve, he said, was about churches that are so traditional that they don’t accommodate people who may be nonconformists. This is illustrated in a story about a flamboyant usher who remained ostracized by the church. The new book also tells the story of two influential bishops who encouraged their respective children to marry, thereby forming a dynasty of churches.
The book also describes bad behavior from affluent members that’s tolerated because of their generosity. “Each story,” he said, “is its own vignette of a particular issue and how these protagonists worked through them.”
His book is based on 30 years of ministerial work in black churches. “We try to be as inclusive as we can,” Clarke said. “We do have white members; but the church is almost all black. Sunday mornings are the most segregated time of the week. The reason we have black churches in the first place is because slave masters introduced their slaves to Christianity, but they had to sit separately. In Philadelphia, they pulled away and did not want to worship as third-class citizens and gave themselves permission to worship God in traditions that were closer to their traditions in Africa.”
Pointe of Praise pastor the Rev. James Childs, a Kingston school board trustee and a community activist has known Clarke over 20 years. Childs said he found the book entirely engaging. “I couldn’t put it down,” he said. “Those familiar with the traditions of the black church will find a familiarity draws you into each story. However, when you think you know where the story is going, you are in for a big surprise. I think the book will lead to many deep theological, social and racial discussions.”
Childs said he plans to follow-up with Clarke to exchange on some of his feelings raised in the book.
What’s it really about
Clarke said Evelyn is his harshest critic but his biggest help. She works in the church as an associate pastor.
When asked which book she preferred, Up in Mahaica or Stories from the Pews, Evelyn replied: “I like them both, but they’re about two different cultures. One has to do with the black church with which I am familiar, but the other one had to do with a place and a life with which I am not familiar. The first book has more folklore associated with it. Stories from the Pews were about things that could actually happen.”
The first book, she said, was more related to the concept of the supernatural such as Obeah, which she called the dark side of religion. “The second book is about is not about church,” Evelyn said. “But it is about people who go to church.”
Stories from the Pews is available online from Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Kindle. For autographed copies, go to: www.paypal.me/GMCLARKE