Wordly Wise Every Week, Eloquence Flows In The Area's Churches, Synagogues, Mosques And Temples. Weekend Listens In. Bringing Eloquence To Bear On The Hearts Of The Faithful The Best Preachers Inspire Their Listeners To Soar With Possibility, Leading Them To Realize They Are More Than The Sum Of Their Fears And Frustrations.

Posted: April 05, 1996

Forget about Michael Jordan. Bishop C. Milton Grannum has a bigger role model in mind for his flock: Nehemiah, the master strategist who wheedled money from a foreign king to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

``He's a leader's leader,'' Bishop Grannum says, pacing the aisles of the New Covenant Church of Philadelphia. ``If you want to have a biblical model, take Nehemiah.''

Bishop Grannum wants his parishioners to study Nehemiah's story and transform the Word into action. The bible, he says, is full of ``case studies'' that can show people how to start businesses or otherwise energize their lives.

``Church has got to be more than a place where you come to shout,'' he says in a gale-like voice that lifts and buoys hundreds of congregants.

So it comes to pass every week at hundreds of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples around Philadelphia. A leader speaks. Wisdom is imparted. Some inspiration can be gleaned.

Some speakers can make their listeners soar with possibility. They can lead people to realize they are more than the sum of their fears and frustrations - that change, acceptance and growth are possible.

Those are the ones we sought for this story.

No guide rates preachers on their eloquence. Adherence to a speaker is inevitably personal. The list of spiritual leaders that follows, while hardly definitive, was first suggested by various speakers and parishioners. We sampled more than 20 congregations. In the end, seven speakers stood out, though far more could have been included.

Some faiths, like the Quakers, mistrust strong speakers and leave the preaching to members.

The emphasis for Catholics is on the ritual of the Mass more than the homily, although poetic practitioners abound. ``You have to break yourself open,'' says the Rev. John Bohrer, a much-admired homilist at St. Peter Celestine in Cherry Hill. ``If you say it really well, they'll be able to say `amen.' They've connected with you.''

Protestants put more emphasis on the sermon. Black protestant clergy are widely acknowledged to be among the most dynamic communicators. Their preaching often builds to incredible climaxes, in which a higher power seems to emerge in the free flow of the preacher's words.

The preacher's ultimate goal, some observers say, is to show the hand of God at work. ``Bible miracles are being done every day,'' says the Rev. William T. Kennedy Jr., a retired United Methodist preacher who has taught the art of preaching at Yale Divinity School. ``This is what preaching is all about: Bringing to people's attention that God is acting here and now. . . . That terrible experience might be God at work.''

Nowadays, talk of damnation isn't considered effective. ``Browbeating just doesn't work,'' says the Rev. Philip C. Hirsch of Camden's Christus Lutheran Church, who's writing a dissertation on preaching about violence. ``You have faith because someone has inspired you.''

Or because an inspiring speaker made himself available. Rabbi Leonard Gordon's ``Lunch and Learn'' series - ``Rabbis, Philosophers, Poets & Heretics: An Introduction to Jewish Thought'' - is held monthly over lunch at the law firm of Ballard, Spahr & Ingersoll in Center City.

Even Buddhist teachers steeped in the ways of the monastery consider how best to reach their western listeners. The Venerable Lobsang Samten, director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center in West Philadelphia, schedules plenty of tea breaks for his guided meditations and talks, which are strictly gender-neutral. ``Buddhism is not just for males,'' he explains. ``The Buddha taught how to cure suffering and ignorance for everybody.''

THE REV. GUS ROMAN. A flag with the likeness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hangs over the Rev. Gus Roman's head as he begins to preach to the black congregation of the Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown. The connection with the slain civil rights leader isn't coincidental. Dr. Roman's resonant delivery recalls Dr. King's supremely musical voice, and his sermon echoes King's commitment to social and economic justice.

Dr. Roman's text on a recent Sunday morning comes from Mark 10:32-34,which describes Jesus' premonition that he will be flogged and mocked and killed after coming to Jerusalem. But on the third day, He will arise.

We all have to risk going to Jerusalem in our own small way, Dr. Roman says.

He tells his congregation how he made his own destiny-altering trip to South Africa in the late 1970s with the Rev. Leon Sullivan, the eminent retired leader of Zion Baptist Church. Dr. Sullivan had angered South African authorities by urging U.S. corporations to promote change there or leave the country.

``I was frightened out of my wits,'' Dr. Roman says, his great baritone growing higher-pitched. ``Sullivan said, `Roman, you don't have to go. I have to go,' '' he recalls.

But Dr. Roman went.

He understands the inclination to doubt. ``You're just a man and a woman and you hurt,'' Dr. Roman says. ``Someone wants you to take a stand against welfare reform and you say, `I'm just one person. Where does it say in the Bible that I have to do this?' ''

But, he says, we can't shirk our destiny. ``God will tap you on the shoulder and say `Take a stand,' '' Dr. Roman continues, his left hand pummeling the air. ``This is your day and your project, your assignment. This is God's plan for you.''

``It'll make you unpopular. But go ahead. Take the stand. Go to Jerusalem.''

Canaan Baptist Church, 5430 Pulaski Ave. (at School House Lane), Germantown; 215-848-6311.

THE REV. RICK MALLOY. This sturdy Jesuit priest is known in Camden for facing down drug dealers and daring to paint over their graffiti.

The murder last August of a 13-year-old parishioner - honors student Shaline Seguinot - required a different kind of strength from Father Malloy, who's also a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University. The priest had to stand in the Church of the Holy Name in North Camden with words of compassion his only weapon.

``God knows the pain you feel,'' he tells several hundred parishioners in a passionate, unpretentious manner. ``God knows because God, too, lost a child to human evil and indifference.''

``All we can do at times like this is to throw ourselves into God's care and watch for His response.''

``The cross and resurrection of Christ promise that death is not the final word. Love is the final word. Love is what you gave Shaline. Love is what she still has for you. She is still with us.''

``Give yourselves time to heal. Stay close to your family and stay close to God through the weeks and months ahead. What is hidden will be revealed. How you are to pass through this grief and pain will become clear. The Gospel tells us, DO NOT BE AFRAID.''

``God wants to help us overcome this tragic event and make life happy and healthy and holy and free for all the children of Camden, for the people of our country and our world. Let us not run away from that task.''

* Church of the Holy Name, Fifth and Vine Streets, Camden; 609-963-1621.

* Chapel of St. Joseph at St. Joseph's University, 5600 City Line Ave., Wynnewood; 610-660-1030.

THE REV. JANET JENKINS. As fiery as she gets, Ms. Jenkins never wants to obscure a basic truth. ``You can overcome whatever comes into your life if you hold on to God,'' she says.

Ms. Jenkins is a living witness to that. Her father died when she was 11. She had a baby at 16, yet managed to get a master's degree. Today she chairs the Urban Theological Institute Committee of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and pastors St. John AME Church in Wayne.

It is a tiny church with only 45 members, but Ms. Jenkins is grateful.

Don't forget, she says to her flock, how a core group of founders met in 1888 to plan this church, which opened with used pews and pulpit.

``Don't forget how far the Lord has brought you,'' Ms. Jenkins says.

That lesson was once given to the people of Israel. As the book of Joshua recounts, they had broken free from Pharaoh, crossed the Red Sea, and had only to cross the River Jordan to reach the Promised Land.

``You don't know when the blessing is going to come,'' Ms. Jenkins says. ``You can't be slumbering and sleeping and waiting and thinking. You have to be ready for the Promised Land.''

Ms. Jenkins' cadence begins to rise. She sways back and forth, the words pouring forth in a torrent.

``We need to keep things alive the way God taught us,'' she says. ``We need to remember what God did for us. Remember how, when you were in that situation before, how God delivered you.''

Soon Ms. Jenkins is stomping on the ground, her voice booming.

``Some of you got one river keeping you from the Promised Land. It might be one situation in your life keeping you from the Promised Land. It might be an attitude. It might be finances.''

``If you remember how God delivered you before, then He will heal you again.

``Don't forget how far the Lord has brought you.''

St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, West Wayne and Highland Avenues, Wayne; 610-688-9608.

THE VENERABLE LOBSANG SAMTEN. In a city of preachers, the Venerable Lobsang Samten is among the least loquacious. Much of his ``talks'' at the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia are wordless. He does not preach so much as lead intimate groups through guided meditations in which he encourages his listeners to cultivate love and compassion. Such visualizations, he says, are a powerful means to self-purification.

Once a personal attendant to the Dalai Lama - he retains close ties to His Holiness - Mr. Samten still relies occasionally on an interpreter in the many rituals and classes he holds at the center on Sundays and some weeknights. But his manner projects an indelible sweetness and cultivates an attentive ear in listeners, who can easily ask questions.

Westerners, Mr. Samten says near the beginning of a one-time, three-hour purification ritual, often chase after possessions and worry about how they look. ``We need to put makeup on the inside,'' he says. ``All change starts within oneself.''

Mr. Samten's purification ritual has been passed unbroken from teacher to student for more than 2,500 years. ``As I received this practice from my teacher and root guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I will teach it to you today.''

First, he says, sit erect in a comfortable posture and cultivate a ``loving motivation.'' Visualize a clear crystal vase, three feet high, with very pure water. Inside, see a green manifestation of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower. The color is symbolic of water and air, which both purify. Imagine a many-colored energy field or aura emanating from his body. Begin to recite the mantra.

See the Buddha's body dissolve in the water, which becomes ``a purifying clear nectar.''

Dip a finger into the nectar, touch it to the right thumb and flick the water to a place needing purification.

Now, Mr. Samten says, turn your attention to reducing negativity in yourself. While reciting the mantra, Mr. Samten puts a water drop on each student's forehead, throat and heart to purify negativity in the body, speech, and mind.

Think of family, friends, enemies and all sentient beings, and the Buddha purifying them all, he says.

Finally, ``visualize a flaming protective sphere that protects all beings and the environment. Ultimately, it is our own wisdom and compassion which are the essential qualities that provide protection.''

Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, 3635 Lancaster Ave., West Philadelphia; 215-222-4840.

RABBI LEONARD GORDON. It seems as if every Jew could find a home somewhere in the Germantown Jewish Centre. Every Saturday, a Reconstructionist-oriented service is presented on the second floor, a deeply traditional program is celebrated downstairs, while a Conservative service is held in the art deco main sanctuary.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon is the architect of this pluralism. A former college teacher, Rabbi Gordon projects an erudite style that's as instructive as it is inclusive. He talks as an equal, albeit a highly informed one.

Last fall, during the Yom Kippur service, Rabbi Gordon gave a talk that helped people connect with their dead relatives.

He begins by noting that belief in the soul represents ``a connecting thread'' for all Jews.

``Judaism's primary ethical imperative can be stated simply: Every human being needs to be viewed as containing within herself or himself the divine image,'' Rabbi Gordon says. Our souls, he says, connect to one another and to God.

Rabbi Gordon then quotes a meditative prayer written by a congregant, Simcha Paull Raphael: ``Jewish tradition, in its wisdom, teaches us that between the world of the living and the world of the dead there is a window and not a wall.''

The memorial prayer service for the dead - known as Yizkor - ``opens windows to the unseen worlds of the dead,'' Rabbi Gordon continues.

He then invites his congregation to imagine talking to their deceased relatives. ``What needs to be communicated this year?'' he asks. ``What are the silent prayers of the heart? What remains unspoken? Speak. Listen. Take your time. Let all the radiance of their love be with you right now.''

Germantown Jewish Centre, 400 W. Ellet St. (off Lincoln Drive at Emlen Street), West Mount Airy; 215-844-1507.

BISHOP C. MILTON GRANNUM. This thin, bantamweight clergyman wants his New Covenant Church to be more than just a raucous time on Sunday mornings. He hopes to incubate businesses and start a job bank on the grassy 35-acre campus of Spring Garden College, which his largely black congregation bought in 1993.

``Sometimes we don't give God a chance to help us because our plans are too small,'' he says on a recent Sunday in the faint lilt of his native Guyana.

Bishop Grannum sees big possibilities all around him. When a young girl messes up her piano solo in church that February morning, Bishop Grannum dwells on how she kept starting the piece over despite her embarrassment. ``That's a very significant lesson in success,'' he says. ``You don't do what you can. You do what it takes.''

Bishop Grannum himself embodies the betterment he preaches. A minister for 29 years, he holds two doctorates from Temple - one in education and another in administration. ``I'm convinced religion has to be an education and not just an experience,'' he says.

Which explains why his parishioners are handed an outline of Nehemiah's story, and urged to take notes during the service. Like a good teacher, Bishop Grannum gets his parishioners to note how Nehemiah prayed over the fallen gates of Jerusalem and how he sensed that God wanted the city rebuilt.

Bishop Grannum provides the story's kicker. He says Nehemiah approached the Persian King Artaxerxes for help at the precise moment when, some scholars say, his Jewish Queen Esther was beside him. Bishop Grannum suggests that it was Nehemiah's timing - he waited until Esther was in court - that got the Israelites the money to rebuild Jerusalem. ``Learn how to think strategically,'' he cries.

Jerusalem before Nehemiah resembles Philadelphia now, Bishop Grannum says. The walls here have fallen. But Nehemiah shows they can be rebuilt. ``We've got to stop blaming somebody else and accept our responsibility,'' he says. ``Get your spiritual life in order and everything falls in place.''

New Covenant Church of Philadelphia, 6400 Ardleigh St., East Mount Airy (campus at 7500 Germantown Ave.); 215-247-7500.

THE REV. ERNST G. SCHMIDT. Gloria Dei Church was started in a Huntingdon Valley fire hall in 1956. It now boasts a 300-student preschool, a mental health counseling center, and a church membership of nearly 4,000.

Lutheran Senior Pastor Schmidt has been laboring there for 40 years. His resonant voice also is heard weekly on WFLN-FM, tucked between all that Mozart and Bach.

``This has been, I'll be nice, a lousy winter,'' he begins a sermon in January. The previous Sunday had brought eight inches of snow. On Monday, the storm of the century dumped more than two feet. The secretaries and maintenance men couldn't make it in.

``I made an executive decision right then,'' Dr. Schmidt says. ``I went to bed.''

Next came the drudgery of digging out. ```Honey, the foyer's leaking,'' Dr. Schmidt recalls his wife saying. ``So we watched it.''

Dr. Schmidt couldn't even get the snowplow man on the phone. ``I was getting madder than a hornet.''

Maybe you've been laid off, Dr. Schmidt says, or you have a malignant tumor or your child is dying or you flunked an exam or you didn't get a date to the school dance.

``As bad as everything seems, as tough as life seems, then came Tuesday,'' Dr. Schmidt says with wonder in his voice. ``The sun shone, and the flowers came and we dug out. We got back to work. Then came Tuesday, I don't care how heavy your burden is. There will be a Tuesday and thank God for Tuesday.

``I know it's an easy thought to say. But I'm telling you, no matter how empty you feel . . . there will be a Tuesday.''

``We can't hold back the dawn.''

Gloria Dei Church, 570 Welsh Rd., Huntingdon Valley; 215-947-8200.

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