When he hears the question about how he went from working as a maintenance man to pastor of New Mount Ararat Temple of Prayer, Dwight E. Brown rolls his eyes. But gamely, he tells the story.
His journey, which he first resisted, started when he was on an elevator on the first floor at Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall and heard the Lord tell him to go to Mount Ararat to share a message.
"I said, 'OK, Lord, I'm going ...'" Brown says, falling into the cadence of the polished preacher. "Six months passed by. Now I'm on the second floor and the Lord spoke again. And I told him, 'Lord, I'm going.' "
But he didn't.
A few months later, as the elevator was getting to the third floor, Brown said that he felt "a heaviness come over my body that I couldn't ignore."
The following Sunday he stood in front of the Mount Ararat congregation, talking about Samson and Delilah. Soon, he was preaching every Sunday.
Then, God raised the stakes: He was going to give him the church.
This time, Brown said, he was adamant: "I don't want it."
But when the chairman of the deacon board called two hours later with the same invitation, Brown knew he had been collared.
Brown tells the story as he sits in the attractive administrative offices of the Jefferson Avenue church. Next to him, smiling and nodding, is his wife, Renee A. Brown.
She also wondered what God had in mind for them. She didn't want to leave the Western New York Church of God in Christ, and Bishop Charles H. McCoy, now deceased, who had profoundly influenced them.
And she wasn't sure how her interest in art -- she has taught at-risk urban youth in Buffalo for 10 years -- would fit into the church setting.
"But I knew God was speaking and I wanted to be obedient," she said. "So I stepped out blindly in faith."
Over the past several years, the Browns have used their gifts, relying on inspiration from God, they say.
For one, the congregation has jumped from fewer than 400 to 2,600 members in eight years. And the church has established programs in art, music, counseling, Bible study, after-school and camp activities as well as a housing initiative with the city.
Rather than being invested in theology, Renee Brown said, their ministry is "a lot of me-ology."
"It involves a lot of praying," she said.
'You are saved'
It's 10:45 a.m. Sunday and the 11 a.m. service is well under way. Early arrivals are seated in green padded pews and as others arrive, even strangers, members warmly greet them.
When Pastor Brown arrives, he spontaneously invites schoolchildren and those involved in education to the center aisle.
"We pray that God will keep you safe from drugs and stray bullets," he says, placing a hand on each child as a pianist plays softly in the background.
"Sunday best" still means something at Mount Ararat. Ushers wear white suits and gloves, women are resplendent in suits and hats, young girls with beaded and braided hair wear pretty dresses. Brown presides in a long black robe with sparkly cuffs and collar, set off by a biretta (reminiscent of what Barry Fitzgerald wore in "Going My Way").
Another thing about the congregation: there must be a commandment against staying still. People stand when they feel moved. They call out to agree with the preacher. They sing and clap. They pray and praise. No one seems eager to leave, except a young boy who announces: "I want to go home. Now," near the end of the two-hour service.
When Brown speaks, they pay attention.
"You are saved," he reminds them. "It's a done deal. I can think of 600 things you have to worry about, but you don't have to worry about being saved."
When the "Amens" and "Thank You, Jesus" slack off, Brown revs them up: "Are you awake this morning? You all walking with me?"
Brown comes from a lineage of people who do this holy work, including his father, an active church member. His brother, Matthew Brown, is pastor of Buffalo's Pentecostal Temple of God in Christ.
"He's an anointed man of God," church member Sandra Carter says of Brown. "He walks what he talks. He doesn't just give it to us."
His great-grandmother -- "a vigilant prayer warrior" -- fasted and prayed while shut up in a church and then went on to street corners to sing and play her guitar. She also established a string of the holiness church in New York State and Canada.
"Alcoholics would stumble into them and she would circle around them and pray them sober," said Brown.
He wants to see God's power work in the same ways.
"I'd like to see men in darkness turn to the light of the Lord, turn from the power of Satan to the power of God," said Brown, who graduated from the Army Chaplain School and Training Center in Fort Monmouth, N.J., and studied at Mooney Bible Institute of Chicago and through the C.H. Mason System of Bible Colleges.
Martha L. Smith of the church's trustee board says it's happening already, as the couple opens their arms to everyone.
"They don't stay with a little clique," she said.
Jim Jones, 45, said he started healing when he attended a New Year's Eve service. "My life was a shambles until I met them," he said. "No matter what condition you're in, they always have a reaching hand. They've been like mother and father, big brother, big sister, best friend, anything you can think or imagine."
Warren L. Adams, 31, who met the Browns in 1993, was formerly on the streets "doing all kinds of things."
"I came in with my tired self and the Browns gave enough for me to make it, every step of the way," said Adams, a Buffalo teacher. "You're talking to a New York state-certified teacher. A hoodlum, turned teacher."
The miracle couple
The whole congregation was shaken on Dec. 3, when Dwight and Renee Brown were in a car accident that left them with injuries so severe they weren't expected to live.
"That car was turned into a box," said the Rev. Kenyatta Cobb, trauma chaplain at the Erie County Medical Center, where the Browns were treated for several weeks. "I call them the miracle couple."
Brown, 48, said the accident sharpened his appreciation of life and God's love.
"When people were complaining about the heat this summer, I was just glad I was here so I could be hot," said Brown, who has gotten back to his routine of lifting weights at a gym.
Renee Brown, 43, an art teacher on leave from the Buffalo public schools, attributes their recovery to an angel. Before the accident, she was on the Buffalo Arts Commission, which selected "Guardian Angel" for the C District Police Station on East Ferry Street and Fillmore Avenue, which generated some criticism.
"I'm on the angel bandwagon," she said. "I'm so happy to speak out for the poor little angel."
Solace and salvation
The Mount Ararat complex, which includes the former Hoffman Printing Co., is near the Johnny B. Wiley Stadium and the Greater Refuge Temple of Christ, anchors that bring stability to this corridor of Jefferson Avenue.
From the administrative offices here, the staff oversees outreach programs including a Back to the Basics program that helps people find housing and provides food. There is counseling, a 7 a.m. Friday prayer group and a Wednesday night Bible study, Comfort Zone, where children receive a meal and help with their homework, and the T.O.P. Fine Arts Institute, where children are given a chance to express themselves through art and music with the goal of steering them in a positive direction.
Renee Brown, who has studied art in Italy and has a master's degree in painting and elementary education from the University at Buffalo, takes a personal interest in the art component of the church's work, which includes the Joy Gallery, a collaboration with the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center's East Side/West Side outreach program.
Brown wants to form an inner city orchestra using instruments that have been donated and purchased. As a start, musician Sherrie Morris teaches violin and viola to several youngsters and they want to get the brass section under way soon.
Outside church walls, the couple spearheaded a housing project on Earl Place -- the first New Single Family Housing Partnership achieved with an inner city church -- in conjunction with the city. Now, 11 families live in affordable housing that spruces up a once-derelict area.
Though their car accident set back their plans to build a new church, within a few months Brown expects that they will go ahead with a project to renovate the former pressroom in the Hoffman printing building into a sanctuary with tiered seating and a raised roof, a music space and a dining area.
Last Sunday, though, his efforts were focused on bringing a message of solace and salvation after a long week of tragic news out of New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
"I encouraged the church to pray for those who lost their lives and for their families and to pray for persons who are lost in some way. And for stability of mind and peace because the enemy has a way of playing with your mind," Brown said.
"I reminded the church that we can't lose our focus. We must continue pointing men to Christ, in spite of all of this. We've got to be an example to the world of how to handle this condition."
Dwight and Renee Brown have been nicknamed "The Painter and the Preacher," a tribute for the effect they've had on the lives of church members and the surrounding neighborhood.
But they deflect credit.
Their answer about how things have been accomplished leads only one way.
"It's the will of God," said Dwight Brown. "The favor of God."