Fort Greene Pastor, Community Leader To Retire

FORT GREENE — Shortly after getting knee surgery in 2008, Rev. David Dyson came to a decision. By the end of the month, the 64-year-old pastor would retire after 18 years at the historic Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene.

“The church needs younger knees and younger leadership,” Dyson said.
Dyson is only the church’s seventh pastor in its 154-year history. Although he expected to work at the church for only 10 years when he stepped in as church leader in 1992, he stayed for nearly a decade more.

To honor the longtime pastor, Councilmember Letitia James (D-Fort Greene/Crown Heights) co-organized and hosted a tribute ceremony at the Irondale Center on Sunday, Oct. 2. Terry Greiss, executive director of the Irondale Ensemble Project, welcomed the packed house, which also included state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, and explained why the theater was ideal for the celebratory affair: “We have a larger-than-life leading man,” Greiss said.

Since graduating from seminary in 1972, Dyson has forged a career that has successfully balanced spiritual leadership with active community organization.

“Jesus was an activist. He was for the poor, he was for the needy,” said Deb Howard, executive director of the Pratt Area Community Council. “He [Dyson] takes that attitude seriously. There’s no contradiction to living a religious life and being socially active.”

Before coming to the church, Dyson had worked side-by-side with César Chavez as an organizer for the United Farm Workers, sought policy reform to help American workers with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and founded the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in 1981.

In 1992, Dyson found the church with low morale and a membership of only 120. Outside, Fort Greene was plagued with muggings, high rates of petty crime and drug use. Dyson remembers the many nights spent sweeping away crack vials in front of the church.
It was then that he knew something had to be done.
“The key was to come into the neighborhood, put a finger on the pulse and see what the issues were,” Dyson said. “Was it crack on the street? Was it gentrification pushing out the old-timers? Was it evil developers coming in and kicking people out of their homes and gaining ground on eminent domain and back-room deals?”

Dyson strove to re-establish the ailing church in the neighborhood, whether it was holding candlelit services for tenants facing eviction or establishing much-needed cooperative play groups for community children. In 1991, he founded the People of Faith Network, a nationwide network of congregations that campaigned against sweatshops and child labor.

In his years as pastor, Dyson increased the church’s historically multiracial congregation to 400 and allowed local organizations like the Fort Greene Park Conservancy to use the church’s space for meetings, sometimes at no cost.

“We don’t want to be some kind of ivory tower. We want to be a place where the windows and doors are open and people can come in and fight out what needs to be fought over,” Dyson said.
Dyson’s church also hosted political debates and town-hall meetings. Issues were brought to the center of the pulpit without fear of public backlash. Despite the church’s history as an activist church — it was founded by militant abolitionist Theodore Ledyard Cuyler — this was something the church had never seen before. When Cindy Sheehan, controversial antiwar activist, came to speak at the church in 2005, Dyson again opened the church’s doors.

“I sat the board down and said, ‘We are going to catch some buckets of blood for this,’” Dyson said.
Dyson admits that not all may agree with the political messages — he recalls losing one member over disagreements about the Atlantic Yards development. However, it is his commitment to fighting for community and social development that has inspired many in the congregation.

“He has made us notice that the church isn’t just a dim light, but a bright light in the community,” said Worthley Dodd McCourtie, who has been a member of the church since the early ’80s.
The Session, or governing body of the church, will have to wait until the end of the month to start the process of searching for a new pastor. This begins by selecting an interim pastor and conducting a church mission review, a process that can take up to a year.

But many agree that the church and community will have a big void to fill. “He raised the bar and broke it,” said parishioner Margaret Zeigler.

The celebration was marked with speeches of high praise from government officials and local organizations, musical performances and the designation of Oct. 2 as “David Dyson Recognition Day.”

But for Dyson, his community work doesn’t end here. Aside from traveling and spending time with his 8-month-old grandson, he’ll continue his work with the New York Living Wage Campaign, Workers Defense League and Habitat for Humanity.

“Being part of the life of faith is not being passive, it’s being active. It’s being proactive,” Dyson said.

Originally appeared on Oct. 11, 2011 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle