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Junkyard God

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It's 9 AM, Easter Sunday. At the gate of the Star Auto Rebuilders & Parts junkyard at 61st and State three dogs sprawl on a ratty blue sofa, poking at a piece of rancid meat. Stuff spills out of the yard onto the sidewalk--a kitchen sink, an old tricycle, pieces of rope, hubcaps. A man knocks on the window of a rusted old Chevy in front of the yard, and the two men sleeping inside wake up.

"Hey, you got a cigarette?" asks the man who woke them up.

"You ain't supposed to be smokin' no cigarettes. Today's Easter."

"Aw, come on. I smoked my last one last night."

"There ain't no cigarettes here."

An enormous bulldozer roars down State, driven by Archie Humbert, the junkyard's owner. He's wearing a cowboy hat covered with buttons, the largest of which reads simply "Jesus." The left arm of the bulldozer also reads "Jesus," in big white letters. The right one reads "Christ."

Around 9:30 a blue van pulls up. The Reverend Ellsworth Barclay sticks his head out the window and shouts at Humbert, "Hey Archie, you need a service?"

"We always need a service," Humbert says.

Barclay gets out of the van. He's old and wrinkled, wearing a gray topcoat, black pants, a floppy black hat, and a clerical collar with a chartreuse shirt. A man limps up with a shopping cart full of used radiators, and Barclay tells him, "Get the podium ready. Move it into place." The man parks the cart inside the gate and gets a dolly from Humbert.

A metal wall that stretches along State from 61st almost to 63rd obscures most of the yard. It's covered with slogans, mostly in yellow and white paint: We BUY cars. Come Here for Auto Parts. "We Believe" God, in blue paint with a cross painted underneath. A small wooden cross hangs on a door in the wall. Above it, in bright red paint, is Rev. Barclay, Pastor. Under it is "We BUY all $." Barclay's gray wood and paperboard podium sits in the front of the yard year-round, propped up against the metal wall. On Sundays it moves into the driveway outside the yard.

Someone pulls a plant and a basket of flowers from a corner of the yard and puts them on top of the podium. The area around it is strewn with broken glass, bits of concrete, and paper.

"Archie," Barclay shouts. "You have to take up the garbage. You have to take it up. You can't worship God in a dirty place."

Barclay is 81 years old. He was born in Panama and grew up in Jamaica. He's been an ordained minister for 50 years and is currently an associate minister at the Greater Bethesda Baptist Church, at 53rd and Michigan. He began his junkyard ministry four years ago, when he came into Star to buy some hubcaps. The yard manager, Miss Erma, asked him if he'd preach there every Sunday. "I gladly consented," he says. "Jesus said to send his disciples to all the world, not just inside the church's four walls."

Barclay has missed a few services lately because he suffered a stroke in October, but the yard has continued to worship. "We ain't missed a Sunday," says Humbert. "Sometimes there don't be that many of us, but sometimes there be as many as 60 or more. I know I never try to miss a prayer."

By 10 AM several of the men who've been hanging around the yard have swept and washed down the area around Barclay's podium and have set out 20 chairs. "They usually have it ready when I get here," Barclay says, "but everybody's probably putting on their Easter best."

Exie Hall, the yard's business manager, drives up with an old woman from a nearby nursing home. Hall's wearing her best blue dress. "Every Sunday morning we come here," she says. "We don't look for no crowds. Our goal is to honor the Lord and to let the Lord have his way. With the Lord's help, we can get things done."

Barclay goes back to his van to put on his pastoral robe. Another car pulls up, and Hall's husband gets out with three small boys and a teenage girl. "Thank Jesus," Hall says. The kids take their seats, but they look sullen.

"What do we do on Sundays?" Hall shouts at them.

"We worship the Lord," one of the boys mumbles.

"I can't hear you!"

"Worship the Lord," they all mumble.

"All right now, we going to get started here," Hall says. "It's Easter, and everybody come to worship." She shouts to the old woman who's still sitting in the car. "Can you hear all right, Miss Mabel?"

"Yeah!" Miss Mabel shouts back.

The congregation today includes Hall, her husband, the four kids, Miss Mabel, Humbert, and two of the men who helped set up the podium.

"God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our God, we thank you for this beautiful Easter morning," says Barclay from the podium. "God has permitted us to be gathered once again on this consecrated spot. Forgive us for being tardy this morning, for starting late. You said that where two or three are gathered in your name, thou art there. It's not just in the church. God's in our hearts, God's in our homes, God's in our junkyards. Wherever we go, God is there. We thank you for the open door. We thank you for allowing us almost four years to be outside here. Even in the snow."

A man in a red-hooded sweatshirt who's holding an alternator comes over to listen.

Barclay's voice grows croaky. "God, we thank thee for the owner of this place, these premises here, and this business that has permitted us to gather here. Pray to God keep him in good health. Give him wisdom, bless his family, and bless the workers. Bless all who come here. Bless our families. Remember our city, our mayor. We thank you for reelecting him again. Bless his family. Bless our alderman. Bless our City Council. We pray for the Police Department. Pray for our doctors and our nurses, our firemen and our schoolteachers. Pray for our city. Curb the gambling and the warfare."

The congregation recite the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and they sing a hymn. A woman walking down the street wearing a flowered dress and heavy rouge joins the gathering. In the back row Humbert snoozes peacefully. A man pushing a shopping cart full of junk down the street stops, puts a cigar in his mouth, lights it, listens to the service a minute, and moves on.

Barclay reads from the Bible, then says, "Nobody can bless anything better than Jesus. Look at this sunshine we have today."

Hall lifts her arms and says, "Amen."

"Look at the rain we had last Monday and all the other days. Even the weatherman didn't recognize that we were going to have such a beautiful day. Hallelujah! It's a day to rejoice! Everybody's running to see Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. But God be out here this morning. You ought to be praising God. You don't got to pay all that big money to see all these celebrities. And they're just humans--they're not idols. The president of the United States, the queen of England--everyone should look above him. At the name of Jesus we should bow."

Humbert continues to snooze. In the front row the boys are inspecting some baseball cards. Another carful of kids arrives, bringing the gathering to about 25 people.

Barclay tells people to accept Jesus into their lives. He blows into his hand like he's shooting a dart. "God did like this--he breathe into man his breath, and man became a living soul. Each one of us is created in the image of God. We have a soul. You have to give it to God come the judgment, whether you go to a church building, a synagogue, a junkyard--wherever you go. So I entreat you today, if you are not a member of the body of Christ, now listen to what I say. I did not say you should join a church. A lot of people who join the church, who have their name in the church book, they've never been born again, they do not know Jesus. It's just like a lot of people born in America, but they haven't got the true spirit of America. Some are communists, some are atheists. They have different ideas. You can be all that--it's all right. But you've got to be born again. Trust in Jesus if you hasn't got a job. He'll send you down here to Brother Archie. It may not be a lot of money, but you'll get a start."

He moves around the podium and stands in front of the crowd. "Everybody's talking about Easter, and they're dressed up. At a wedding yesterday, you should see me. One of my businessmen gave me a tie, handkerchief, and some nice socks. Today I didn't want anybody to be watching me what I wear. I didn't wear the tie, and I didn't want to wear the handkerchief. But I still keep the socks on."

"Well, praise the Lord again," Hall says.

Barclay pulls up his pants to show his socks and dances around. "Yeah, I got my Easter stuff on. I didn't put the tie on, because I didn't want people saying, 'Reverend--aw, ain't he cute.'"

Singing a hymn, the members of the congregation file up to the podium, where Barclay dips his finger into anointing oil and touches their foreheads. Then he walks over to the car and dabs Miss Mabel's forehead.

"As you know, I've not been able to come out every Sunday," Barclay says. "My strength is coming back, the weather's getting better, and Archie and others, we're carrying on."

After a few more hymns he says, "I'm giving my church a $10 check, and I'm giving the junkyard a $10 check. We're going to pass the hat here so our junkyard church can get a loudspeaker, so we can have some good singin' when the cars pass by."

A teenage girl sings a hymn, and Barclay calls the service to a close. Afterward everyone lines up to shake Barclay's hand.

"You comin' back, Reverend?" one man asks.

"Yeah, yeah, we're gonna have some nice singin' and some nice eatin'." He pauses and extends both his arms. "Hallelujah! God bless our junkyard!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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