Reverend David F. Telfort is in a calm yet expansive mood as he sits beside the desk in his new office. The room is large, with a 25-foot high ceiling and three floor-to-ceiling windows letting pools of sunlight fall onto a hardwood floor, partially covered by an oriental rug. There’s a sense of age and history in the room, with a grandfather clock standing in the right corner, a stone fireplace set square in the center, and a 15-bulb chandelier hanging from a ceiling with cracks of paint falling from it; four rickety wooden chairs with red velvet upholstering seem like furniture pieces taken from the Appomattox Court House.
“My predecessors are featured right along that wall,” he says, pointing to a series of gilt-framed black-and-white photograph portraits of aged white males. “Only seven men served before me in the last 160 years.”
The room is the Cuyler Library at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (LAPC) in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The man speaking is the new 27-year old Solo Pastor of the church, David Telfort, who officially began in mid-August. He is the first African American ever to hold this leadership position since LAPC was founded in 1857 and only the eighth person overall.
Upon meeting Telfort, one is struck by his combination of authority and openness. His voice is deep, and introduces his sentences with a characteristic rasp; a barrel-shaped chest and thick, muscular arms present a picture of strength beneath the cloak he wears.* But his brown, almond-shaped eyes behind thin spectacles smile at you even when his lips don’t; his easy, relaxed disposition is immediately apparent and carries the signal of a man whose heart is formed by perfect kindness.
“I feel gifted here that people come through that door,” he says, pointing to the entrance to the Library, “with trust that is now given to me.”
That trust was not given easily. Following the retirement of Rev. David Dyson, LAPC went five years with a series of interim pastors, before the nine-person Pastor Nominating Committee revisited their search 18 months ago. But in order to understand why the church chose Telfort—and why he sought out LAPC—it is necessary to understand the unique history of this Fort Greene institution.
LAPC sits on the corner of Oxford Street and Lafayette Avenue, a towering Romanesque Revival made of dark-gray stone. Parts of the building are dotted with occasional patches of green moss. Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ flags hang above its front doors; an orange and white banner stating “Immigrants and Refugees Are Welcome Here,” is attached to a fence wrapped around a garden at the front corner. These banners have been placed deliberately at the forefront of the building to express exactly the type of place the church believes itself to be in the Fort Greene community.
“This is a social justice church,” says Annette Leach, 57, a member of the church’s Pastor Nominating Committee. (PNC). “We excel in diversity and seek to integrate current issues through scripture.
The words “Social Justice” is not just a slogan to LAPC; rather, it’s ingrained into the fabric of the church’s history. The founding pastor, Theodore Cuyler, was an ardent abolitionist, and supported the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. In 1872, in a true test of its ideals, the church invited Sarah Smiley, a Quaker preacher, to speak at its pew. Smiley was the first woman ever to speak at a Presbyterian Church, and it wasn’t until 1951—a full 79-years after Smiley’s sermon—that a woman was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church.
The Church has also financed the construction of Yonsei University in Seoul and translated the Bible into Korean; today LAPC is referred to as the Mother Church of the Presbyterian faith in Korea and a gold placard given by the South Korean government as a gift to the church is displayed in the entrance hall.
The congregation has not been immune to changes though. According to the church’s unofficial historian, Ed Moran, 70, some 3,000 “upper-class white citizens” called themselves members by the time Cuyler left at the turn of the century. Yet attendance gradually dwindled. Fort Greene changed as a neighborhood after World War II, with many white residents moving to the suburbs during the 1950s. By 1960s the church was 40% black and membership levels fell to just 50 people by 1970, before gradually picking up thereafter and steadying out into its current 300-member level of today.
With a history built around social justice and an increasingly African American congregation, it’s not surprising that the church turned to David F. Telfort. Telfort’s life story is a reflection of LAPC’s own values.
Born only a few blocks away in East Flatbush into a family of Haitian immigrants, Telfort was educated early on in the word of God. His mother was a Sunday school teacher, while his father ran a youth ministry at an evangelical and conservative Afro-Caribbean Church. According to Telfort, the main message preached by his parents from childhood on was, “to help immigrants adjust to America.”
“The turning point for me came in 5th grade when I applied and was accepted into the ‘Prep for Prep’ academic program,” Telfort recalls. Due to his strong academic record, he was placed into independent private schools—St. David’s on the Upper East Side for middle school and Trinity High School on the Upper West Side. He was usually the only African American in all white classrooms.
“In these environments I began to understand the discrepancies in our education system and that by an accident of someone’s birth and zip code you can have a radically different life experience,” Telfort says as he sits beside his desk.
From there, Telfort went west, to Occidental College in California, where Barack Obama studied for two years as an undergraduate. It was here Telfort’s intellectual capabilities expanded as an Environmental Policy major, and his heart grew with continued time spent in prayer and Bible study. He began preaching when he was 19.
“It was at this time that I began to put language to my questions about equality and injustice,” Telfort says.
After graduating from Occidental College cum laude in 2012, Telfort attended Yale Divinity School, where he achieved his Master’s degree in 2015. After two years as an associate minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Iowa, Telfort sought out the empty pastor position at LAPC from an advertisement found in Christian Century Magazine. He was looking for a community that was diverse, a church that was in a major metropolitan city, and an identity rooted in social justice. The church itself was looking to add a new voice, one who could connect with the next generation of church members.
“We were thinking ‘how can we offer additional opportunity to engage our young people?’” says Lynn Stirrup, 51, chair of the Christian Educational Committee. Once the choice of Telfort was made, church leadership immediately began looking toward the future. “He is poised to jump in and help us start some new initiatives,” Stirrup adds.
According to one member of the PNC, Callie Thurman, 29, it is Telfort’s, “Exceptional preaching, his strong commitment to social justice, and his dedication to seeing equality lived out in the church” that makes him the right leader for this time in LAPC’s history.
This new face in an old place was on display during a September 24th Sunday sermon. In an oval-shaped sanctuary, with a towering bronze-iron organ looming above the pew and stained glass windows mixed with oil-on-canvas murals of Fort Greene Citizens spread along the walls, Telfort stood before 100 members of the congregation—about 80 were African American, while the other 15-to-20 were a smattering of other American ethnicities—and spoke boldly about the challenges confronting America today while referring to the Biblical story of Jacob the Runner.
In a sermon that touched on health care, housing, peaceful rebellion in St. Louis, and the current White House administration—and on a day when hundreds of NFL players took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem— Telfort seamlessly weaved in Biblical parables and spoke over and over again about the need for “real love” to stream out of American communities.
“Real love says I might have to take a knee because I love this nation,” Telfort said from the pulpit as many of his listeners bowed and nodded their heads in approval. “Because I love this nation too much not to call attention to its injustice.”
Between word and deed, a marriage now exists between a precocious preacher returning to his home city and a proud neighborhood institution that believes Sundays are a day of action rather than rest. Together they now begin a journey into the future, toward love and service.
*No disrespect was intended, but because some readers took offense, we dropped a word from our description of Rev. Telfort. See the comment below.