Today?s sermon is on the burden of hopelessness. To begin, the Reverend Dr. W. David Lee?pastor of New Haven?s most distinguished and most ancient black congregation, Varick Memorial ame Zion Church; graduate of Syracuse University, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary; and most recently a candidate for a seat on the Yale Corporation?quotes not from psalms or prophets, but from the early hip-hop innovator Grandmaster Flash. ?It?s like a jungle sometimes,? he intones from the pulpit. ?It?s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder / How I keep from going under.? Acknowledging that not everyone in the audience will recognize the reference to the The Furious Five?s 1982 chart-topper ?The Message,? a rumination on the despair of ghetto living, Lee assures them that they know the sentiment from somewhere: ?If you don?t know Grandmaster Flash, you know Marvin Gaye said it too, and dmx is saying it today: Out there, ?It?s like a jungle sometimes.?? Echoing in the vast sanctuary of the church, a turn-of-the-20th-century gem in New Haven?s rough Dixwell neighborhood, the ?Amens? and ?Go-Ons? of the congregation alternate with guffaws of recognition. The popular preacher is just getting started.
Hopelessness might seem an unbearable burden here in the shadow of an Ivy League university that often forgets Dixwell?s residents when they stop sweeping floors and serving food and go home for the night. ?You all know those people, you know they?re out there,? he reminds his congregation. ?You know those people who make it to the top and forget the folks who got them there. Some of y?all got managers like that. You think they?d understand your plight. But don?t you dare throw in the towel. We know a God who will help you keep your faith.?
Lee has made it his mission in life to remind those at the top of what they owe to those who sustain them, and to see that justice is done. In an effort to link the disparate communities of which he is a part?Yale and the ghetto that surrounds it?the Dixwell pastor recently ran as a petition candidate for an alumni seat on the Yale Corporation?the University?s governing board and ultimate authority, traditionally a bastion of wealth and national influence. Despite showing early promise, he was trounced. Today?s sermon comes roughly one year after he began in earnest the campaign that filled his community with the hope of finally being heard. But Lee?s God, as he tells his congregation, is a God who turns weaknesses into strengths and mishaps into miracles. With the power of his God behind him, the thrashing Lee took at the hands of administrators and fellow alumni may well be a blessing in disguise?one which leads all of Dixwell out of the jungle and into the promised land.
The part of Ansonia, Connecticut, where Lee grew up was what Dixwell is today: a crossroads of poverty and privilege. Lee was from ?the wrong side of the tracks.? The world of his childhood sounds much like the jungle described by Grandmaster Flash: His mother raised him and his six siblings in a four-room apartment. He had no contact with his father. Family members used drugs. His family moved from the projects to the north end of town when Lee was ten, and he was given his first glimpse of life across the divide. He vividly remembers the first day of fifth grade. ?Me and another girl were the only two blacks in the classroom. I was like, wow, my other school had been diverse, but this was something else altogether.? He soon befriended a boy named Keith who lived in the whiter, wealthier Hilltop neighborhood. The two would hang out listening to Keith?s father?s Elvis Presley records; Lee was soon a die-hard fan, borrowing lps to listen to at home. He says of the time spent in Keith?s house, ?That was the first time I was ever in a white person?s home, and he was my friend. We were the same. … That?s when I knew that there was another side to life. That made me say, ?This is what I want to be.??
Football, it became clear as he grew older, was one inroad to prosperity. Knowing his mother could not pay for college, Lee set his
sights on earning a football scholarship to anywhere that would take him. He admits that he was in the right place at the right time. ?I was
privileged to be part of a football tradition that was second to none in the state of Connecticut,? Lee says of the football program at Ansonia High School. On the gridiron he found what he calls ?an understanding of what I would like life to be like in the future.
Ansonia wasn?t all black or all white; it was a mixture. On the field, the only skin that mattered was the pigskin. You had young men from all walks of life coming together to work toward a common goal.?
When Lee talks about the children of Dixwell?his favorite topic when discussing Yale-New Haven relations?you get the sense that he sees in their lives the same hardships he endured, only with fewer opportunities to leave those hardships behind. They too come into contact everyday with a wealthy white kids? house up on the hill?Yale University. ?Kids should be able to do more than just visit and walk through the halls of this great institution. They?ll allow kids to sit and see all the prestige of Yale, but never have a fair fighting chance to attend it? That?s criminal.? So he calls for Yale not only to send student tutors into New Haven neighborhoods, but to tap into its $11 billion endowment and give financial support to New Haven public schools. Lee says he too wanted to attend Yale. But when Syracuse offered him a full scholarship for football, he had to accept.
Lee lettered all four years at Syracuse as a defensive back. One game in particular stands out in his mind. In the early 1980s, Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson was struggling to rebuild a failing program that the University was considering cutting altogether. The turning point that Lee credits with saving the program came during his junior year, when Syracuse hosted top-ranked Nebraska at home on September 17, 1983. The year before, Nebraska had shamed Syracuse in Lincoln, winning 63-7. This year, both teams were undefeated, though Syracuse was unranked. ?We upset them 17-9,? Lee says. ?And that was our greatest game. That game I?ll never forget?because we shocked the world.? Lee?s preacher demeanor is gentle and conciliatory, but you are always aware of the potentially explosive power of the underdog beneath the veneer. You know he has told this story a thousand times. He loves the shock of it. He relishes the credibility earned in a scrappy, come-from-behind revenge victory. To hear him talk, you?d think he almost likes starting with one mark in the loss column: Having disarmed his opponents by lowering their expectations, he can hit them full force for a win even sweeter for the surprise.
Lee played his senior year with torn cartilage in his knee. Having always planned on playing professionally, he took a year off after college to have arthroscopic surgery, then arranged try-outs for the New England Patriots, the New York Giants, and the Dallas Cowboys. He was cut from both the Patriots? and the Giants? squads, and as he was about to fly to Dallas, his knee swelled up again. In what he calls the
most difficult decision of his life, he decided not to get on the plane and to give up his hopes for a professional career. Football, after
all, offered no sure future. A photo above Lee?s desk in his church office reminds him of this. It was taken after the best play he ever made, a blocked field goal he returned for a touchdown. Lee holds the ball triumphantly in the air, beaming, as teammates jump to congratulate him. This is not what Lee notices in the photo, however. He sees Wes Dove, a hulking lineman in the right side of the frame. ?He was a gentle giant,? Lee says, ?everybody?s friend, and one hell of a football player.? Dove tried out for the Miami Dolphins after graduation. When he didn?t make the cut, Lee recounts matter of factly, he went home and put a bullet through his head.
Unlike Dove, Lee had never staked everything on a pro career. Even before he dreamed of playing football, Lee knew that his true vocation was the ministry. The call came when he was ten, in an event Lee labels ?The Budweiser Experience.? He and his friend Morgan Johnson, called MoJo, were walking across the projects one Saturday morning to the nightclub owned by MoJo?s father, whom they helped with clean-up chores for pocket money. Lee told his friend then that he wanted to be a minister when he grew up, though he couldn?t say why. Later, as they sat at MoJo?s father?s bar sipping soda, MoJo called out with a laugh, ?Hey Dad, you know what David wants to be when he grows up? A preacher!? ?Nah, you don?t want to be a preacher,? Mr. Johnson replied?a sentence that was punctuated by the crash of a giant Budweiser mirror that had suddenly fallen from the wall behind him. ?Son,? Johnson said to Lee as he surveyed the damage, ?you be whatever you want.? ?It scared the daylights out of me,? Lee says. That fear led him to keep his plans to himself.
In 1989, Lee finally enrolled in seminary at the Yale Divinity School. At 25, he had been making a good living for a few years, first by
selling Fords and Subarus, then by selling insurance. He gave up his $40,000 salary and took out loans to pay for school. ?I decided that
instead of just making money, I needed to pastor people and make a difference in people?s lives,? Lee says. His determination was
reinforced during his last year of study for his Master of Theology degree. Caught up in the intellectual engagement he found at yds, Lee
debated whether to continue his studies for a phd and pursue a career as an academic theologian, or to stop with his master?s and pastor a
church. As Lee and a group of friends confronting the same dilemma sat debating, Lee?s 20-year-old cousin was shot through the neck in a gang fight down the hill in Dixwell. Lee accompanied his aunt to the morgue to identify the body, and the event redirected the course of his life
for good. He returned to yds determined that his third year would be his last. ?I realized I couldn?t sit up there and study all that theory
if it didn?t make any difference down below. I needed to do something practical, to help build a bridge between the Valley and the Hill.? After graduating, Lee pastored numerous churches in New Jersey and one in Meriden, Connecticut, before being transferred to Varick in 1998.
Not long afterward, with labor negotiations looming on the horizon, the Yale administration began talking openly about strengthening the partnership between Yale and New Haven. To Lee, the time seemed right to build a bridge.
The opportunity presented itself when Levin started talking about partnership, partnership, partnership,? Lee says of Yale President Richard Levin?s positive rhetoric that led to his decision to run for the board. ?So I asked myself, are they serious about partnership? I never fathomed that it would cause the type of sensation that it did. I never dreamt that President Levin or the others would take it as an
The idea for Lee?s candidacy originated among local pastors active in the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (ccne), a local
union-affiliated research and advocacy group. Lee is vice president of its governing board. The Reverend Lillian Daniel, the ccne board?s
president and a yds classmate of Lee, claims that the idea was never centered around Lee or the organization specifically. ?His candidacy came up out of friendships among the local clergy, not through our organization,? she explains. The idea was that one of them ought to run
for a corporation seat, testing Yale?s commitment to partnership with the community. Lee sums up the reasoning: ?When you only have these wealthy corporate interests on the board and never have input from the level of the constituency you?re in a partnership with, there?s no room for that constituency?s self determination. And that?s essential for you to be received and respected in a host community where most people
still live in poverty.? Lee was chosen to run as the voice of that muted constituency. The Corporation controls Yale?s endowment?the $11 billion that Lee would like to see distributed in part back to the community. A seat on the Corporation would hardly give him free access
to the money. Lee knows that his would be only one of 18 votes in the board?s decisions?not exactly a mandate for sweeping change.
Nevertheless, he contends, having that community input could bring some issues to light that others might never have considered.
Using the rarely-invoked process of nomination by petition, Lee got his name on the ballot for the 2002 election of an alumni fellow for the
Corporation with over 5,000 alumni signatures supporting his run. Most years, candidates for the vacant alumni seat are nominated by a
selection committee chosen by the Association of Yale Alumni (aya). This unorthodox method was not what generated the controversy, however. A number of alumni had used it in the past, including William Horowitz, who became the Board?s first Jewish member in 1969. What rankled some prominent alumni and current members of the Corporation were Lee?s financial ties to Yale?s labor unions, who had paid for his $30,000 petition-drive mailing. Lee jumps to justify accepting the donation: ?How does a no-name pastor get a name out to all these alumni?? he asks in his own defense. ?I?m the pastor of a black congregation in New Haven, and I?m not personally wealthy, and so I had to go to those who would believe in this idea. The unions felt, hey, let?s try this. And it was no strings attached.?
Others disagreed, seeing an aggressive adversary in Lee rather than a potential partner. Kurt L. Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore and the
Corporation?s first African-American Senior Fellow labeled Lee?s bid ?a mirage campaign, initiated by national labor organizations intent on
gaining ground on the campuses of private universities.? University spokesman Helaine Klasky called Lee?s tactics ?unsavory,? saying, ?If you?re collecting so much money from the unions, you must be promising these people something.?
As the controversy brewed, the official aya selection committee nominated only one candidate?architect Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington?to oppose Lee in a not-so-veiled effort at stacking the deck. (Normally a slate of three to five candidates is proposed.) An alumni committee led by former University Secretary Henry ?Sam? Chauncey began to publicly protest the ?special interest campaign,? taking on Lee?s supporters in a battle played out in special advertising sections of the Yale Alumni Magazine and on the opinion page of the Yale Daily News. The campaign focused primarily on Lee rather than Lin, who stayed above the fray and did not talk to the press. Lee?s supporters challenged the University to live up to its rhetoric. His detractors accused him of ?corrupting? the staid process with his overt campaigning and failing to meet the high standards of achievement normally required for entry into the august governing board. In a rare public statement about the election, Levin said in an apparent dig at the young Dixwell preacher that ?with an alumni body of 120,000, we should look for candidates who are extremely accomplished in their fields.?
As the months wore on, the campaign that was ostensibly not about David Lee became more and more overtly personal. The aya launched a website to inform alumni about the two candidates. Printed side by side with comments from Lin about her enthusiasm to serve the Yale community were comments from Lee promising to ?preserve the best interests of Yale University? as well as more adversarial soundbites. ?Levin is probably laughing now, but he won?t be laughing when we get there,? read one. Another declared that ?Yale has met its Waterloo in the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. It is indeed our time!? In May, an article in the Washington Post summed up the general feel of the campaign as it wound to a close: ?There are those at Yale University who firmly believe that the Rev. W. David Lee is a dangerous man?.privately, they belittle him as ambitious yet insignificant, a nobody and a spoiler, a puppet of dark forces bent on soiling their shining city on a hill.?
By the time the ballots were finally cast, the aya had spent $65,000 on mailings sent to clear up the confusion of any Yale alumni who may have assumed that Lee had the group?s endorsement. Chauncey?s committee had spent $80,000 in a direct effort to defeat him. Lee?s side, by contrast, had spent only $55,000, $30,000 of which went towards the initial mailing. Despite the disproportionate spending, many thought David still had a good chance of slaying Goliath. The controversy had generated far more free publicity than he ever could have dreamed of receiving, and his campaign themes were thought likely to strike a sympathetic chord with alumni who had graduated in the last two decades, when New Haven?s fortunes were at their lowest. Goliath, however, withstood the challenge: David Lee lost by a vote of 8,324 to 45,575.
When the final count came in, Lee was already spinning his loss as a win on principle. He told his supporters, ?Don?t let anyone tell you we lost. We have won a big victory. …We educated the world that there needs to be a better relationship between town and gown.? Lee acknowledges that the victory came at something of a personal cost, however. ?To say I was nothing but a union flunky, I thought, wow, that was low,? he says of the insinuation that he is beholden to union interests. ?That was an attack on my integrity. But anyone will tell you that because of this pulpit, I have independence.? At times his stances have alienated certain supporters: New Haven Mayor John DeStefano?s outspoken support for Lee?s candidacy cooled as Lee?s public criticism of city schools grew more intense.
Community reaction to the campaign and its outcome was largely positive, with support for Lee growing as events unfolded. Lee says his own congregation was fully in favor of the idea and outraged by Yale?s conduct during the campaign. When asked about how the election had turned out, one church member said bluntly, ?It was a crime. He was robbed.? Others, however, saw the effort as flawed from the start, going so far as to suggest that Lee had sold out. Former New Haven alderman Anthony B. Dawson, a prominent black leader in the community, asked in a letter to the New Haven Register, ?Why would Lee want to join Yale?s stuffy board anyway? Where was his sense of black pride? ? As I see it, the day of high-profile black preachers in public matters must come to an end.? In the end, though, Lee?s conduct under fire seems to have had a greater impact on his reputation than any of the attacks directed against him. ?Yale made it seem like the barbarians were storming the gates. They besmirched his character in an unfair way,? says Daniel. ?I think his standing went up in the community not because of Yale?s tactics but because of the way he handled losing and being personally attacked. People really admired that the day after the election, he was still out there doing the work he had always done.?
Lee?s third sermon of the day is still focused on hopelessness. He has been invited as a guest preacher to the Mount Carmel Pentecostal Church on State Street, a storefront church that shares a city block with one other church, three abandoned buildings, a deli, and two pawnshops. The scripture lesson is from Exodus 14:13-14, when the Israelites see themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the rising tide of Pharaoh?s advancing army:
And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the
salvation of the Lord, which he will show you today: for the Egyptians
whom ye have seen today, ye shall see them again no more forever. The
Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.
Lee sees in the passage a justification for undying hope. ?The Israelites,? he explains, ?got so focused on the enemy, they forgot the power of God.? Capitalizing on their experience, Lee offers the congregation two rules to live by when the odds seem stacked against them: ?One, know your enemies but keep your eyes on the Lord. Two, remember that if God has got you in there, God will get you out.? Lee knows his enemies, and the congregation no doubt also knows to whom he is referring: At a September revival meeting for Yale?s unions sponsored by the Greater New Haven Interfaith Ministerial Alliance, a clergy group Lee founded this summer in the wake of his defeat, Lee explicitly referred to Richard Levin as ?the Pharaoh.? As he finishes his sermon in a frenzy of sweat and shouts and gesticulations, the church ushers bring him towels, one of which he leaves draped around his neck as he leaves the pulpit, looking more like a prizefighter?robed, straight-backed, and soaking?than a preacher. ?Now remember,? Mount Carmel?s pastor instructs the congregation, ?Don?t you all ever dare throw in the towel.?
There?s strategy as well as consolation in Lee?s sermon. The struggles members of his congregation face in the dilapidated Dixwell jungle call to mind another, more famous, Rumble in the Jungle: the heavyweight title bout fought between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974. Just as people today think of Lee?s chances of ever gaining a seat on the Corporation, everyone then thought the underdog, Ali, was sure to lose; the odds were set officially at 4-1 that Foreman, the defending champ who outweighed Ali at fight time, would hold off the challenge. With different advice coming at him from all sides, Ali entered the ring and pursued a strategy that no one expected, largely because it seemed suicidal: As the bell rung round after round, Ali dodged and danced a bit, then found the ropes, where, like Moses and the Israelites, he simply stood still, asking again and again, ?Is that all you got?? as Foreman pummeled him with blow after blow to his ribs, kidneys, and head. After eight rounds of thrashing the challenger with everything he had (even as the unrelenting crowd still kept up the Lingala chant of ?Ali boma ye!???Kill him Ali!?), a beleaguered Foreman found himself wearied to dizziness from the effort. Seeing him weak, Ali burst forth and felled the champion with a right-hand lead?perhaps the most elementary punch in boxing, one which any fighter worth his salt should be able to see and defend given the time it takes to throw it, and thus one which Foreman was never expecting. No one had thrown that punch at him in two years, in large part because you throw a right-hand lead at the heavyweight champion of the world only if you wish to insult him. Of course, from the moment
that punch landed, Foreman was no longer the champ. Ali?s radically unorthodox strategy of hanging on the ropes until the time was right?he called it the rope-a-dope?is now taught to future mbas: Take the beating until you can wear your opponent out, then strike hard when he?s weak. Yale, however, seems to have failed to learn anything from Foreman.
David Lee insists that he is not fighting against the University he loves. But one can?t help but hear something of a prizefighter?s taunts in the declarations of his affection. Despite the beating he took in his first bid for a seat at the Corporation table, Lee declares without being asked, ?I?ll do it all over again if I have to,? suggesting that the bout is not yet over, only its first round. ?I?m thinking about it,? he says when pressed on whether he intends to run again, ?but I hope it wouldn?t have to be the way it was the first time.?
And of course it won?t be: Lee is now a big name thanks largely to the attention Yale drew to his cause, and his community support is growing by the day. He was painted as a powerful villain, and the first aspect of the image seems to have stuck; Lee, who is 38, is only in his fifth year as Varick?s pastor, but already the community and his fellow clergymen look to him as a leader. He is a common presence not only at Varick but at churches around the city. He is seen as an advocate capable of making the community?s interest heard and confident enough not to back down. ?He stimulated a lot of community leaders,? said James West, co-chair of Varick?s Board of Trustees. ?He?s not deterred in his mindset to be a true leader. He?s not going to let anyone back him down.?
?It shouldn?t be a battle,? Lee says of his continuing effort to forge an equal partnership between the city and the University. ?It should be about welcoming a new perspective. That should be appreciated, not seen as a problem.? Lee knows that he is seen as a problem, however, and that though he may be reluctant to wage war, it is clear that he will
if necessary. One way or another, Lee is confident that his new perspective will be incorporated into the University?s vision: ?I think we could avoid a battle if we?re serious about partnership. But if we?re not serious about partnership, we may have to force our way into that room.?
Matthew Underwood, a senior in Davenport College is managing editor for TNJ.