Young pastor with deep roots in Black church ‘keeps it very real’

A person speaks during a service
Senior pastor Elijah McDavid III speaks during a service at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Oct. 16 in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Updated: 8:33 a.m.

It’s a Sunday morning at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Pastor Elijah McDavid III is preaching to the congregation.

The rows are nearly full with several dozen churchgoers. Above the pulpit hangs three portraits of a Black Jesus and banners with each letter of the word — Rhythm — hang across the ceiling. They represent the traditions of its primarily African American congregation.

When McDavid speaks, all eyes are on him as members of the church hang onto every word. On this Sunday morning his sermon is based on the message “Let Your Life Speak.” He’s preaching from the book of James and says it can be a little direct.

At some point it may sound like I’m judging you. But I’m not singling you out, I’m trying to help all of us out. I need these five chapters of wisdom just as much as anybody here,” McDavid said.

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The congregation cheered.

At 30, McDavid may be young for a senior pastor, but he has deep roots in the Black church. Originally from Arlington, Va., his grandfather was a pastor and civil rights leader in South Carolina for over 50 years — who battled segregation and helped integrate schools. McDavid grew up hearing how his grandfather helped transform his community and it continues to inspire him to this day.

“It’s helping folks to imagine what a better world can look like. At the end of the day we are an imaginative people, we are a creative people and we’re always believing that God has something better than what we’re currently living in and experiencing,” McDavid said. “It’s being able to kind of paint that tapestry and visualize what this world can become.”

McDavid started out serving as assistant pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest Black churches in Alexandria, Virginia. A few years ago he got a call from an old family friend who thought he’d be a good fit to continue the work of the retiring pastor at Fellowship.

That’s when he moved to Minnesota to run a church on his own for the first time.

Fellowship is located in a section of Minneapolis which contains some of the highest concentrations of African Americans. These north side neighborhoods also contain some of the highest concentrations of poverty and economic underdevelopment compared to other parts of the city.

Black churches like Fellowship have long played a crucial role in advocating for the freedoms and rights of African Americans. And McDavid doesn't shy away from talking about issues that impact residents of the north side neighborhoods which surround the church. But he also says the church is taking action to help the community.

“If the need is housing that’s affordable, if the need is dealing with food insecurity then we’re gonna work on meeting those needs,” McDavid said. “Some needs we can meet as a church but when there’s other issues that are beyond the scope of the church, that's when we work together with people like in an interfaith housing collaborative, to make sure that there's more money being set aside on the state government level to help build affordable housing for individuals.”

Fellowship also joined the fight to protect the community from COVID by becoming one of the first faith based vaccination sites.

And members of the community say they like McDavid’s style.

Church trustee Larry Suarez has been attending Fellowship for over 20 years.  Suarez, who is in his 70s, says McDavid impressed him from the start.

“The first time I heard him I said, ‘that is the guy.’ He teaches, he preaches and he pastors. And his arms are open, which makes this church open,” Suarez said. “That is so important, because you want people to look at Fellowship and know that I can go and I'm welcome and I'll be treated well.”

Younger churchgoers are also impressed.

People perform during a service
Members of the FMBC Youth Choir perform during a service at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Oct. 16 in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Mackenzie Jones has been going to Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church since she was six years old. Now in her mid 20s, she says continuing to come to Fellowship and stay connected with those who watched her grow up has maintained a sense of stability in her life.

She’s glad to see more young people join the church since McDavid started as pastor. And it’s something that makes Jones excited about coming to church each week.

“It's very easy to connect with him and he is clearly an intellect just through his sermons,” Jones said. “He keeps it very real, which is something that I like. I like someone who's direct.”

For McDavid, cultivating community is one of the most rewarding parts of leading a church.

“This world can be so traumatic, so violent six days a week, and one day a week you get a chance to come in here and find a place of refuge and peace. To be affirmed and loved by others in your community,” McDavid said. “Some who you know well, others who you don’t know. But we foster these deep meaningful relationships here and those carry generational bonds.”

McDavid’s style of relating to his community is just one of many reasons church goers come back week after week.

As Fellowship continues to grow, McDavid loves to see new congregation members walk though its doors. He hopes to continue creating a refuge for community members and to keep the longstanding Black tradition going for generations to come.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.