With Talent That Could Take Him Anywhere, Pastor Feels Call To His Hartford Hometown
November 27, 2005
Story by SUSAN CAMPBELL, The Hartford Courant
Yvonne Matthews is leading a Sunday prayer. Her eyes are closed, and her left hand is quietly beating out a private rhythm on the pulpit: "Thank you, Jesus; thank you, Jesus."
In the clean and bright sanctuary of Hartford's Citadel of Love, the faithful gather in their purple padded chairs. And then a side door opens, and out rushes Pastor Marichal Monts, who walks so quickly that Missionary Mary Topa, an usher dressed head to toe in white, can barely keep up.
Monts drops to his knees to pray, and then he whirls, takes the microphone and opens his mouth to sing in a voice that sounds like Barry White. The sermon following is one part exhortation and two parts encouragement. "If you're coming for a rebuke, come back another day," Monts says. "I just feel like encouraging someone today!"
Outside on Barbour Street, the pains of a raggedy neighborhood come home to roost. Outside, kids go to school hungry. Outside, the trash from the street blows and catches on torn chain-link fences.
But inside the Citadel, a charismatic hometown pastor is leading an explosive Sunday worship service. Educated at Renbrook and Groton schools and Wesleyan University, Monts has ample connections in the professional gospel-music business, and he has musical talent - composing, arranging, singing, directing - to spare. He could go anywhere, people say. But when God called him, Marichal Monts came home.
"Jump up and say, `I am blessed!'" says Monts from the pulpit, and the place bounces.
As his preaching gets louder, some members begin to trot around the sanctuary. A young woman with a toddler daughter steps into the wide aisle and runs in place, knees high. Immediately, another young woman comes to take the little girl to sit with her. Topa ties a white cloth around the woman's waist. Should she fall to the floor, she'll be covered. She eventually slows, goes to collect her little girl and returns to her chair, breathing heavily and saying under her breath, "Jesus. Jesus. Jesus."
These are his people, and this is his goal: to serve as a beacon on Barbour. His congregation is not large; he likes to count 50 among the faithful. His pay is not large either; he gets $400 a week, of which he gives $100 back, plus a small stipend from a class he teaches at Wesleyan. But this is where he's supposed to be, he says, right in the heart of his depressed city.
The first time Marichal Monts left his family's apartment on Barbour, he was 6 weeks old, and his mother took him down the road to Mount Moriah Baptist Church. At age 6, elders lifted Monts onto a table so he could lead a choir. His mother, Margaret Alderman Monts, remembers her son playing at home, lining up old batteries for what he called his Baptist Battery Choir.
Monts' voice dropped when he turned 12, the same year his father, James Robert Monts - who had named him after Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal - died, the same year the boy traveled and performed with gospel singer Isaac Douglas.
Monts loved church so much that, when he misbehaved, his mother would keep him from attending church activities as punishment. His mother took in roughly 40 foster children over the years and adopted one son from the group. Still, the pastor remembers once his mother crying in the bathroom. Nearby was an eviction notice.
But his grandmother was a cook at Renbrook School, and he was able to get a scholarship. From there he was encouraged by a school counselor to go to Groton School in Massachusetts. Then he enrolled in Wesleyan University, where he joined the black student union and was elected president of his senior class. He graduated in 1985 with a music degree. In 1982, he started a production company with friends like Hartford's Kurt Carr, whom some gospel-music writers refer to as "one of the best-kept secrets in gospel."
As he got older - he's now 42 - Monts began attending Prayer Tabernacle Church of Love in Bridgeport, before Bishop Kenneth H. Moales Sr. told him he had to leave so that Monts could start his own ministry in Hartford.
"I don't know if I kicked him out so much as I commissioned him," says Moales. "I'm very proud of him as a son."
In 1995, Monts returned to Hartford and led Bible studies at his home. A year later, he appeared before a board led by Moales and was ordained. He moved his small but committed flock to the downtown Ramada Inn, to a place on Market Street, and then to a building on Asylum. Offerings hovered around $200 a week, yet Monts wanted a permanent church home.
"I knew this community would never take us seriously until we owned something," says Monts. The former Club Divi Divi, a nightclub on Barbour, was just down from Monts' old house. The building needed renovation, and $7,000 that the congregation didn't have on closing day. Up stepped the church treasurer, Monts' aunt Natalie Scott, who had set church money aside for the occasion.
Air Of Honesty
On a driving tour of his neighborhood, Monts says that only schooling has taken him out of a four-block area. Just up from the Citadel - and Mount Moriah - is the old duplex where he lived for 25 years. A Puerto Rican flag hangs in his old bedroom window. In front is the walkway where a teenage Monts had come home crying one Sunday. He told his mother he was afraid no one liked him.
"She grabs me and shakes me," says Monts. "She says. `Not everybody is going to like you.'"
That lesson helps. Church folk, Monts is fond of saying, are a piece of work. On a recent Wednesday night service at Citadel, attendance is roughly a third of what it is on Sunday mornings. Monts calls three women and three men to the front.
"The world looks at us as hypocrites," he says. "One of our problems is we only want to look at the beautiful stuff about ourselves."
What ensues is an unusually frank discussion. The church talks about the relaxed dress code, their rough neighborhood, and gossip. Elder Trent Von'Lee says church folk are sometimes boring, and a male voice booms from the back: "He never called me boring when he was at my house eating my food!"
Jeron Monts, who was adopted by the pastor's mother and later by the pastor himself, says he trusts his street friends more than he trusts church friends. Prayers have been said over the young man; he has had trouble with the law. Jeron Monts says earnestly that he invites street friends to church, but they won't come because church folk will talk about them.
"That's OK," he says. "I tell them they talk about me, too." The church laughs.
Man Of Music
Mention Citadel to Hartford-area church folk, and they'll mention music. Monts is director of the Ebony Singers, Wesleyan's gospel choir, where a concert planned for early December sold out two months ago. He hosts a gospel-music radio show every Sunday morning on WESU.
He is a perfectionist for music. It is his passion and his ministry. Years ago, he encouraged Carr, his best friend, to leave the area to gain a wider audience for his music. The two are in constant touch. Sometimes Monts wonders if he'll ever follow his friend out of Hartford.
Monts "has a brilliant mind," says Carr. "He definitely has sacrificed his own prosperity for this. When I moved out to California, I begged him every day to come and stay at my house for free. But he said no. Something great's going to come from him."
There are many ties that bind. In the fall, at the first meeting of the university's gospel choir, Monts estimates that only a handful of the students have sung gospel. As Monts seats himself at the piano at the front of the room, he begins to play and sing, and the choir - though they've never heard this song before - joins in. The simple and beautiful song builds, and the sound fills the room. On the last "Praise! The! Lord!" they end and look at one another, delighted.
But Monts hears something he wants to change. "We have a long way to go," he says. "If you mess up, I will not have a temper tantrum." Then they mess up, and he shouts "No!" and immediately puts his hand over his mouth. The students laugh.
Monts is blunt and earthy. In the pulpit, he refers to his own upbringing, the fried-baloney sandwiches, the gathering of October's rent in mid-November. He talks one Sunday about women blaming men for their trouble.
"As men, we can only be what we come from," says the unmarried Monts. The mostly female congregation audibly moans. "I know you all don't like to hear that," he says, laughing. "You can only be what you come from. I am crazy. But that's because of the woman I come from."
Near the back, amid the good-natured laughter, a woman calls out, "I'm going to tell his mother."
After 46 years away from school, the pastor's mother enrolled in Trinity College's Gateway to the Humanities program, which introduces students to the college world. Her son had told everyone in the church to take a class someplace.
"He wants us to know why we're dancing and what we're learning," says Scott, his aunt.
Gratitude, Good Deeds
In late October, the church celebrated Monts' 10-year anniversary. The place was packed, and the people made a point of focusing on Monts. They thanked him for standing by them. They thanked him for staying with them. Says one member, "Thank you for letting us be free and be holy at the same time."
On a recent brilliant Saturday, Citadel of Love is giving away free clothes. Once the folding tables are set up outside and the clothes are neatly folded and pretty church dresses hung on hangers on the chain-link fence behind, the people start coming. At the sight of fancy, churchgoing dresses, Monts laughs. The church recently relaxed its strict dress code, and it looks like people are emptying their closets of their nicer stuff.
"Can you give this young lady a bag?" Monts asks, as a neighbor with a pair of Timberlands slung over one arm stands over a pink sweater, folds and refolds it, picks off a bit of fluff, and then, finally, leaves it on the table. As people pass by, Monts encourages them to stop. So does Scott. A man walks by with his hands in his pockets, and Scott says, "Free clothes for yourself! Your children. Your wife." Her voice drops. "Your mistress." Her sister, another one of Monts' aunts, Terrie Alderman, hears.
"Natalie!" she says, laughing.
"Everything up in here is free," Monts says to a passer-by, a young man with his jeans slung low. Low-slung pants are one of Monts' pet peeves, but he smiles and says nothing. The young man shakes his head.
"No, I'm good," he says.
Monts persists. "If you know somebody, just send them back."
Monts watches the man shuffle away. Is there a hometown where one can make it and feel good about staying? New York? Los Angeles? One day Monts actually cried about it. "Hartford is one of the smallest places in the world," he says. "The prostitutes are now calling me their pastor, not because they ever come here but because I am here."
So he is here, and he wants to start a soup kitchen, organize more clothing giveaways, start a prison ministry. There's work to be done.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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