Features: The Democratic Party’s Worst Nightmare

North Philly minister and former Eagle Herb Lusk is George Bush’s favorite black man. It’s a friendship that might signal a seismic political shift: the Democrats losing their hold on African-Americans

The Reverend Herbert Hoover Lusk II has a question.

“Can I get an amen?”

It’s a muggy Tuesday night in early August, and Lusk is standing in front of a packed house at the Church of God’s Love, a well-heeled Lutheran outpost in the heart of Bucks County. The sanctuary, all soft angles and warm colors, soars above him. A giant cross levitates behind him. A small band, clad in black, sits in the corner, fresh from a rousing rendition of “Wade in the Water.”

“Amen,” mumbles the crowd.

“Say it like you mean it!” commands Lusk.    

“Amen!”

“One more time, for the Holy Ghost.”

“Amen!”

As he stands in the pulpit, dressed in a three-button cream-colored suit, Lusk surveys the crowd over the half-moon reading glasses straddling the end of his nose. “You should never underestimate what it means to be here with you in my heart,” he tells the crowd.

Lusk isn’t a Lutheran, which is news to nobody at the Church of God’s Love. Save for Martin Luther himself, Lutherans don’t tend to ask for amens or yell at their congregants. (Nor do they tend to be incredibly fit, Memphis-born black guys.) Lusk is head pastor at Greater Exodus Baptist Church in North Philly, and he’s in Newtown as a guest, part of the church’s midsummer spiritual revival, the Amazing Grace festival. He’s preaching tonight about a story in the gospel of St. Luke, the one about the rich man who fails to understand that his blessings only come through God. A slow, rolling wave of a speaker, Lusk tends to grab his audience with humor and then gather momentum as his message hurtles toward its emotional crest. “By society’s standards, we would call this man successful,” he says. “But Jesus calls him a fool. And I want to tell you, my friends, whenever Jesus says you are a fool, you are certified.”

As the sermon winds down, Lusk descends from the pulpit and begins to walk in front of the pews, talking in a voice that barely rises above a hush: about a trip to Uganda he’ll soon be taking; about his latest project, Stand for Africa, which raises money for HIV/AIDS services; about how just a little money can do so much on that continent. Then, as if he’s suddenly realized that some of the good folks at the Church of God’s Love may still be wondering just exactly who the hell he is, Lusk launches into an impromptu recounting of his own spiritual journey. Almost 30 years ago, you see, he was drafted to play running back for the Philadelphia Eagles. After just three years in the NFL, though, he quit. He walked away from the money and the glory and the bond he felt with other men who hit one another for a living. He wasn’t cut from the team. He wasn’t hurt. He simply felt called by the Lord. Even his own father, himself a Baptist minister, told him not to do it.

These days, Lusk likes to call himself a “simple country preacher,” which is a little like Ed Rendell calling himself a lawyer. In the decades since he left football, Lusk — through Greater Exodus and its sister nonprofit, People for People, Inc. — has been the driving force behind some of the most effective social service programs in the city: an early-childhood education center, a charter school, an after-school program, a summer reading camp, a youth enrichment mentoring program, a community development credit union, and much more. Lusk himself has referred to it as an “empire,” and his success has produced no small halo effect about him and his organization. Other religious leaders seek his counsel; politicians slobber all over him. “What he’s done for his neighborhood is amazing. I’m a huge admirer,” gushes District Attorney Lynne Abraham, a woman not known for her gush.

Lusk’s current cultural relevance isn’t just a consequence of his extensive munificence, though. Not unlike many of his colleagues in the black ministry, he is acutely concerned about economic development and civil rights issues, while also being steadfastly, deeply conservative on social ones. Yet he differs from almost all of his peers in one important way. Lusk is a close friend and stalwart supporter of George W. Bush. And since 2000, when he publicly — emphatically — endorsed Bush for president, Lusk has become an important ally in the Republican Party’s fevered efforts to woo black voters. Of course, at the moment, George Bush and the Republican Party have to smooth out a sizeable bump in the road caused by the federal government’s lead-footed efforts at helping hurricane victims in New Orleans, the overwhelming majority of whom were black; according to some political analysts, black support for Republicans has bounced back to five to 10 percent in the storm’s aftermath. But increasing black support is a long-term plan, and if Republicans are successful, the nation’s electoral calculus could be altered for years, if not decades, to come. If Howard Dean has a recurring nightmare, in other words, it probably looks a whole lot like Herb Lusk.

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