For years, the New York City Marathon was seen as something of a nuisance for Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Located on the corner of St James Place and Lafayette Avenue, at the nine mile mark of the marathon, the church suffered with noise from the runners on the streets and the crowds of onlookers who came to cheer them on. But instead of letting the annual event get the best of them, the church decided to use it as an opportunity to praise the lord’s name. And so, Sunday services were cancelled on the first weekend of November, and a new tradition was born.
Each year on Marathon Sunday Total Praise, the gospel choir of the church, raises its voice in song above the noise of the screaming fans.
“We sing on the steps,” said Shareka Newton, the executive pastor of the church. “It gives us an opportunity to come out of the church walls and into the community.”
On Sunday, the steps of the church were flanked with women dressed in bright orange, the official color of this year’s race. The 80 members of Total Praise sing in rotations to raucous crowds while the hopeful marathoners speed by a crowd estimated at 2 million. Volunteers hold out bottled water and bananas for runners who need a moment to refuel. Others make it their business to call out the names of participants who need a little extra encouragement. But it’s the gospel choir that takes center stage. Mic’d up and amplified for all the neighbors to hear, members flail arms and raise their voice to the high heavens. Exclamations of joy and halleluiah are made to lift the spirits of runners, who raise their hands towards the sky and wave along with the gospel choir as they speed by the church. For Juny Francois, a Haitian American and veteran marathon runner, the vision of her church’s choir gives her an energetic push early on in the race.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Francois. “I’ve run marathons all over the world. The hometown crowd, the music from my church’s choir. It connects me with God.”
This year, the church has four members participating in the race. Francois is the best runner of the bunch. She is what’s known as a local competitor, pacing an average mile in about 7 minutes and 30 seconds. At 10:52 AM she speeds past the steps of Emmanuel Baptist. Her son, Samuel Mahlangu, doesn’t even have time to snap a photo.
“I tried to record her, but I couldn’t even get a clip,” said Mahlangu. “She was running so fast.”
Francois’ love affair with long distance running started as what she called a “fluke.” She ran track in high school, eventually completing a five-kilometer race. Next she participated in a half marathon, and finally a full marathon.
“Then,” said Francois, “I became addicted.”
She has since run marathons all over the world, including Berlin and Madrid. For Francois, part of the passion of running is raising money for a good cause. This year, the cause hits close to home. Francois has raised $25,000 to benefit Haiti Green Home, a non-profit organization that develops eco friendly homes for displaced victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Francois said dedicating her run to Haiti gives her the strength she needs to reach for her personal best.
“Haitians are not really runners,” said Francois. “Not like Africans. But running comes naturally to me. If my passion can benefit my country, then all the better.”
At Emmanuel Baptist, the parish has been resolute in their support of Francois’ efforts. Many of the members of the parish helped Francois fundraise for her run. Still, the church believes that their music remains their largest contribution to the event.
“When the runners hear our voices, it cheers them along,” said Claudette Williams, a 16-year veteran of the choir. “It’s always good to sing the praises of the Lord to raise the spirit.”
As the runners stream by the sun-filled church steps, even the most cynical fans can’t help but have faith that a little bit of hometown spirit can go a long way. Maybe a full 26.2 miles.