Backstory: Remaking the black church

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As 350 people take their seats here at City Hall for an annual celebration of the black community, a retired police officer has her eyes trained on the chamber entrance. She's carrying a hidden gun on her hip, and she's got one assignment: protect the minister who will give the invocation.

As the ceremony is about to begin, Pastor A.R. Bernard walks in behind a second bodyguard, a linebacker-sized man in a charcoal pinstripe suit. Pastor Bernard, who sports a closely trimmed goatee, looks more businessman than clergyman in his pressed suit, silk tie, and matching pocket square. He speaks for just one minute. After the event, his protectors spirit him away to catch a plane.

Security precautions are a way of life for Bernard, pastor of Brooklyn's nondenominational Christian Cultural Center (CCC), where 27,800 members make it the largest church in America's largest city. He needs at least one bodyguard with him at all times, says son Jamal, who heads up a 12-member security team. "He still has enemies in the Nation of Islam," Jamal says, referring to the black Muslim group that counted Bernard as a member for five years during the early 1970s. "They don't like to see what he's building here."

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Bernard's Muslim past and preoccupation with safety highlight his distinctiveness among today's prominent Christian leaders. He is one of a small group of ministers across the country that some experts believe are creating a "new black church."

More conservative than the "old guard" African American clergy, the new pastors disavow the strident rhetoric of the civil rights era and instead embrace corporate America. They also encourage black Christians to prosper materially.

Yet, even within this group, Bernard is an anomaly. Although a convert to Christianity, he still looks to a 20th century icon of black Islam – the fiery Malcolm X – as his role model. That helps explain why black self-empowerment has always been a dominant theme in his ministry. It may also help explain how a man who once worked for $2 an hour in the garment district has gone from running a simple storefront church to being the head of a $15 million religious organization.

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At 10 a.m. on a Sunday, parking attendants in yellow vests are turning away cars: All 780 parking slots are full. Inside the CCC, it is standing room only for a church with 3,500 seats. Singers and musicians warm up the crowd, which is almost all African-American (Bernard says about 10 percent of members are white). Their sharp attire suggests they're mostly middle class. A 50-foot mechanical arm swings a video camera to capture the action on three large screens. When Bernard finally steps up to the glass podium, worshipers whip out laptops and start taking notes.

The pastor exudes confidence in a God who has predestined them to do great things. Think big, he tells them. Make bold changes to move up. If you're the smartest one in your group, get a new group. "When you have a strong relationship with someone," Bernard says in his benediction, "they can't help but lavish you with their wealth and their favor."

Though Bernard encourages earthly savvy and material well-being, he anchors the message in the scriptures and in Jesus Christ. "Our response in faith to what He [Jesus Christ] did is what saves us," he says. That response enables followers "to get the most out of life," often by building successful relationships and businesses.

It's a message that makes Bernard as comfortable speaking to AT&T executives as he is preaching to ordinary New Yorkers. Tulane University scholar Shayne Lee sees Bernard as part of a new breed of African-American ministers, along with such megachurch pastors as Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long in Georgia and T.D. Jakes in Texas. All eschew the anti-corporate ethos of old guard black clergy, who wrapped themselves in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All stress the merits of personal prosperity.

Yet Bernard stands alone with his reverence for Malcolm X, evident in everything from his super-rational presentation style to his emphasis on self-discipline. "Bernard's experience in the Nation of Islam, along with his appreciation of Malcolm, reinforced this ethic of self-reliance," says Dr. Lee. "Most of these other guys would never quote Malcolm or refer to him positively."

Certainly, Bernard isn't hesitant to invoke the former militant Muslim leader. "I still choose Malcolm" over King, he says in an interview in his church office, after leading 10,000 worshipers in three Sunday services. "I would say Malcolm has had the biggest impact on my life if I were to look at mentors. I choose Malcolm because when he believed in something and found out it was wrong, he was willing to change because he was looking for the truth."

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Necessity gave Bernard an independent streak from the start. Born in Panama in 1953, he never met his white Spanish father, who left his black mother as soon as he was born. At age 4, he immigrated with her to New York, where she worked by day and left him alone in the room they rented in a family's home. Restless as a teenager, Bernard got into business early, working in the garment district here. He also stole jackets, shirts – "anything that would sell." By his own admission, he sold marijuana, too. While still a teen, he began at working Bankers Trust Company, where he stayed for several years.

As a young man with virtually no religious experience, Bernard was drawn to the Nation of Islam, he says, by "the dignity, the strength, the sense of order." But he also found a disappointing world of drugs and broken relationships. On Jan. 11, 1975, he converted to Christianity – an offense punishable by death under Islamic law – seeing it as "the most reasonable of all religions" and renounced his unlawful past. Four years later, he opened the storefront church that has evolved into a 120,000-sq.-ft. facility on 11 acres in Brooklyn, valued at $50 million.

CCC today includes a cafe, bookstore, and 125-seat restaurant. It stands out as a temple of order in a disorderly neighborhood. Inside CCC, makeup artists and seamstresses ensure that everyone looks perfect. "Even if a hemline is off, it can be a distraction," says wardrobe director Norine Smith. "God is a God of order. Without order, it would be chaos, and we can't have it."

Bernard's approach gets mixed reviews. Lowell Livesey, a professor of urban and religious studies at the New York Theological Seminary, says, "I have a concern [that CCC] doesn't seem to attract people who are themselves poor in the way that it attracts middle-class people." More broadly, Tulane's Lee worries about the "commercialization" of the new black church in general.

Yet many others are attracted by Bernard's bootstrap Christianity – and have taken it to heart. Harlan Brandon launched his own shoe import company as a result of Bernard's encouragement. He now lives in upscale Montclair, N.J.

Some come in search of deeper meaning. Beverly Burchett, a real estate entrepreneur, was earning six figures when she was in her 20s, but felt disconnected from God. She heard about Bernard, who friends said "doesn't talk down" to anyone. Now she's a CCC volunteer.

Perhaps as a byproduct of success, Bernard lives in a gilded cage. He travels around the city in an SUV with bulletproof windows. He's so cautious even his parishioners don't know where he lives. No one enters his executive suite at CCC unless buzzed in by a security officer.

He tells parishioners on Sunday how his enemies' bullets once missed his head while he slept with his wife. But even that left him feeling blessed – convinced that God had preserved him for great things. "We know what we've been through, the price we have paid, to do what we're doing here. Do I have a purpose?" he booms rhetorically in a rare burst of emotion from the pulpit. Cheers erupt from the pews, suggesting he does.

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