Backstory: Remaking the black church
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.
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.