Note: This article originally ran in the May 1996 issue of Charisma magazine.
The day before the infamous “Blizzard of 1996,” when the New York City air was as bone cold and biting as it gets in January, the crowd outside the Christian Life Centre was already swelling. Men, women and small children awaiting the start of Sunday services huddled inside a tent, shielding themselves from the swirling wind.
It may seem unusual for churchgoers to show up 30 minutes before the doors open—even more so given the big storm churning its way up the coast. But there is little that is ordinary about the Christian Life Centre and its popular pastor, A.R. Bernard Sr.
One example: Instead of toting tambourines—a staple at most black churches—members carry laptop computers and note pads.
Another example: In an era when the number of men who attend church is on a steady slide, they are quite visible here. In fact, men make up 52 percent of the Christian Life Centre membership.
And instead of delivering sermons where, as Bernard says: “The preacher pacifies the people with, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be all right,'” this 42-year-old father of two is grabbing the Christian world by its collar. His is a message of discipline, self-reliance, financial independence and a call for stronger, more visible male leadership in the community.
Sound familiar? To followers of the Nation of Islam, these principles are the foundation of the Black Muslim faith.
But the doctrine that Bernard preaches is fundamentally different from the one espoused by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. And it’s gaining momentum as fast as his church’s climb in membership—from just his wife and sons in 1978 to more than 5,000 today.
A Search for Truth
Because the black church for so long failed to address discipline and responsibility, the Nation of Islam has been a lightning rod for scores of black men looking for a religion that speaks to them, Bernard believes.
Bernard talks from experience. He describes his six-year relationship with the Nation of Islam as a “flirtation.”
That flirtation would later become a defining touchstone in his quest for spiritual truth. Wearing conservative suits, round-frame glasses and a meticulously shaped mustache and beard, he looks as if he would be a comfortable fit in any corporate boardroom. But for Alphonso R. Bernard Sr., the path to the pulpit was hardly a smooth one.
He was born in Panama to a mother who was black and a father who was a white Spaniard, and he learned early in life about rejection.
“The day my mother brought me out of the hospital, my father denied me,” he says. “For the next three years, my mother cared for me, but she was ostracized and lost a scholarship to Tuskegee [Alabama] Institute, as well as a position in the Olympics.”
In 1957, with the help of her family, Bernard’s mother gathered their belongings, and they both started fresh in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. As he grew up, Bernard heard more and more about a man named Malcolm X and a group called the Nation of Islam. What captured his fascination as a teenager, he admits, was the Nation’s “strength and order. Those are the things that attract any man, especially young men.”
And so began the flirtation for the 16-year-old Bernard—from 1969 to 1975—an odyssey that he calls “a search for truth.”
Though he regularly visited mosques in Brooklyn and Harlem, Bernard minimizes his Muslim involvement because he did not fully commit himself to all of the beliefs, though he admits he gave up eating pork. Mostly, his attention was lured to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the former leader of the Nation of Islam.
“[Muhammad] really attempted to address the economic plight of the black man in America, which the Christian church, for me, had failed to do,” Bernard remembers. “He began to bring dignity to the black man, and black men began to rehabilitate and reform.”
But Bernard’s infatuation with Black Muslim ideas soon faded. It was a few years into his experience with the Nation of Islam that he began to tire of some of the rhetoric—often laden with hatred—for which Black Muslims are infamous. In those days, Bernard would compare his father’s role in his birth to the “rape perpetrated upon the black community here in America?
He began to immerse himself in reading about more religions, even Hinduism and Buddhism. Then he went to hear a sermon by Nicky Cruz, a gang member turned Christian minister.
During the church service that night of Jan. 11, 1975, he felt the need to make a choice in his life. After all the pain he had experienced growing up, Bernard says he began to see God “from God’s eyes.”
His hunger for spiritual truth led him to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the nation’s largest black Pentecostal denomination.
“I saw the power of God expressed in their worship. The people were exuberant, quoting Scriptures, and I was so impressed,” Bernard says. So impressed, in fact, that he joined the church. Then he bought and read every different Bible he could find, absorbing the various commentaries.
Later, he became a licensed and ordained minister in COGIC and quickly became a preacher sought for his ability to appeal to young people. He resisted offers to pastor established churches, opting instead to turn an old storefront into a makeshift sanctuary and start his own independent congregation.
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SOURCE: Charisma News