Five decades ago, Bishop Edward “E.M.” Barron preached his first sermon at age 8 at a tent revival on a warm summer day in Charleston, S.C.
Churchgoers told his grandmother “that boy was born to preach.” They were right. He has been preaching ever since in Philadelphia and Camden — on street corners, from the pulpit, and for thousands of funerals for folks he had never met.
“I wanted to run and serve God. The same is still true today,” Barron said.
Barron, 58, was ordained in 1983 while attending Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Today, he is the founder and spiritual leader of Higher Ground Temple Church of God in Christ in North Camden, which he started in 2002. He also is the head chaplain for the Camden County Metro Police Department and for several South Jersey funeral homes.
Today, Barron leads a thriving congregation with about 350 members, from professionals to parolees trying to make a fresh start. He is part of the spiritual fiber in a city with more than 100 houses of worship and leads a volunteer group of clergy who minister to officers in the Camden County Metro Police Department and the community, especially when a tragedy occurs.
“We realize that in terms of crimes, we need all the help we can get,” said Lt. Zsakhiem James, a community liaison.
It has been a circuitous path for Barron, a former U.S. Army officer, who landed in the area after a four-year military stint. After serving as an associate elder at Mt. Calvary Church of God in Camden, he was inspired by his mother, Louise, and heeded her advice 18 years ago to make a bold move to convert souls.
Standing on a milk crate at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in downtown Camden, Barron began preaching from that busy spot in 2002. His wife, Sharon, helped him pass out sandwiches and religious tracts to the homeless, commuters, and passersby.
“The church has become like the bus station. People get on and people get off,” Barron said.
The response was less than welcoming.
“They started laughing at me,” Barron recalled in a recent interview. “That made me more determined.”
Barron kept going back, and one day several years later in the midst of the mostly uninterested crowd of about 50 people was Kevin Brown. He clung to every word and accepted Barron’s invitation to attend his church and has been a member since 2010.
“I thought he has to be all right to come down here and try to change people,” said Brown, 65, a retired landscaper and handyman. “The man has to be a preacher.”
Brown, who had an epiphany that he said forced him to turn his life around, is among the 4,000 people Barron has baptized. Like Welcome Estevez, 27, of Pennsauken, who was homeless when he met Barron in February and now has a carpentry job and a place to live.
There also have been tragic endings for some, lost to Camden’s tough streets. Last year, while the church was in prayer on New Year’s Eve, a resident was found dead of an overdose in a lot two blocks away. Hundreds attended his funeral at the church.
“We can’t save them all,” Barron said. “We celebrate the ones we can.”
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SOURCE: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Melanie Burney