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I WAS STRUGGLING TOWARD the climax of my none-too-polished sermon that Sunday night back in 1972 when disaster struck. It was both pathetic and laughable all at once.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle--this woeful church that my father-in-law had coaxed me into pastoring--consisted of a shabby two-story building in the middle of a downtown block on Atlantic Avenue. The sanctuary could hold fewer than two hundred people--not that we required anywhere near that much capacity. The ceiling was low, the walls needed paint, the windows were dingy, and the bare wood floor hadn't been sealed in years. But there was no money for such improvements, let alone a luxury such as air-conditioning.
Carol, my faithful wife, was doing her best at the organ to create a worshipful atmosphere as I moved into my invitation, calling the fifteen or so people before me to maybe, just possibly, respond to the point of my message. Someone shifted on a pew to my left, probably not out of conviction as much as weariness, wondering when this young preacher would finally let everybody go home.
The pew split and collapsed, dumping five people onto the floor. Gasps and a few groans filled the air. My infant daughter probably thought it was the most exciting moment of her church life so far. I stopped preaching to give the people time to pick themselves up off the floor and replace their lost dignity. All I could think to do was to nervously suggest that they move to another pew that seemed more stable as I tried to finish the meeting.
In fact, this kind of mishap perfectly portrayed my early days in ministry. I didn't know what I was doing. I had not attended Bible college or seminary. I had grown up in Brooklyn in a Ukrainian-Polish family, going to church on Sundays with my parents but never dreaming of becoming a minister.
Basketball was my love, all through high school and then at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I broke the plebe scoring record my first year. Late that year I hurt my back and had to resign from the navy. I resumed college on a full athletic scholarship at the University of Rhode Island, where I was a starter on the basketball team for three years. In my senior year I was captain of the team; we won the Yankee Conference championship and played in the NCAA tournament.
My major was sociology. By then I had begun dating Carol Hutchins, daughter of the man who was my pastor back in junior high and high school. Carol was a gifted organist and pianist even though she had never been formally trained to read or write music. We were married in January 1969 and settled down in a Brooklyn apartment, both getting jobs in the hectic business world of Manhattan. Like many newlyweds, we didn't have a lot of long-term goals; we were just paying bills and enjoying the weekends.
However, Carol's father, the Reverend Clair Hutchins, had been giving me books that piqued my desire for spiritual things. He was more than a local pastor; he made frequent trips overseas to preach evangelistic crusades and teach other pastors. In the States he was the unofficial overseer of a few small, independent churches. By early 1971 he was seriously suggesting that perhaps God wanted us in full-time Christian service.
"There's a church in Newark that needs a pastor," he commented one day. "They're precious people. Why don't you think about quitting your job and stepping out in faith to see what God will do?"
"I'm not qualified," I protested. "Me, a minister? I have no idea how to be a pastor."
He said, "When God calls someone, that's all that really matters. Don't let yourself be afraid."
And before I knew it, there I was, in my late twenties, trying to lead a tiny, all-black church in one of the most difficult mission fields in urban America. Weekdays found me spending hours in the systematic study of God's Word while on Sundays I was "learning" how to convey that Word to people. Carol's musical ability made up for some of my mistakes, and the people were kind enough to pay us a modest salary.
My parents gave us a down payment for a home, and we moved to New Jersey. Somehow we made it through that first year.
THEN ONE DAY my father-in-law called from Florida, where he lived, and asked a favor. Would I please go preach four Sunday nights over at the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle, another church he supervised? Things had hit an all-time low there, he said. I agreed, little suspecting that this step would forever change my life.
The minute I walked in, I could sense that this church had big problems. The young pastor was discouraged. The meeting began on a hesitant note with just a handful of people. Several more walked in late. The worship style bordered on chaotic; there was little sense of direction. The pastor noticed that a certain man was present--an occasional visitor to the church who sang and accompanied himself on the guitar--and asked him on the spot to come up and render a solo. The man sort of smiled and said no.
"Really, I'm serious," the pastor pleaded. "We'd love to have you sing for us." The man kept resisting. It was terribly awkward. Finally the pastor gave up and continued with congregational singing.
I also remember a woman in the small audience who took it upon herself to lead out with a praise chorus now and then, jumping into the middle of whatever the pastor was trying to lead.
It was certainly odd, but it wasn't my problem. After all, I was just there to help out temporarily. (The thought that I, at that stage of my development as a minister, could help anyone showed how desperate things had become.)
I preached, and then drove home.