Theology Thursdays: God Called, Brown Answered by Larissa Theodore
It's hard to believe the Rev. Calvin Coolidge Brown, a dynamic preacher and speaker, used to trip over his tongue.
One day in particular, during the 1950s, his stuttering intensified. A minister at Brown's former church, the Open Door Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, said he could see a "mark" on Brown, which meant that one day the Beaver Falls man would be a preacher.
"I stuttered badly," Brown said. "I could hardly get a word out."
But Brown found enough words to contest the thought. "I said 'What are you talking about? Not me, no way. I don't want to preach."
The minister simply responded, "Oh yeah. You'll preach one day."
After 47 years, Brown, now 82, stood in the pulpit on Jan. 28 and, to the dismay of his congregation, announced his plans to retire.
"As far as retirement, my work will not cease," said Brown, neatly pressed, like always, in his crisp blue suit and red tie. "I'll continue what I'm doing now. I just won't be pastor."
Brown vividly remembers how it all began. It was 4 p.m. on Oct. 9, 1955, and the spirit struck him in Cleveland. He raised his tall, lean frame to his feet and before he knew it, he had testified to the congregation: the Lord wanted him to preach. The whole church rejoiced. His wife, Eva, who said she would never marry a preacher, was thunderstruck. The moment he stood, Brown felt an anointment on his tongue as if someone had untied a string. He never stuttered again. Five years later, he was sent to Beaver Falls, where he has since served as the pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church at 630 Third Ave.
Brown doesn't officially retire until July 31. A retirement banquet is being planned for July 27 at the Fez in Hopewell Township. Parishioners also plan to form a pulpit committee to search for a new pastor. The assistant pastor will serve in the interim.
Cindy Cook, church clerk since 1990, said Brown has always been interested in helping others. She said he has been a blessing, not only to Tabernacle Baptist, but also in the community.
"He will be missed greatly. He's the only pastor I've ever had," Cook said. "There's definitely going to be a void in our church."
Before stepping into the pastoral job at Tabernacle Baptist, Brown the fifth of eight children, spent his childhood on his father's 20-acre farm in Mintur City, Miss. In 1943, he was drafted into the Army Air Force, spending World War II in Italy, Germany and Switzerland. After coming back home to the farm, Brown and his brother went to trade school where Calvin became a butcher and a barber. Years later, Brown moved to Cleveland because a brother-in-law told him there was work for butchers at better pay. In Cleveland, at a time when segregation was at its peak, blacks could still join the union and earn union wages. Blacks down South weren't paid union wages, he said.
He later attended the Cleveland Baptist Seminary of the Bible for four years and was active on the church usher board, serving as a junior deacon. His father had also been a deacon. By November 1960 he received a registered letter from congregants at Tabernacle Baptist asking him to become their minister.
"I was called here," said Brown, who had never heard of Beaver Falls until visiting the church a year prior. He was installed in April 1961 and his first mission as new pastor was to build a new church, since the current one, built in 1919, was dilapidated and had a leaky roof. He said some of their homes were in better condition. With financial backing from Michael Baker, a local engineer, the church was able to raise enough money for a new building. On Christmas Eve in 1973, Brown cheerfully marched his congregants from the old structure down the block to their new house of worship, which opened in 1973. It was one of Brown's proudest moments as pastor. But Brown has left his mark in other ways.
According to church records, Brown has served longer than any other pastor at a Pennsylvania Baptist-sanctioned church in the county. He received an award in 2003, the Shepherd's Award at the state Baptist Convention, for his long tenure in Beaver County. Brown was honored with a number of other citations and awards, so many that he keeps some in boxes as he tries to find a place for them. He is set to receive another plaque in March from the Beaver Valley Service Club.
Beaver County Commissioner Dan Donatella, who also coincidentally announced his retirement plans recently after more than 40 years in county government, has known Brown for about 35 years. The two were young and beginning their careers when they first met. Donatella said Brown used to deliver the invocation at Democratic Committee events. The one time Brown missed a banquet because he had to go out of town, Donatella said the Democrats were "murdered," in the elections the following week.
"We lost the election," said Donatella, who jokes that Brown was their good luck charm, and that their synchronized retirements happened purely by chance.
"I really wish the Rev. Calvin Brown all the best. He earned it and deserves it and he's a great guy. No one who has ever met him thinks likewise. He's a dear friend."
Brown is preaching to a fifth generation of church members and stays busy leading weddings, funeral and baptisms, and visiting the sick as shut in. Under Brown, 19 ministers have come out of the church. The most recent to profess her calling to ministry is Esther White, the first woman, Brown says proudly. She preached for the first time Sunday night. Brown plans to line the church social room with photos to recognize each of the ministers.
"I have the names of all the ministers who started here in my briefcase," said Brown, who rattles off a dozen names from memory.
Before turning onto a new chapter in life, Brown said he had to pray hard about retiring, a step he had considered for years, but wasn't quite there yet. Brown said he is getting "up in age" and wants some of the younger preachers to have a chance. While his mind is sharp, his hearing isn't as good as it used to be and a pastor "should be able to hear everything," he says.
Brown said he wanted to step down the same way he stepped in, loving everyone and shaking their hands with the ability to look into each face and ask, "how are you doing?" His desire was for 50 years, but 47 is close. And besides, Brown said, he isn't really retiring from God's work.
"I'm only retiring from the pulpit, not from preaching," he said.
This article appears in The Beaver County Times Allegheny Times
Thursday, February 22, 2007