Theology Thursdays: The Black Pastor by Carlos Armintor
When the Rev. Dana Carson announced he was leaving his Austin church for Alvin, he asked anyone who was interested to follow him. About 300 of his 5,000 parishioners heeded the call.
They quit their jobs, sold their homes, moved out of their apartments, left their friends and moved nearly 200 miles to follow their pastor.
Carson began preaching to about nine people in a trailer home in east Austin in 1986. He built that into Praise Tabernacle, a predominantly black church that had a congregation of about 5,000 people.
Carson said he felt it his work in Austin was done. He had a new goal to develop an integrated church in the Houston area. Carson chose to establish his new church, Reflections of Christ's Kingdom, also known as the "ROCK," in Alvin, a city of 21,000 about 20 miles south of Houston.
The church is neo-Pentecostal church, which means it has Pentecostal roots, but does not adhere to the rigidity of traditional Pentecostalism, he said.
Carson, 42, said it was not unusual for a congregation to follow its preacher. When the Rev. T.D. Jakes moved from West Virginia to Dallas, Carson said, about 50 families moved with him.
"It's a cultural thing," Carson said. "African-Americans are more relationship-based. Whites are more analytical. When African-Americans have a relationship with a preacher, they stick with him."
Vinson Synan, dean of the school of divinity at Regent University, said it was rare when a congregation moved with its pastor, but he said he had seen the powerful influence of black ministers.
"They do in most cases have very tremendous, almost absolute authority," Synan said. "The black pastors I know of have almost apostolic authority in their churches. People look up to them as their unquestioned leaders."
Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston, agreed
"It doesn't happen that often that pastors leave that distance, but I am not surprised," Lee said. "The unique role a black pastor plays in the role of his congregants lends itself to them following him. He is almost like a tribal chief."
Tammy Spencer, 33, moved to Alvin this summer with her three children to follow Carson. She said she met Carson eight years ago after serving a short prison term for dealing drugs, and he helped turn her life around. She recently became a licensed drug dependency counselor and wants to help troubled children.
"Without them, I would probably be strung out on drugs," she said of Carson and his ministry. "The spiritual growth in the church allowed me to have the desire to give back to the community."
Spencer said she didn't think it was that unusual to move with her pastor.
"People move for their jobs," she said. "My job is for the work of God. People move with their companies all the time. Why not move for your beliefs and faiths?"
Nicole Harvey, 29, said she didn't really like Austin. The reason she stayed in the city was Carson. She said hearing him preach changed her life.
"I went from living in the world to living for God," she said. "I know that he is anointed. For me to stay in Austin, I would lose that. He is my spiritual leader. If he went to Africa, I would go to Africa."
Spencer has not yet found a job. She said she didn't regret the move to Alvin. There are a lot more counseling opportunities in the Houston area than in Austin, she said, and she sees it as a better opportunity. She said she was enjoying living in the city.
"The people are so warm and welcoming," she said. "It's a family town. Austin was so big. I feel more welcome here. I feel like I belong."
Harvey had a job in Austin, but was not able to transfer with her company. However, she found a job in nearby Friendswood with a car dealership. She said she was happy with her new job.
Carson said he knew there were some who were skeptical about so many people moving into the city for the church. He said the church was not a cult, but a group of people trying to live as God would want.
"Take the time to come here and get to know us," Carson said. "That's the only way we can settle that."
Carson literally built Praise Tabernacle from the ground up. Not only was he the church's founder, he helped design the $5 million church facility, which includes a 2,000-seat sanctuary and a gymnasium.
Praise Tabernacle continues its services. Charles Moody, one of its elders, has become the pastor, and the church plans to change its name to the "ROCK." It will be a sister church, but financially independent, Carson said.
Carson had a $599,000 home in Austin, he said. He has bought a home in the Houston area, but declined to say where or how much it was worth.
Carson said his church obtained a loan to buy the old First Baptist Church at 415 W. Adoue in Alvin for $2.1 million dollars. The complex includes a 1,000-seat sanctuary, offices, an education wing with classrooms, a chapel and a gymnasium. Carson said he put about $200,000 of his own money into renovating the church's gymnasium.
Asked his annual income, Carson said, "That's none of your business."
PREACHING THE GOSPEL
A church service at the ROCK is more than prayer. It's entertainment. On a recent Wednesday, the service was a Bible study session that lasted about 2 1/2 hours. The service was a combination of preaching and a musical medley.
A band with a booming bass, the moans of a keyboard, the banging of drums and the fretwork of a guitar accompanied a 15-member choir.
Sometimes the congregation breaks into an up-tempo song that has congregation members moving their feet, clapping their hands and shouting, "Hallelujah!" Other songs are slower and the congregation becomes more reflective, as they put their hands up, palms forward with their eyes closed.
After almost 45 minutes of praise songs that blend gospel and blues, Carson enters quietly from a side door. He isn't quiet for long.
Carson, who has a shock of white hair, stands about 5-foot-8. The power of his voice makes up for any lack of height.
Carson reads from the book of Joshua and begins to talk to the congregation about the need to master life's tests before moving to God's kingdom.
Carson's thunderous voice shouts about his love of God.
"From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, is He worthy?" Carson asked jubilantly. "Praise Jesus."
He also finds time to joke with his flock. He asked the congregation to read with him, but few voices could be heard.
"Ya'll don't want to read with me anymore?" he asked, with a big smile. "Are ya'll boycotting me?"
Carson, a native of Chicago, said he had a combination of street smarts and formal education that allowed him to help and be a strong leader for his congregation. Carson lists several degrees, including a master's degree in counseling from East Texas State University, a Ph.D. in Christian psychology from Logos International College and a doctorate in ministry from Boston University.
"I think I bring a unique blend to the table, and people appreciate that," he said.
HOUSE OF WORSHIP
The ROCK, at 415 W. Adoue, is a 66,000-square-foot facility with three buildings, including an athletic facility.
On any given day, a secretary can be heard answering the phone, "It's a blessed day at the ROCK."
The sanctuary, which can seat about 1,000 people, is smaller than the one at Praise Tabernacle, which seats about 2,000, Carson said. However, the overall facility is larger.
Carson's sermons are broadcast on two channels. Carson can be seen preaching across the nation on The Word Network, which is channel 373 on Direct TV on 8 p.m. Tuesday, 2 a.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m. Sunday. He can also be seen preaching Sundays at 2:30 p.m. on Daystar KLTJ Channel 22 in the Houston area.
Carson has one room set with several phones, which are for people to take calls during the service and answer questions. Carson also has plans to renovate the church's classrooms and gymnasium.
Another big part of the Wednesday Bible session is the collection of donations. In addition to baskets at the front, a woman sits at the back behind a table with a debit card machine for those who want to make donations.
It costs money to operate the church and make the changes he wants to the facility, Carson said.
Dexter Lockett, Carson's personal assistant, said taking debit cards at the church was not that unusual.
"It's just moving forward with technology," Lockett said. "In modern times, people use their bank cards. It makes for easy giving. Wal-Mart does it. HEB does it. It doesn't speak negatively about the church at all."
During a Sunday church service, there are two collections taken, he said.
INTEGRATING THE CHURCH
The most segregated place in America is in church at 11 a.m. Sunday, Carson said.
The move to Alvin was an attempt to integrate the church, Carson said. In Austin, Praise Tabernacle was about 95 percent black. He felt it would be hard to integrate the church in Austin, so he had the idea to come to Alvin.
He said he was not sure at first why Alvin, but he wanted to come to the greater Houston area where he thought he would have a better chance of reaching across racial boundaries.
After a few months, the church has a membership of about 400 people. About 40 people joined last month and about 40 this month. About 83 percent of the church is black, which is an improvement, Carson said.
"We are seeing white members like we have never seen before," he said. "I am happy. We have long way to go."
Spencer, who is white, said she felt completely comfortable in the church.
"We don't see each other through color," she said. "We see each other through God."
Carson is confident the congregation will grow.
"We are going to see 5,000 eventually," he said. "We know our message and vision. In the next five to seven years, we would like to have 7,000 or 8,000."
After he chose to move to Alvin, Carson said, he became aware of its history in the Pentecostal movement. The move to Alvin then made sense, he said.
In the early 1900s, William J. Seymour, a young black man, witnessed the Rev. Charles Parham preaching in Alvin. However, Jim Crow laws prevented Seymour from taking part in the service, Carson said. Seymour moved to California and founded the Azusa Street Mission, which became the center of the Pentecostal movement, Carson said.
Lee said it is important not to underestimate what significance this would have for Pentecostals.
"If Pentecostals were looking for a sign and learned about this it would be look, whoa," Lee said. "For a Pentecostal to be aware of that, it would be a big thing. It would be like God is speaking."
When a newspaper reported that Carson was coming to Alvin to address racial issues, some in the community were confused.
"Speaking from my point of view, I don't have a problem with any color in this town," said Helen May, a black woman who is a long-time Alvin resident. "I don't understand what he is trying to do. Don't stir something up that is not there."
Carson said he didn't come to Alvin because of any particular racial incident or problem, but because it is sacred ground.
Alvin is 67 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The rest of the city's population is comprised of American Indians, Asians, Pacific Islanders and other races, according to the census.
Like most cities, Alvin has had its share of racism, but it was in the past, Carson said. There was a time when blacks were warned not to be out on the streets after dark, he said.
"Alvin used to be very racist when I was a little girl," May said. "It had signs and things up in some of the doctors' offices you had to go in the back door. I don't see that now. It has changed. Everybody is coming together."
Racism is still in the city and has prevented some from attending his church, Carson said.
"One young fella said his father didn't want him to come here because he thought it was dangerous, too many blacks," Carson said. "There is racism here just like anywhere else."
That just lets Carson know he has work to do. Carson said he was trying to become involved in the city. He has joined the Alvin Ministerial Alliance in that effort. He feels that he is already making a difference, which can be seen in his church, he said.
"This is the most salt and pepperish this city has ever been," Carson said. "We see it as God trying to bring about racial harmony."
Carlos Armintor covers the city of Alvin for The Facts. Mr. Armintor can be contacted at: email@example.com
Note: This article first appeared in the October 5, 2003 edition of The Facts under the headline, "Ready to ROCK"
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Thursday, October 9, 2003