This article is part of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience.
Reverend A. R. Bernard is the founder and spiritual leader of the Christian Cultural Center, New York City’s largest and fastest-growing church. Every Sunday, his teachings touch the lives of a 29,000-member congregation and reach an additional 300,000 via WMCA-AM on his morning radio show. Reverend Bernard’s reach extends beyond the pulpit, though. He is a board member of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a member of New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein’s Advisory Cabinet, and President of the Council of Churches of the City of New York.
In May 2006, New York Magazine dubbed Reverend Bernard as one of the city’s most influential New Yorkers. Similar accolades have followed, with the New York Daily News (February 2007) selecting him as the top religious leader in New York City and the New York Post (February 2008) naming him the most influential black New Yorker. In spite of Reverend Bernard’s outstanding leadership and laundry list of achievements, he asserts the fruits of his life’s work would have been impossible without the grace of God.
On November 6, 2007, Reverend A.R. Bernard published Happiness Is…: Simple Steps to a Life of Joy, a book that defines what happiness is, how to find it and how to keep it. Upon review of Happiness Is, Reverend Bernard managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry, reflecting on life, religion and, of course, Happiness Is.
Clayton Perry: Let's just dive into the book. My first question is, what is your happiest memory?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: What is my happiest memory? Wow. I have to speak in terms of my faith and that is when I settled the question on my faith and spirituality in Christ.
Clayton Perry: Did you find God or did God find you?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Well, He wasn’t lost; I was. He found me. Actually, He decided the right time to interrupt my life.
Clayton Perry: My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter Two: Happiness Is Learning to Accept the Past. In it, you said people should not let the future be held captive by the past. I know that over the years, in my own journey to finding Christ, I always wondered why Christ would want to forgive someone like me and how He could use someone like me, in spite of all I have done.
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Well, it’s like the apostle Paul [said] in Philippians Chapter 3. He said, “I count not myself to have apprehended but I’m trying to understand that for which I’ve been apprehended by Christ.” He couldn’t understand why Christ would go so far to seize his life and [was asking], what does it mean? That’s a journey. I don’t think we’ll ever answer that question, not in this life.
Clayton Perry: Do you ever question God?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Oh, absolutely, very politely, and respectfully.
Clayton Perry: That’s the best way, I guess. At what point did you decide to become a minister of His word?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Well, I didn’t decide. I discovered a gift – of learning, of insight into the Scripture, of articulating the Scripture in a very practical, relevant way. As I began to exercise that gift, it began to make room for me in ministry. How do I translate that now into a calling? The denomination that I was in and some ministerial leaders helped me to understand that calling and clarify it, and I recognized that God’s hand was upon my life. I was a banker for 10 years, and a certain dissatisfaction with the business world that I was working in coupled with the discovery of a gift and a calling on my life. I simply answered [the call].
Clayton Perry: When I look at your congregation, I am simply amazed by the sheer diversity of the Christian Cultural Center (CCC). I live in North Carolina, which is part of the “Bible Belt” of the South, and such a “beloved community” is rarely formed or seen. As a child I always heard, “11:00 AM on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the day.” Martin Luther King even expounded on this social form of segregation, saying, “the cross has no east and no west.” How did you manage to get such a diverse group of worshippers together?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Well, I have to tell you I’m amazed, too, but the reality is I think, live, and practice ministry beyond racial and cultural differences. As a result, all cultures feel comfortable in our environment. We speak of community, not just fellowship. What gives the church strength as community and in community is diversity. Yet the power of the group is in the creativity of the individual, so we recognize the individual’s ability, no matter what their background, to contribute to the whole.
We live, think and speak multiculturalism. In part it has to do with where we are. New York is a very multicultural metropolis, yet the reality is that you can go to churches that are all Korean, all black, all white, all Spanish. So in addition to the multicultural environment of New York City , we are intentional about multiculturalism.
Clayton Perry: You are really involved in politics and a lot of political leaders have asked for your advice, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. What role do you think the church should play in politics?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: The church is God’s agent for moral imperative. We are salt and light. As salt, we preserve a certain set of standards and values that we believe are absolute, regardless of what society believes. We maintain the society and protect it from corruption. We’re also light – illuminators of the way of truth, of understanding, of peace, of community, of unselfish caring for one another. The reality is that we are a human family. It’s out of my faith that I’m strengthened to bring things like justice, peace, righteousness to the society because those are my values and they come from my faith. So we [as Christians] bring that influence to society.
Clayton Perry: As the minister of such a diverse congregation, what do you think about some of the differences that divide us? It goes without saying that different people come with different politics and different lifestyles. How do you react to this within that body?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Well, take my church. We have 29,342 members as of February 2008, and all who are coming are at different levels of spiritual growth, maturity, and understanding. I understand that and appreciate each person’s journey. I would never place upon them my level of consecration, but encourage them to become more dedicated to the God they serve and to the Bible that’s the source of faith and [the] rule of conduct.
The more dedicated and committed they are to this life of faith, the greater its influence upon their lifestyle. Everyone in society has the power of choice as a God-given gift, but we become servants of the choices we make. When we choose lifestyles that are in opposition to who we really are, we suffer the consequences. We’re made in the image of God, and there’s a beauty about us that we still retain in spite of our fallen condition.
So, [because of that beauty] I can work with people in government or in the community who have far different values and views about God than I do, but we can come together on a common ground to help our communities. This is critical, because the Bible says, "pray for those in authority that you may lead peaceable lives." Obviously our peacefulness within society is dependent upon what’s happening in government. Therefore, we are called to pray for [those in authority], to influence them.
Clayton Perry: I am 23-years-old, and I have noticed that many people around my age have stopped attending church. What’s one way you get youth excited about church and create a ministry that really empowers young people?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: If they see church and God as some antiquated philosophy or concept that has no relationship to their daily lives, we lose them. They have to see church as relevant to who they are and where they live, and we can [help them] do that without compromising our convictions and our values.
Clayton Perry: I grew up listening to Kirk Franklin. Currently, I am listening to his latest album, The Fight of My Life. Over the years, however, as a fan of Franklin, I have found that older worshippers, depending on the song, are not particularly fond of his interpretation of gospel music. What is your take on young music ministers who often blend the secular with the religious?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: First of all, the musical note is not good or bad. It’s the context in which we put it and the words that we create around it that determine whether it’s good or bad. When black Gospel came out, especially the fast-paced, praise music that came out of the black church, there were those who were totally against it. They said it was worldly and sensual, and it had no place in the church. At one time, there was no music allowed in church, and even the pipe organ was taboo, but then musical instruments began to come in. Each generation is always confronted by the old guard or those who are used to one particular thing whenever they introduce a new style and methodology.
I think, as we go along, we discover a lot of things that we, not God, have determined unclean and out-of-place, were really not either. The question is: is the music evoking a sense of praise, worship, and adoration towards God, or is it stirring the flesh? If it’s stirring the flesh, then we don’t have to go any further in the discussion, right? It is what it is. We have to think about this. Who are we talking about here? Who are we trying to reach? If we’re trying to reach the world out there, you know you've got to catch fish before you can clean them.
Clayton Perry: Very true. When you think about the future, what do you perceive to be America’s greatest challenge?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: America’s greatest challenge is accepting the new season that America is entering. If you look at our presidential race right now, you’re looking at the first viable black candidate for president of the United States and the first viable woman candidate for president of the United States. That’s history in the making – these points in time where things line up to create something that we can only say that unseen forces are shaping and implementing. Is America ready to embrace the new multicultural and pluralistic America being born? How will she handle that?
Clayton Perry: I wonder that, too. Going back to the book – when I was reading the introduction, you talked about how you stumbled across an article out of USA Today and you turned it into a series of articles that became this book. Which particular chapter spoke most to you, or which one did you have the biggest difficulty writing?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: The whole book is my life and my experiences. It’s a mixture in there. I’m with you, you know – if you don’t have a positive evaluation of your past experiences so that you can take the benefit of those experiences and invest them in the future, then you really have no future. Your life is bound to the past. That is the big reality that comes from me.
Clayton Perry: I look at happiness in a totally different way now. In the introduction to Happiness Is, you mention how a lot of people perceive and determine their ultimate happiness in terms of finances. Further into the book, however, you make it clear this is really about the way that you approach life, especially the setbacks. When negative things happen, we are unable to see the master plan God has laid out and, more often than not, we let that uncertainty chink away at our faith.
Rev. A. R. Bernard: That is very well said. Too often, we do not realize that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves.
Clayton Perry: That is true, indeed. To be completely honest, I must say I stumbled upon your book by accident, through the referral of Vernice Watson, Executive Director of The Artist Company International. Usually, it takes me some time to read through a book. I got through Happiness Is in a little over two days, however. It was very hard for me to put the book down. I have shared Happiness Is with others because there is a lot of good information written inside, even for non-believers. I like the way you have Scripture next to common sense or quotations from people we’re familiar with.
Rev. A. R. Bernard: That was the idea. For me, there’s no dichotomy. All life springs from God, whether portions of that life are in rebellion against Him or not. We make distinctions in our society [between the secular and the spiritual], but I don’t, so to write a book like that is to share my faith and at the same time embrace, respect, and appreciate the value of human society as a whole to contribute. [However], I make a clear distinction that it doesn’t mean that I buy in to what other people believe.
Clayton Perry: How would you want to be remembered? I know you do a lot and have quite a resume, and New York Magazine has dubbed you as one of the most influential New Yorkers.
Rev. A. R. Bernard: It’s piling up, yeah. There was a wonderful article in the Daily News the other day that dubbed [me] the most influential African-American New Yorker. That’s an interesting title, because even that is God’s favor. He’s given me a gift and I appreciate the privilege and opportunity to represent Him, not myself.
Clayton Perry: Did you ever see it coming?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: No, I had no idea. I’m just trying to do the right thing and do the best I can with what I was given.
Clayton Perry: Do you ever wonder why you were the one to be chosen?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: I still can’t figure that out. I have to be totally honest with myself because I see people in my own congregation who are more qualified than I am in certain things. I have to appreciate that God just determines, “You know, I’m going to use this guy or this girl.” We just have to accept that.
Clayton Perry: I teach full-time, so I am really interested to find out more about the Brooklyn Preparatory School. How did this school come about? What immediate plans lay in its future?
Rev. A. R. Bernard: Interestingly enough, it came out of my own need. My children were in the public school system and I saw what it was doing to them spiritually. I wanted to find an environment in which they could grow more holistically, with their faith as the core of their learning experience.
As a teaching ministry, our church attracts teachers. We gathered all 400 educators or members of our church who are educators and I asked them, “What are the most impressionable years in a child’s life?” They said from 3-6 years old, so we took 3-6 year olds and we were able to take these little kids and socialize them in a way that they love God, love learning, and see life through the eyes of God. Now, we have graduated over 180 students into the gifted programs in the New York City schools. Our children have scored in the 96th percentile in reading comprehension and the 95 percentile in Mathematics on the Stanford achievement test. They’ve been exposed to museums, art, language, computer literacy. They’re assertive yet humble.
Now we are filing to establish a charter school where we can take that and extend the experience through the 12th grade. We realized what the keys are and now we can apply them at higher grade levels. Keep us in prayer, because it’s one thing to experience this kind of success at an early childhood level, but when you introduce higher grades, the dynamics change. It’ll continue to be a learning process, but we’re excited about it. Education is more than the impartation of information; it’s the communication of life.
Clayton Perry: Other than the Bible, what books and materials would you recommend to young worshippers? Sometimes when I look at the Bible, it seems so hard to approach.
Rev. A. R. Bernard: It depends on the subject matter, but a very good book that will give you an idea of where I come from is Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ in Culture. It’s a very good book to stimulate your mind.
Clayton Perry: Thanks, Reverend Bernard. I’ll be sure to look for that book. With that, I will also recommend your book as well.
About the Christian Cultural Center and Teaching Ministry of A. R. Bernard
Founded in 1978 by Reverend A. R. Bernard, Sr. and his wife Karen, the Christian Cultural Center has grown from that small beginning to a current membership of over 28,000. The Christian Cultural Center is composed of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life – all of who have made a public confession of their identification with Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
All members believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, commonly known as the Holy Bible, to be the sole source of faith and the absolute rule of conduct for human life. They have determined to build their lives on Truth; the firmest and most stable of any foundation.
Reverend Bernard is the host of two weekly television broadcasts: New York Now, a weekly public affairs cable show, and A. R. Bernard, which airs on Sunday mornings. Both shows air on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. adio broadcasts of Bernard’s sermons can also be heard on WRKS (KISS) FM, Sirius Satellite Radio and WMCA. Podcasts of New York Now, A. R. Bernard New Magazine Show and the Teaching Ministry of Dr. A. R. Bernard are available on iTunes.