Blessing of the Elders: Honoring 7 Black leaders who shaped the American church

August 8, 2022

Earlier this year, the Museum of the Bible announced Blessing of the Elders, a new initiative that honors the rich history of the Black church in America. The vision for this initiative was sparked from the belief that the influence of the Black church would play a profound role in the spiritual renewal of the U.S.

We were honored to sponsor and attend the Blessing of the Elders at the Museum of the Bible in June 2022. This inaugural event recognized and celebrated seven “Black pastors across the United States who have been committed to their call of preaching the gospel and caring for the souls of humankind.” 

The impact of the Black church on American life and culture is immeasurable, and this is just one step in recognizing the work that’s been going on for generations. Let’s take a look at the honorees and their impactful work in ministry!

Pastor A. R. Bernard

A.R. Bernard left a 10-year career in banking to do ministry full time. In 1978, he and his wife Karen founded the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York. With Karen at his side, the church grew from a small Bible study to what is now one of the largest independent churches in the U.S.—with more than 37,000 members!

Rev. Bernard’s initiatives extend far beyond the pulpit. From local food pantries to prison ministry to the founding the Brooklyn Preparatory School in New York City (and so much more), Rev. Bernard has an enormous impact through local outreach programs.

Today, A.R. and his ministry embrace technology as a way to further share the gospel. Through radio, TV, social media, and more, he reaches over 500,000 people with the good word week after week.

Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr.

Bishop Charles began his early work in ministry in his twenties when his father was asked to take over as a bishop of the First Jurisdiction of Southern California for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination. By 1969, Charles was asked by his father and the Southern California COGIC bishop, Samuel Crouch, to take over as the pastor of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

Throughout the years, Bishop Charles has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, acted as an Advisory Committee Member of the Pentecostal World Conference, founded the Los Angeles Ecumenical Congress, and was the founding Chair of the Board of Directors for the C. H. Mason Theological Seminary.

Bishop Blake’s heart and care for children in Africa can be seen through his work addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, Bishop Blake founded the Pan African Children’s Fund (PACF)—of which he still serves as president—and has since provided support to over 200,000 children, 420 orphan care programs, and 24 nations throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, Bishop Blake still ministers to West Angeles COGIC, which has grown to be one of the largest churches in the Western United States with a membership of over 25,000.

Pastor Shirley Caesar

Pastor Shirley Caesar was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. Inspired by her father, “Big Jim” Caesar, she quickly found a place in the gospel music scene and had her first single on the radio by the age of 13!

In college, Shirley was asked to join The Caravans, one of the most popular gospel groups at the time. It was during her years as a member of The Caravans that she started preaching during performances.

Over the years, Pastor Shirley has continued her gospel career as a globally acclaimed and award-winning solo artist. Today, she serves alongside her husband, Bishop Harold Ivory Williams, as the senior pastor at Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Dr. Tony Evans

Dr. Tony Evans started ministering in 1973 after a Houston radio producer asked him to begin preaching on the air. After five years of radio ministry, Dr. Evans and his wife Dr. Lois Evans felt called to open Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, a church that started in their home with just 10 people. In 1981, they also began The Urban Alternative to reach and equip people with Bible-based teaching through the radio. 

Today, The Urban Alternative is aired on over 1,400 radio and television stations in over 130 countries as well as on the Tony Evans App, bringing the gospel to millions of people every week. Dr. Evans continues to serve as the senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Church, which has grown to over 10,000 attendees and over 100 various ministries.  

Dr. Tony was the first African American to graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary and has written over 150 books. The Tony Evans Training Center was launched in 2017 to increase Bible literacy for those who can’t afford to pay for seminary. He and his wife, Dr. Lois Evans, ministered together and were married for over 50 years before she passed away in late 2019. They have four children, 13 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Bishop T. D. Jakes

Bishop T.D. Jakes has been ministering for over 40 years. In addition to pastoring, he is an acclaimed author, television personality, leader, and filmmaker. He is well known for his riveting sermons and his ability to reach the most diverse audiences.

In 1996, Bishop T.D. Jakes founded The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas. The Potter’s House is a nondenominational, multicultural church and humanitarian organization. Today, the church has over 30,000 members and campuses in several cities throughout the United States.

Jakes and his wife Serita, who serves as the executive director for the women’s ministry at The Potter’s House, have been married for 36 years and raised five children together.

Bishop Vashti McKenzie

In 1981, Bishop Vashti McKenzie started out her ministry as an ordained deacon after receiving her Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Howard University. She became a minister within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1984 and then went on to complete her Doctorate of Ministry. 

Dr. McKenzie’s ministry is full of groundbreaking “firsts.” She was elected as the first woman Bishop to the Episcopal office in 2000, and ten years later served as the first woman President of the AME Council of Bishops. Five years later, she was the first woman to lead the AME denomination as titular head. Today, she presides over the 10th Episcopal District that covers all AME churches in Texas. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bishop McKenzie has also published five books, served on the President’s Advisory Council of the White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and founded 10th Future Inc., a nonprofit that provides student scholarships and local community grants. 

Her husband Dr. Stanley McKenzie, a former NBA basketball player, still serves with her in the church, and they are blessed with three children and two grandchildren.

Dr. John M. Perkins

John Perkins was born in Mississippi during the height of Jim Crow and the Great Depression. He overcame a rough childhood that consisted of his mother’s early death, his father’s abandonment, and dropping out of school during the third grade. In 1946, he moved to California shortly after his brother was shot and killed. 

In 1951 John  married Vera Mae Buckley and is drafted into the Korean war. After his service, he became a Christian and is ordained as a Baptist minister by 1958. They moved back to Mississippi and started Mendenhall Ministries—a ministry focused on  showing God’s love through action. Together they led served the rural community by addressing problems of poor housing, segregated and unequal education, and more.

John became a leading voice for political and social justice throughout Mississippi. He organized voter registration drives, advocated for children’s hunger, led the boycotts, and so much more. 

From acting as a counselor to six U.S. presidents to establishing the John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation (formerly John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation & Development), Dr. Perkins is regarded as one of the most prominent evangelical figures in American history.

A lasting impact

May the real-life work of these Black leaders (as well as many others who are unmentioned) have a lasting and inspiring impact on the Church for generations to come. 

The Blessing of the Elders initiative does not stop there! From the creation of a new exhibition to a feature-length documentary, learn more about what’s in store to further share the story of the history, narrative, and impact of the African American church by visiting the Museum of the Bible’s website.


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