Chapter OneThe Amateurs
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
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
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
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.
After the second week's service, the pastor stunned me
by saying, "I've decided to resign from this church and move
out of state. Would you please notify your father-in-law?"
I nodded and said little. When I called that week with
the news, the question quickly arose as to whether the church
should even stay open.
Some years earlier, my mother-in-law had met with
other women who were interceding for God to establish a
congregation in downtown Brooklyn that would touch
people for his glory. That was how this church had actually
started-but now all seemed hopeless.
As we discussed what to do, I mentioned something that
the pastor had told me. He was sure one of the ushers was
helping himself to the offering plate, because the cash never
quite seemed to match the amounts written on people's
tithing envelopes. No wonder the church's checking account
held less than ten dollars.
My father-in-law wasn't ready to give up. "I don't
know-I'm not sure God is finished with that place quite
yet," he said. "It's a needy part of the city. Let's not throw in
the towel too quickly."
"Well, Clair, what are you going to do when the other
pastor leaves?" asked his wife, who was listening on their
other phone. "I mean, in two weeks ."
His voice suddenly brightened. "Jim, how about if you
pastor both churches for the time being? Just give it a chance
and see if it might turn around?" He wasn't kidding; he really
I didn't know what to say. One thing I was sure of: I
didn't have any magic cure-all for what ailed the Brooklyn
Tabernacle. Still, my father-in-law's concern was genuine, so
I went along with the plan.
Now, instead of being an amateur in one congregation,
I could double my pleasure. For the next year, this was my
9:00 a.m. Leave home in New Jersey and drive alone to
10:00 a.m. Conduct the morning service by myself.
11:30 a.m. Race back across Manhattan and through the
Holland Tunnel to the Newark church, where
Carol and the others would have already begun
the noon service. Preach the sermon.
Late afternoon: Take Carol and the baby to McDonald's, then
head back to Brooklyn for the evening service
Late evening: Drive back home to New Jersey, exhausted and
Vagrants would wander in occasionally during the meetings
in Brookyn. The attendance dropped to fewer than
twenty people because a number of folks quickly decided I
was "too regimented " and elected to go elsewhere.
Sunday mornings without Carol were especially difficult.
The pianist had mastered only one chorus, "Oh, How I Love
Jesus." We sang it every week, sometimes more than once.
All other selections led to stumbling and discords. This did
not exactly seem like a church on the move.
I shall never forget that first Sunday morning offering:
$85. The church's monthly mortgage payment was $232,not
to mention the utility bills or having anything left over for a
When the first mortgage payment rolled around at the
end of the month, the checking account showed something
like $160 in hand. We were going to default right off the bat.
How soon would it take to lose the building and be tossed
out into the street? That Monday, my day off, I remember
praying, "Lord, you have to help me. I don't know much-but
I do know that we have to pay this mortgage."
I went to the church on Tuesday. Well, maybe someone will
send some money out of the blue, I told myself, like what happened
so often with George Mueller and his orphanage back in England-he
just prayed, and a letter or a visitor would arrive to meet his need.
The mail came that day-and there was nothing but bills
Now I was trapped. I went upstairs, sat at my little desk,
put my head down, and began to cry. "God," I sobbed, "what
can I do? We can't even pay the mortgage." That night was
the midweek service, and I knew there wouldn't be more than
three or four people attending. The offering would probably
be less than ten dollars. How was I going to get through this?
I called out to the Lord for a full hour or so. Eventually,
I dried my tears-and a new thought came. Wait a minute!
Besides the mail slot in the front door, the church also has a post
office box. I'll go across the street and see what's there. Surely God
will answer my prayer!
With renewed confidence I walked across the street,
crossed the post office lobby, and twirled the knob on the little
box. I peered inside .
As I stepped back into the sunshine, trucks roared down
Atlantic Avenue. If one had flattened me just then, I wouldn't
have felt any lower. Was God abandoning us? Was I doing
something that displeased him? I trudged wearily back across
the street to the little building.
As I unlocked the door, I was met with another surprise.
There on the foyer floor was something that hadn't been
there just three minutes earlier: a simple white envelope. No
address, no stamp-nothing. Just a white envelope.
With trembling hands I opened it to find . two $50 bills.
I began shouting all by myself in the empty church.
"God, you came through! You came through!" We had $$160
in the bank, and with this $100 we could make the mortgage
payment. My soul let out a deep "Hallelujah!" What a lesson
for a disheartened young pastor!
To this day I don't know where that money came from. I
only know it was a sign to me that God was near-and faithful.
The hectic schedule, of course, was wearing us out, and
Carol and I soon realized we should cast our lot with one
church or the other. Oddly enough, we began to feel drawn to
Brooklyn, even though our only salary came from the Newark
church. Remarkably, God put it into both our hearts to commit
ourselves, for better or worse, to the fledgling Brooklyn
Tabernacle. We somehow knew that was where we belonged.
Both of us quickly took second jobs-she in a school
cafeteria,I as a junior high basketball coach. We had no
health insurance. Somehow we put food on the table and
bought gas for the car, but that was about it.
I didn't know whether this was a normal experience in
the ministry or not; I had no preconceived ideas from Bible
college or seminary by which to judge, because I hadn't been
there. We were just blundering along all by ourselves. Even
Carol's father didn't offer a lot of advice or perspective; I
guess he thought I would learn more in the school of hard
knocks. He often told me, "Jim, you're just going to have to
find your own way, under God ,of ministering to people."
On one of those Sunday nights early on, I was so
depressed by what I saw-and even more by what I felt in my
spirit-that I literally could not preach. Five minutes into my
sermon, I began choking on the words. Tears filled my eyes.
Gloom engulfed me. All I could say to the people was "I'm
sorry . I . I can't preach in this atmosphere Something
is terribly wrong I don't know what to say-I can't go
on Carol, would you play something on the piano, and
would the rest of you come to this altar? If we don't see God
help us, I don't know" With that, I just quit. It was embarrassing,
but I couldn't do anything else.
The people did as I asked. I leaned into the pulpit, my
face planted in my hands, and sobbed. Things were quiet at
first, but soon the Spirit of God came down upon us. People
began to call upon the Lord, their words motivated by a stirring
within. "God, help us," we prayed. Carol played the old
hymn "I Need Thee, Oh, I Need Thee," and we sang along.
A tide of intercession arose.
Suddenly a young usher came running down the center
aisle and threw himself on the altar. He began to cry as he
When I placed my hand on his shoulder, he looked up,
the tears streaming down his face as he said, "I'm sorry! I'm
sorry! I won't do it again! Please forgive me." Instantly I realized
that he was apologizing for taking money from the offering
plate. I stood speechless for a moment, bewildered by his
It was our first spiritual breakthrough. I had not had to
play detective, confront the culprit with his misdeed, or pressure
him to confess. Here in a single night, during a season
of prayer, Problem Number One (out of seemingly thousands)
That evening, when I was at my lowest, confounded by
obstacles, bewildered by the darkness that surrounded us,
unable even to continue preaching, I discovered an astonishing
truth: God is attracted to weakness. He can't resist those
who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need
him. Our weakness, in fact, makes room for his power.
In a parallel vein, people are not put off by honesty, either.
I didn't have to keep up a ministerial front. I could just preach
God's Word as best I knew and then call the congregation to
prayer and worship. The Lord would take over from there.
How I treasure those early humblings. Those experiences
showed me that I didn't need to play the preacher.