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After nearly half a century, Wendell is glad to be back home

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Reverend Wendell Christopher Sr is giving back as minister of St Philip AME Church (Photograph supplied)

At Christmas especially, the Reverend Wendell Christopher Sr’s joy comes from giving back.

It is what he focused on during the 49 years he ministered at various churches along the East Coast of the United States and what he has been working towards since he took over the pulpit of St Philip AME in June.

Next month, he is behind a concert to raise funds for the Harrington Sound church.

He believes his interest in social causes is something he inherited from family members such as the late Progressive Labour Party leaders L Frederick Wade and Lois Browne-Evans and through the circumstances he faced as one of five children raised by a single parent.

“My commitment has always been to social justice,” he said. “Part of that came from my family but also, I think, my own upbringing gave me a sensitivity and an empathy for people who were at the bottom of the social ladder simply because of the fact that I was born and I grew up in what we call the ‘Back of Town’ area. We wonderfully call ourselves and proudly call ourselves Pond Dogs.”

He believes that it is only with God’s help that he has had such a successful career. Every time he faced a hurdle, God sent someone to help.

The first was Nellie Swan, a woman he met when he was five while singing at Evening Light Tabernacle on Parson’s Road.

“She took young people who lived in the St Monica’s area and she groomed them. We would get together during the week and she would teach us how to do recitations, how to sing songs, how to do pantomime; how to act. She was very instrumental in grooming a lot of young people in that area and giving them the opportunity to develop their talent.

“At the end of a period she took us away on a trip – all on her own money, she didn't ask us for anything to pay for anything. Were it not for her I don't know what kind of track my life might have taken.”

It was through Ms Swan that Mr Christopher joined the choir at the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity and served under Bishop John Armstrong.

“Out of that matrix, I was invited to Vernon Temple to be on a panel that the young people had and that's how I ended up joining the AME church.”

It was then the late 1960s. On November 16, 1971, Mr Christopher received his exhorter licence, typically given to someone who is on the way to becoming a minister.

Shortly afterwards he went before a board of examiners set by the AME church to assess people who felt they had been called to ministry.

Mr Christopher faced them as part of a group that had trained as deacons but “for some reason, they would not ordain us”.

Not one to give up, he decided to pursue his dream “another way”.

“When I left Bermuda I left with great expectations of going to Arizona State because at that time Richard Parker, who was the pastor of Vernon Temple, he was American and told me if I ever wanted to go to school to let him know and he would help me to do that.

“Well, I left with the anticipation in 1973 that all of that was taken care of but when I got to Arizona, where he was the pastor of a church in Phoenix, he had not done anything.”

Mr Christopher said it was “God's providence” that Mary Jo Miller was there as he described his plight to the congregation.

Join Reverend Wendell Christopher Sr at a January fundraiser for St Philip AME Church (Photograph supplied)

“This White lady, she did not know me from a blade of grass. That afternoon she asked me to come to her house and ended up giving me the money that I needed to go to school.”

He then reached out to Reverend Phillip Cousins, a pastor in Durham, North Carolina, who had promised that he would help interested Bermudians attend Kittrell Junior College. It was an historically Black college in Kittrell, North Carolina, associated with the AME church.

“That's how I ended up there and so did Reverend Eugene Hayward and his sister Blanche and Reverend Colin Lambert, who is deceased.

“And from there I was able to kind of get on my feet. It's always been God stepping in to make that way for me. Sometimes I didn't know He was there. I didn't know anything about Mary Jo Miller, but she was there and throughout my ministry, I've always had people who have come into my life and helped me to project myself. There’s always been somebody who saw what I was doing and gave me an opportunity.”

Fundraiser for St Philip AME

Join the Reverend Wendell Christopher Sr at a fundraising concert for St Philip AME Church next month.

Mr Christopher, who began singing publicly at the age of five, will perform with saxophonist Shawn Herman, soloist Cindy Smith and Gary Bean on musical saw.

Our Pastor in Concert: Welcome Home is part of Mr Christopher’s hope of “making a difference” here after an absence of 49 years.

The cost of buying goods is one thing that “grieves his spirit”.

“I think that in this country that the people are being just gouged when it comes to groceries. I just can't understand the pricing.

“I think in some ways Bermudians are complacent, not meaning to be, but they don't fight the system as tenaciously as I think they could or should – but that's everybody's personal choice. And my personal choice is to try. I don't know if it's going to work but I’m going to try and make a difference.”

Next month’s concert will be a mix of “semi-classical gospel, negro spirituals and contemporary gospel music”.

According to Mr Christopher part of the funds raised will go towards equipment to enhance the quality of St Philip’s weekly YouTube service.

“The other part of proceeds will go to the financial centre of our church and they will make determinations as to how that money will be utilised.”

The church has already helped families in the area that are struggling. Last Friday, younger members “went out into the community and met with some of the elderly people in their homes and had prayer with them”.

“Christmas is a time of reaching out and thanking God for what you have but yet giving of yourself to other people who may be in less fortunate circumstances,” Mr Christopher said. “It's a giving back time.”

In 1975 he was working at Kittrell Junior College when it was shuttered without warning.

Jesse Helms, a conservative politician who opposed civil rights and represented North Carolina in the Senate, “had been after the school for years and was able to finally get it closed down because of IRS issues”.

“I lost all of my resources because I was the chaplain of the college,” Mr Christopher said. “All of the money that I had, which was tied to the college through the chapel, because my account was through the school. I lost it all.

“I ended up living in a trailer in a field in Kittrell from August through May 1 the following year, because I had no resources. The school nurse owned the trailer and allowed me to live in it rent-free until I was able to get assigned a church, which then gave me my own financial underpinning. So it's been a rough journey, but a rewarding one I wouldn't change because of the experiences I’ve had.”

While in the US he served as director of social action for the Second Episcopal District of the AME church. The role carried responsibility for Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the country’s political seat, Washington DC.

He has been honoured for his efforts there as well as his work with many other community organisations and boards.

“Because of my experiences I have been to the White House. I've met President [Bill] Clinton and had an opportunity to work with [President Barack] Obama's people on a lot of issues. I've been to the Senate and the House ….so it's been a good journey and I've loved the work. A wonderful opportunity. I've travelled across the US and been a delegate to the General Conference – which is the premier conference of the AME Church – five times. It's been a good journey. I've met people I've never thought I'd meet in my life. It's just been a wonderful opportunity of growth and development for me coming from where I came from.”

Our Pastor in Concert: Welcome Home takes place Sunday, January 8 at 3pm at St Philip AME Church. Tickets, $20, are available at the door. For more information: stphilipame@livenet.bm

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Published December 22, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated December 23, 2022 at 7:52 am)

After nearly half a century, Wendell is glad to be back home

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