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One on 1 Profile: The Rev. A.R. Bernard Ushers His Megachurch Following Into the 21st Century

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His parishioners at the Christian cultural center number in the thousands, occasionally including celebrities like Denzel Washington and some of the city's most influential politicians, but when the Rev. A. R. Bernard was a younger pastor, he could meet everyone who attended his services personally. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

It's Sunday morning, and thousands have gathered at the Christian Cultural Center in the East New York section of Brooklyn. They've come from every borough, Long Island, even outside of New York.

"I'm not engaged in the ecstatic preaching all of the, you know, the hooping and hollering. No," the Rev. A.R. Bernard says. "When I come up to give my message, that entire auditorium is converted into a classroom, and these are all my students."

Bernard is the senior pastor and founder of the non-denominational Christian Cultural Center. It boasts a registered membership of more than 37,000, making it the largest mega-church in New York.

"I was a banker for 10 years. I was an operations specialist. So I always think in terms of systems and structure," Bernard says. "So I did not pray or think about tens of thousands of people coming to my church. I was trying to understand the most effective way of doing church that would grow people."

The Christian Cultural Center covers 11 acres. Bernard says despite the church's size, a parishioner can still have a one-to-one spiritual experience. His mantra is "environment, people, programs."

A walk through the facility reveals carefully selected artwork.

"We want them to understand art and history, and appreciate their faith in a more expanded way than just something that they do on Sunday," Bernard says.

There's also a sight you might not associate with a religious institution: ATM machines.
 
"This is a matter of convenience," Bernard says. "People come, they're going to the cafe, they're going to the bookstore, we're maybe selling tickets for a concert or whatever, and instead of them having to go somewhere in the neighborhood to try to find, we put it here."

Bernard's followers can also find him on his radio and television shows.

Politicians have taken notice of the success of Bernard's church. Bernard was an early supporter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and he was selected as a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio's transition committee.

"I tell my congregation, I said, 'Listen, these politicians come here, please understand, it's not because they love me. They may end up liking me, or even loving me, but if we had a church of 10 people in a little storefront in Williamsburg where we started, these people, they wouldn't be knocking on my door,'" Bernard says.

The reverend doesn't have to say if, because that's how this church started, in a storefront in Williamsburg in 1978.

"Twenty steel tubular chairs that I bought with my profit sharing," Bernard says. "In '79, we moved to a second-floor loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 5,000 square feet."

There were other stops along the way before the church broke ground in its current location in 1999. During those early years, there was plenty of doubt.

"Especially when I looked at some of my colleagues, and their churches were growing to, like, 1,800, 2,000, and I still had 50 people. I'm saying 'God, OK, what's wrong with me?'" he says.

Bernard briefly considered a run for mayor in 2013. He's a rare breed: an influential African-American pastor, and a Republican.

"It's funny because even black Republicans in the northeast are suspect by the rest of the Republican Party. It doesn't matter. Because we're from the Northeast," he says.

As the son of a white father and black mother, Bernard struggled with his identity as a young man. The pastor who now heads up New York's biggest Christian megachurch spent five years in the nation of Islam.

"I never bought into scapegoating white society," he says. "Black identity, black strength, personal responsibility, the entrepreneurial spirit that was there, present in the Nation of Islam, all of those things appealed to me. But deep down inside, I knew I didn't find God."

On January 11, 1975, he did. At the urging of a colleague. Bernard went to hear the preachings of former gang member-turned-Christian evangelist Nicky Cruz.

"So I went up, and he touched me. He started praying for me," Bernard says. "And I felt like someone put a blowtorch through my chest and blew a hole in me. I began to weep."

Bernard says he left the Nation of Islam without any problems, but in 1996, the Christian magazine Charisma featured Bernard in a cover story entitled "Standing Up to Farrakhan."

"As my ministry grew and my style was appealing to those in the nation, quite a few individuals from the nation started coming here and converting to Christianity," Bernard says. "That became a problem."

Mishkin: Weren't there shots fired at your house?
Bernard: Yeah, my house was shot up. We still don't know who, why, what, so it's one of those mysteries I'll find out when I get to heaven.

Bernard's wife of more than 40 years, Karen, serves as co-pastor. They have seven children.

As he's built his spiritual empire, he's had moments to stop and think about what he’s accomplished. When Bernard turned 40, he reflected on the relationship he never had.

"It was that moment of realizing that I didn't have a father to share this with, and it's one of those moments where I got teary-eyed, and it hit me deeply, just, I would say for about three or four minutes, and then I moved on," he says. "And I'd never, in my whole life, stopped to think about my father until that moment. I was 40 years old. I'll never forget it."

Bernard has experienced many twists and turns in his 60 years: a banking background, the nation of Islam, a storefront turned megachurch. He connects with thousands of people at once, and with individuals, too, including a famous athlete, despondent about life, attending a Bible study.

"He came over and he said, 'Don't give up on me. I got it. I understand it.' And that was a moment that was very, very special," Bernard says. "That's the greatest reward that I get for what I do."

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