Last updated: February 21, 2024
I Didn’t Want Any Part of Church
Rev. Dr. Charles Galbreath grew up in the suburbs of Maryland outside of Washington D.C. His father, a businessman, discerned a call to ministry. This meant founding a church in their home when Charles was four years old. “Our basement was the sanctuary, the kitchen was the Sunday school room; our rooms were the childrens’ rooms. We started, really and truly, a house church,” says Charles. The church moved to a school for 10 years, during which Charles helped set up chairs and tables weekly, until the church purchased its own property in Maryland.
“Through all of that, I saw church. I saw all of church. So as a result, I didn’t want any part of church,” Charles says. “I saw the struggle, I saw the sacrifice, I saw when folks were with you and then leave you. I saw the back and forth, the tensions, the always-on-call – all those moments.”
Though Charles decided the pastorate was not for him, he always had a commitment to service in the church and community and never walked away from his faith, which he describes as deeply formed due to discipleship from his father.
In his college years, Charles looked at different avenues for serving God. He felt himself having “that negotiation with God” – telling Him, “I’ll still serve you, but let me do my own thing.” He graduated from college and planned to go into the business world and eventually into politics, with several job possibilities looming.
Then, Charles had an encounter with God.
Will You Say Yes?
It started when Charles was introduced to the spiritual disciplines, including solitude and holy listening, by his mentor Dr. Ron Walborn. Wrestling with his sense of call and direction, Charles decided he really needed to hear from the Lord.
So he spent a Saturday in a house overlooking the Hudson River in New York. From before sunrise until after sunset, Charles waited for “the Mufasa voice” – the voice of the Lion King he thought God would speak to him in, telling him what to do.
The Mufasa voice didn’t come.
“I don’t get anything till the end of the day, where it’s not the Mufasa voice, but it’s an inner voice that I recognize is not my voice. It says, ‘I’ve called you to serve. Will you say yes?’” Charles understood that this was a call to pastoral ministry – the very thing he had run from. Yet in that moment, he fully surrendered to his call.
Opportunities came to Charles as soon as he said “yes” to God. He made the decision to go to seminary. He and his wife planted churches in Harlem for several years. Then he pastored a church in Queens for two years. For the last 13 years, he has been the pastor of Alliance Tabernacle in Brooklyn.
Going to seminary awakened in Charles deeper reflections on theological inquiry that he couldn’t put to sleep. “I began to think and read things I’d never read before – concepts and ideas of what is possible in the Kingdom,” he says. Charles describes himself as a “perpetual student” since his seminary days. One of his research interests is the religious history of the African American church, something he has not only studied but also lived and experienced.
The Schism that Never Took Place
Charles finds something holy and sacred in the African American church tradition. He holds that the African American church developed within a framework of oppression, meaning its tradition can help us read Scripture more clearly in its context; after all, Scripture was written many times during oppression, whether Egyptian, Babylonian or Roman oppression.
This isn’t the only thing Charles finds special about the African American church. He maintains that a certain schism took place in the broader church that escaped his tradition. “The history of the African American church did not bifurcate the experience of deep theological orthodoxy with the call and direction toward justice and the inworking of the gospel,” he says. According to Charles, historically the African American preacher did not just preach and teach on Sunday but was also the person helping people find work and education; in fact, many historically black colleges and universities were founded within black churches to meet a need.
“What does it look like for one to have faithful biblical orthodoxy as well as faithful mission and service towards justice and righteousness? My argument in my study and work, in its purest and truest form, is that the African American church tradition sees that deep integration of service, of work, of faith, of life, of education, all intersecting within the church community,” says Charles.
Right in the Center of Brooklyn
Charles now serves the African American church tradition as well as those new to the country. If you ask him where he pastors, he’ll tell you to pull up a map of Brooklyn and point right in the center – that’s where Alliance Tabernacle is located. Charles describes his congregation as a group of 26 different nations representing Africa, the African diaspora from the Caribbean, South America, and the African American south. Alliance Tabernacle provides youth and young adult ministries; a community center offering food, clothing, and other services to migrants to NY, among others; and a center for senior adults.
“I don’t pastor a building. I pastor a community,” says Charles. For him, there is no division between those he sees every Sunday morning and those he sees walking up and down the block, because his church’s ministry is holistic, meant to touch every aspect of people’s lives. “So we gather for worship, but after worship I’m immediately confronted with the reality of people who need housing; people who are going through foreclosure; folks who are experiencing health disparities; young people who unfortunately have been involved and engaged with the criminal justice system. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus where we are planted, where we are located.”
One of the areas Charles is most proud of and thankful for is his opportunity to help reduce gun violence in central Brooklyn.
The 67th Clergy Council
When Charles arrived in Brooklyn in 2010, it was the third deadliest precinct in all of New York City in regards to gun violence. Charles and three other pastors came together and prayed to see what they could do.
As they started to pray, they discussed that prayer isn’t passive. “Prayer is the engagement, the movement, of God and the divine,” says Charles. So they began arriving and praying in spots where a death from a shooting had occurred. The group of four pastors grew to 10. They would care for those affected by the shooting and do funerals for free. They ultimately partnered with the NYPD, then other community-based organizations, to form an organized response to local violence. They not only pray and conduct funerals but now also offer GED training, OSHA (a license to do construction work), opportunities to get misdemeanors expunged, housing resources and other services. They also do “gang notifications,” a proactive approach that brings peace, calm, and resources to prevent retaliation when there has been a shooting.
After evaluating this group of pastors for three months, the NYPD found that crime dropped 73% more than in other districts. As a result, Charles helped his group become an official organization called 67th Precinct Clergy Council, Inc., also known as the God Squad. Though Brooklyn was once the third deadliest precinct in New York, it has moved off of the top 10 list. The 67th Clergy Council now also has programs that provide mentoring for youth, support for families of homicide victims, and resources for single parents. What began with four pastors and a couple hundred dollars from church offerings now has a staff of over 20 people and over four million dollars in funding. They’ve received a grant from the city of New York to replicate this model in seven of the other most violent precincts in the city.
“We believe that this is the gospel in action,” says Charles. “I really do believe that when a church is in a neighborhood, the neighborhood should be better; that the neighborhood should see the redemptive, restorative work of the kingdom of God when we show up.”
A Gun at the Altar
Every Sunday, the congregation of Alliance Tabernacle prays for their neighborhood and community. Many who have joined the church since Charles became the pastor are victims of violence who have seen the work of the 67th Clergy Council. “Here’s the exciting thing. When the church starts to show up as who God has called us to be, the community starts to respond.”
To help get illegal guns off the street, Alliance Tabernacle partnered with the NYPD, resulting in a program where people could bring their guns to the church and turn them in. About 70 guns were brought to the church on a Saturday. The next morning, Charles stood up before his congregation. “Isn’t this a wonderful thing?” he said. “We’ve had 70 guns taken off the street. God is working a miracle and a mighty thing, and we believe more guns are going to come off the street so violence will stop.” Then something came over Charles that made him continue: “There could be somebody even here today who has a gun who wants to lay it at the altar and just get rid of it. We’re believing God for that.”
As Charles said this, someone in the back of the congregation with a book bag walked up to the altar, opened the bookbag, put the gun on the altar, then gave his life to Jesus.
“These are the things you can’t make up that you’re like, ‘Is this a movie?’” says Charles. “This is why we do what we do: to literally see life transformation take place in the house of God, to see how what we’re doing theologically is connected sociologically but also is connected spiritually to the experience of people’s lives. It revives not only the people; it revives me.”
Rev. Dr. Charles Galbreath is the treasurer of the 67th Precinct Clergy Council. He is on the Board of Directors for the Christian and Missionary Alliance and on several community boards. In addition to serving as Senior Pastor of Alliance Tabernacle in Brooklyn, he is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Asbury Seminary. In 2022, he was named one of The Faith Power 100, New York’s most influential religious leaders, by the magazine “City and State.”
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