Search for Truth
By John W. Kennedy
Aug. 26, 2012
Charles A. Berkley Jr. took a circuitous route to Pentecostalism that included serving as an altar boy, visiting mosques, practicing yoga and dating an atheistic girlfriend who later became his wife. That’s not to mention his father abandoning the family in order to evade the FBI.
But just before his junior year at Brown University in Providence, R.I., Berkley had a Pentecostal classmate who peppered every conversation with positive references to Jesus. Berkley needed to hear such words.
“Life seemed empty,” Berkley recalls. “I cried out to God, ‘I have to know if You are real.’”
Berkley received an answer after he accepted an invitation from the fellow student to attend a tent meeting where R.W. Schambach preached. Berkley made Jesus his Savior that night at the altar.
As it turned out, 10 friends of Berkley who attended Brown also had committed their lives to Christ that summer. Eventually, one by one, all were filled with the Holy Spirit — including Berkley, who subsequently sensed a call to ministry.
The students began holding all-night prayer meetings and evangelizing on the street with Bibles in hand. A revival broke out on campus. Miraculous healings occurred. Demons fled from the oppressed.
Berkley became an on-fire Christian like his classmate. His girlfriend, Michele Hill, a law student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, had attended the tent meeting with him but remained skeptical of God’s existence. Berkley insisted she accompany him to various church services he visited.
“I talked about God all the time; I was almost obnoxious,” says Berkley, who is shy by nature. “That strained our relationship. We were going in opposite paths.”
Berkley sensed God telling him he needed to be willing to give up his relationship with Michele, the only woman he had ever loved. Reluctantly, he told her the news: Following God had to be his priority, even if it resulted in breaking up.
That marked the turning point for Michele. She figured there must be something to Berkley’s faith if he could make such a radical sacrifice. She agreed to read the Bible cover to cover for herself. When she finished in a year, she accepted Jesus as Savior. The couple wed in 1979, the year Charles graduated.
Berkley hailed from a stable home in a North Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood. With Jamaican roots on his mother’s side and Bermudan ancestry in his father’s family, Berkley grew up in what appeared to be an ideal household, his dad a mechanical draftsman and his mother working at Macy’s. Although his parents didn’t care much for religion, they sent him, the oldest of four children, to Catholic schools for 13 years.
The local Italian-American Association recognized Berkley as the most outstanding eighth-grade student at the school. During the graduation ceremony, however, officials of the organization discovered they had honored one of the few black students in the predominantly white school. A representative approached Berkley’s parents and demanded the award be returned.
“The group didn’t anticipate any person of color would qualify,” Berkley says. “To my parents’ credit, they would not go along with returning the honor.”
Attending Catholic school provided Berkley with a consciousness of God and sent him searching for further spiritual significance.
He checked out the Nation of Islam but didn’t join. He did begin practicing hatha yoga for up to four hours a day, eventually becoming a teacher of the East Indian meditation technique that purports to align mind, body and spirit. Ultimately he found it unfulfilling. Ditto for his overall participation as a vegan.
A pivotal point in Berkley’s life came at age 17, when his loving and interactive father suddenly disappeared. Only later did the children learn that their father had been a revolutionary in the cause of racial equality. Those activities invited scrutiny from the FBI; rather than risk arrest, Berkley’s father went underground for seven years.
“This had a tremendous impact on all the family,” Berkley says. “None of us knew this side of his life.”
One brother became a drug addict, while another was responsible for an illegitimate birth. Charles, a premed student, flunked out of Brown because he couldn’t focus on schoolwork while so depressed.
Years later, Berkley’s father, after persistent requests from Charles, turned himself in to authorities. Charles Berkley Sr. committed his life to Jesus as Savior after being rescued from nearly drowning when his boat capsized off the coast of Haiti. Although he spent a year in jail, all charges against him were dismissed for lack of evidence.
After his own born-again Christianity encounter, Charles Jr. graduated from Brown but didn’t know what form his ministry calling would take. Because of his quiet demeanor, he didn’t think God would call him to preach in front of audiences. Besides, he had wanted to be a doctor all his life. He spent the next decade working with patients in the psychiatric unit of a mental health hospital, as well as doing drug and alcohol counseling there.
Eventually, Berkley realized as a pastor he could be a teacher who equipped and trained people.
Berkley obtained ministerial credentials through the Assemblies of God. In 1996 he became minister of evangelism at Providence Assembly of God in Providence, R.I. For the past 14 years Berkley, 57, has been senior pastor. The 125-member church has natives from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad, Honduras, the Philippines and Cape Verde.
Michele, who dropped out of law school when she married Charles 33 years ago, resisted being a pastor’s wife for a long time. Yet today she is assistant pastor at the church when not working as an adult probation supervisor with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.
“She preaches now too,” Charles says. “She is a great teacher.”
The couple has three sons, Micah, Noah and Asa.
Charles is chairman of the Southern New England Ministry Network’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity Committee. He also is adjunct professor of urban ministry at Zion Bible College in Haverhill, Mass. Last fall, the Assemblies of God Black Fellowship elected Berkley as executive secretary.
“Charles’ capacity for understanding the dynamics of ministry is only exceeded by his heart for ministry,” says Malcolm Burleigh, national director of AG U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries as well as president of the Black Fellowship. “He has served with excellence and is an integral part of the leadership team. He is clearly God’s man for this ministry appointment.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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