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Fixture On The Pulpit

Bailey Marking 35th Anniversary As Pastor Of Expanding First Cathedral

March 6, 2006
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer

BLOOMFIELD -- From the moment the service began Sunday, the congregation was on its feet, some swaying to the music, hands raised, arms outstretched. No sleepy organ music here; the band - including two drummers, a trumpet and a saxophone - opened the service with a lively Caribbean-style praise song performed by a youth choir of nearly 100 voices. Liturgical dancers in flowing skirts danced barefoot on the red-carpeted stairs.

Bishop LeRoy Bailey Jr. walked to the pulpit at The First Cathedral and asked the congregation to "tell the person near you that they have come to the right place."

Sunday's service was the first in a month of weekly tributes to mark Bailey's 35th pastoral anniversary.

Bailey smiled as he watched the people walk up and down the aisles, embracing each other. A few moments later, he called on the congregation, many of whom donate as much as 10 percent of their income, to give an offering to those in need of help. Lines quickly formed in the aisles as people walked up and left a growing pile of bills on the stairs.

"If you want God to bless your life, you must plant the seeds," Bailey said. "Those who give much, receive much."

First Cathedral - one of the largest, if not the largest, mega-church in New England - has grown from a congregation of about 5,000 in 1999 to about 11,000 in 2005. Hundreds of cars fill the parking lot on a typical Sunday, and several buses bring members in from Hartford. The expansive sanctuary has a state-of-the-art sound system and seats 3,000 in plush theater-style seats. Television screens throughout the hall project images of the altar and pulpit.

Though it's Bailey's presence that guides the church, it's not a one-man show; the cathedral has as many as 100 associate ministers. Some lead the church's varied ministries; others are in training to someday leave and form their own congregations.

Bishop Edward Stephens Jr. says he has followed in Bailey's footsteps since the day he first heard him preach at a revival more than a decade ago.

"I was just enamored by his charisma, his ability," said Stephens, who is among a half-dozen pastors who are scheduled to visit and preach at First Cathedral this month in Bailey's honor. "Everything is an extension of him, and his vision."

Stephens, 46, credits Bailey's guidance in helping him expand the congregation of his Golden Gate Cathedral in Memphis from 500 members to 5,000 in the past dozen years. "I also consider [Bailey] my father in ministry," he said, "and I am one of his sons."

Though a father figure in the pulpit, Bailey doesn't mince words and is a well-known force in the community. He was among the clergy who led the opposition to the state's civil unions law last spring, saying at the time that "the word of God tells us to speak against homosexuality."

During Sunday's early service, he chastised parents who did not keep up with events at their children's schools. "Find out if your children are being taught the truth," he said, "even if means you have to miss church to do it."

Saasha Plefka was "church shopping" three years ago when she decided to try First Cathedral.

"I kept hearing about it and I wanted to see what it was all about," said Plefka, 33, a South Windsor resident. She had been looking for a church experience similar to the large multicultural church she grew up with in California, and said she feels she has found it at First Cathedral.

"I loved it from the first service," she said, particularly the feeling of worshipping with so many people at one time. "It reminds me of what heaven will be like, with so many people there, everyone is in the same frame of mind, leaving our problems at the door."

'A Church For All People'

The anniversary celebration marks the evolution of Bailey's ministry, from the founding of a small Baptist church on Morningside Avenue in Hartford in 1971, which then became First Baptist on Greenfield Street in Hartford and later became First Cathedral.

Bailey, 59, began preaching as a 9-year-old at his father's church in Memphis. He has been married for 30 years to his wife, Reathie, who acts as his senior adviser at the church. They have three grown children and two grandchildren.

"I'm just thankful the Lord has allowed me to serve these people for 35 years," Bailey said in an interview between services Sunday. "God has graced me. Our ministry has continued to blossom."

Over 20 nationalities are represented in the church, he said, "which means our flavor has changed." Bailey now considers First Cathedral a non-denominational Christian church. "We are a church for all people; we have people who come from as far as New York and Boston.

"If you consider yourself a black church or a white church, you've missed it," Bailey said. "God wants us to be all things to all people."

Bishop Raul Gonzalez was the guest speaker Sunday, and he praised Bailey's ministry. Gonzalez's Glory Chapel Cathedral is located in the building on Greenfield Street that once housed First Baptist Church, and he credits Bailey, a friend of many years, with helping his church make the transition to a larger facility.

"They used to call New England a graveyard for preachers," Gonzalez said in an interview before the service. "They don't say that anymore. He has turned that around."

Extending Its Reach

Bailey said he expects that First Cathedral will continue its exponential membership growth.

"I know the [eventual membership] number; the Lord has told it to me, but I can't share it with you right now because it is so overwhelming that people would not receive it," Bailey said. "But it's not about that. It's about being a witness and allowing God's grace to reach people."

What he does share is that in two years an education center and a life center will be added at the campus of the massive sanctuary building on Blue Hills Avenue.

First Cathedral also plans to begin broadcasting its own cable television show in August, and a national radio program is expected to follow later in the year.

"I don't think we have seen anything yet," the Rev. Mike Morawski said of the Cathedral's future. "This is really a training ground, and it's the way God is going to reach people throughout New England."

Morawski, 48, came to First Cathedral the day it opened, out of curiosity. On his way home, he said, "I heard God tell me I was going to be a minister there." He left his Avon church and eventually became ordained. Morawski's primary responsibility is working with new members during their first three months at First Cathedral.

"It's very open here," he said. "You can do whatever you want to do, worship in your own style. It's tremendous."

The Rev. David Fothergill joined the church 20 years ago and is now an associate pastor. Bailey "encourages people to step out of the box," he said. "He has compelled people in this church to own their own homes, to do things that people told them they couldn't do."

Fothergill said he believes First Cathedral could one day outgrow its current facility.

"It's not just a church," he said. "It's a unique institution in New England that is going to raise out of our congregation ministers who will spread across the country and the world."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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