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Pastor Alexander, until we meet again

He said, “Tell me everything. Don’t leave nothing out.”

With that, he let go his signature Cameron Madison Alexander laugh. I joined with him, laughing for what seemed now like a lifetime, and then launched into the details.

It was mid-May and I’d just learned I’d been named a recipient of the 2018 GLAAD award for best newspaper article, beating back both The Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post.

He asked about the Rev. Staples, as he always referred to my husband, and our daughters. I had more good news to report and we laughed some more. I asked about Honey, a term of endearment he used to refer to his wife, Barbara, and then he took his turn, sharing good news.

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We ended our conversation that day as we always did.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too,” I told him.

At 61, I’ve had four pastors who’ve left marks on my life for good. My late uncle the Rev. J.C. Wells, who led me to Christ. The Rev. Ephraim Williams, who helped me understand that my faith made me joint heirs with Christ. The Rev. Ralph Emerson, who showed me how, through reading and studying his word, I could have a relationship with Christ. And Pastor Alexander, who modeled how to live that great commandment to love God and to love others.

Since his passing on Sunday, I’ve thought of little else. He may have been the only minister I’ve ever sat under who told his congregation he loved them from the pulpit and he did it often. But it wasn’t just words, it was what he did. It was how the light came on in his eyes when he talked about his family, especially Honey.

“I still get excited when she walks across the room,” he’d tell us often with a great big smile.

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And so it’s no wonder that from the moment I joined Antioch 18 years ago, the union between Pastor Alexander and his church seemed to me a match made in heaven.

I would learn later that when Antioch began its search for a new pastor in 1969, five ministers vied to replace the Rev. Marcus Williams. Alexander was not one of them.

Indeed, he hadn’t even expressed an interest in the job. After four years as senior pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Savannah, he had no intention of leaving.

There was a high energy in the community, and the fight to desegregate public schools was beginning. Alexander, who always tempered spirituality in activism, was in his zone.

“I loved St. John and thought I’d retire in Savannah,” he would tell me some time later.

Then while vacationing one summer in Atlanta, everything changed.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Antioch was set to vote on its five finalists. To avoid giving one of the candidates an edge, they needed a neutral party to preach.

Against his wishes, Alexander’s father volunteered him.

As he mounted the pulpit that Sunday, Alexander immediately spotted some of his old high school classmates.

“I knew I was in trouble,” he recalled, “because they knew a different Cameron.”

That Cameron played the jazz circuit, not the pulpit, not even Antioch. He knew the church. And he knew its former pastor, Marcus Williams, his adviser while he worked on his graduate thesis at Morehouse College.

He was nervous. Playing the sax, he didn’t worry so much about his audience. Being in the pulpit was different. He knew people came to church for a reason and it was his job to minister to them.

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But if he’d learned anything about preaching, it was this: having been led to a Scripture is like having airplanes lining up for landing. “They’re stacked at different levels of prayer, meditation, and when they land, it’s time to preach that,” he said.

On that Sunday, it was time to preach Mark 4:39: “And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.”

His subject: “There’s a Man in Town.”

Alexander was born the son of a preacher, raised in Atlanta and the Lindsay Street Baptist Church his father pastored.

If his classmates saw the jazz saxophonist who once played the Atlanta nightclubs at the start of his sermon, they had to have seen the preacher at the end.

The sermon stirred the congregation so, it added Alexander’s name to the ballot and two days later called him to pastor Antioch.

Lucky for us Stapleses, that’s where we found him when we made the move from Fort Worth, Texas, to Atlanta in 2000. He has been one of our greatest blessings ever since.

We’d only been at Antioch a few months when my youngest sister was murdered, but I remember him calling to comfort me. That might seem like a small thing, but the Antioch membership numbered more than 14,000 at the time and though we’d met, I didn’t yet feel a real connection to him or Antioch. But it didn’t matter to him. He was my shepherd and I was his hurting sheep. There would be more deaths and more phone calls, but there would be happy encounters, too — at Antioch, at his annual barbecue and even dinners at his home.

It was of little surprise that Antioch was bursting at the seams when we arrived. Not only was Pastor Alexander an eloquent speaker (listening to him was like reading a great novel), he had a personality to match. You were drawn to him by either or both of them.

The Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander, who died Sunday, was said to have “an infectious smile and a warmth that is uncommon for a powerful leader.” CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In or out of the pulpit, he always seemed a man at peace with himself, who by his own admission did a little of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“I feel comfortable with either one,” he told me during a 2014 interview.

But he wasn’t always at ease in the pulpit.

“I think it’s the mystery of why I have been drawn and why I have been led to one book out of 66, one chapter in the book and a few verses in a chapter as a text,” he explained. “I know that the Holy Spirit has led me to that text for a reason.

“The second part of the mystery is I do not know who is in need of the message besides me. They don’t look like it but people come to church for a reason. The fear of not feeding the flock makes me nervous.”

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In an interview about him once, Robert M. Franklin, former president of Interdenominational Theological Center and Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University, described Alexander as a respected world citizen.

“As a person, he is a man of quiet power, a natural aristocrat who possesses a common grace and a remarkable sense of humor,” said Franklin. “He has an infectious smile and a warmth that is uncommon for a powerful leader.”

Franklin went on to call him one of the deans of black preaching in America, combining a strong social justice analysis with a focus on personal integrity, service and spirituality.

It would’ve been easy for him to get caught up in the admiration so many held for him. He was a frequent recipient of community awards and other recognition. But the fact that he’d never asked the church for anything for himself and that he’d sent so many of his members to heaven, he said, was his greatest source of pride.

He also dedicated and baptized three generations of family members, including his own four children, but no one could deliver a eulogy like Cameron Alexander.

“That’s the great joy of a long pastorate,” he told me.

In a lot of ways, it explains the long marriage between Antioch and Cameron Madison Alexander. And why, after an unusual absence, he was often greeted with rousing applause and a packed church on its feet.

“Why do we keep doing this?’’ Alexander asked us once.

He spoke just above a whisper then cut loose as he declared the answer: “This is bouncing back day.”

He admitted having an attitude because he trusted and knew the God he preached about.

“I trust him implicitly,” he said, his voice rising. “There is nothing I will not commit to his hand. I trust him with every breath, with every beat of my heart, with every oozing of my blood. I trust him. I know him in the free pardon of my sin. I go to sleep in his care.’’

On Sunday, Pastor Alexander went to sleep for the last time in God’s care. I look forward to the day when I get to ask him: “Tell me everything. Don’t leave nothing out.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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