The Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander always wanted to keep Antioch Baptist Church North nestled in the city of Atlanta.
There, he felt, the historic African-American church could have the greatest impact and serve people who needed help the most.
“He viewed his role as a shepherd who was duty-bound to take care of people,” said his eldest son, Cameron Eric Alexander, an Atlanta Realtor and musician. “He really cared for the least of these. He put the needs of the church family sometimes above his own personal challenges. That’s the reason people loved him so. People saw that he put other people first.”
Alexander, who would have celebrated five decades in the pulpit at Antioch next year, died Sunday after a brief illness.
He was 86.
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Under his leadership, Antioch became a beacon of hope in the community. It has a much-needed food, housing and clothing ministry and a recovery program for people fighting addiction.
While other pastors may have been hesitant to reach out to those battling HIV and AIDs, Alexander greenlighted a program to help.
He often guided others who wanted to become pastors. By one count, he trained 600 ministers and, of those, 150 are pastoring churches around the world.
“He was one of the most lovable preachers in town,” said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who has known Alexander since 1961. The two worked worked together on civil rights issues and campaigns to help those in need. “He was the head man for a long time, but everybody loved him. He wasn’t pushy or bossy. He had this wry sense of humor. If he disagreed with you, he’d figure out a way to make a joke about it, but he’d let you know how he felt. Still, I never heard him say a harsh word to anybody.”
Alexander served 29 years as president of the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, which cites a membership of more than 600 churches. He’s a former vice president of the National Baptist Convention, USA and former dean for the Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress, an auxiliary of the state convention.
Alexander was invited to submit one of his inaugural sermons to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The sermon became part of the oral history and spoken word collections that preserve Americans’ accounts of and reactions to important cultural events.
According to the church’s website, Alexander became pastor in 1969. While on vacation in Atlanta, his father — at the request of a member of Antioch — asked the younger Alexander to fill in one Sunday while the church prepared to vote on a new pastor. After preaching “A Man Is in Town,” the church offered him the position on a write-in vote.
At the time, Antioch had about 600 members. During his tenure, it would reach a high of 14,000.
Alexander was also a prominent community leader. He helped lead a bus boycott that integrated the Bibb County transit system during his pastorate in Macon. He participated in lunch counter sit-ins. And, while a pastor in Savannah, he formed a partnership with C&S Bank President Mills B. Lane to improve 109 blocks of real estate in Savannah.
Activist Joe Beasley is a deacon at Antioch and ran the church’s urban ministries program and, later, served as human services director.
“He was a giant, not only in Atlanta, but throughout the entire country, even throughout the world,” Beasley said. “He was just a genuine Christian. One of this favorite sayings was: Don’t let the church sign be lying. If you call youself a church then people should be able to come to you and get real help. He had this great compassion for everybody.”
That compassion sometimes meant personally doing without.
“He consistently turned down salary increases,” said Cameron Eric Alexander.
A second generation preacher, Alexander was born in Atlanta - a “Grady baby.” He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and attended Florida A&M University, where he played saxophone in the much-heralded “Marching 100.” He later earned a degree from Morehouse College. He also earned a master’s of divinity degree from the Morehouse School of Religion 1968 and doctorate of divinity degrees from the United Theological Seminary (Louisiana) and the Morehouse School of Religion 1990.
Not only did he play with the FAMU band but also played in the band while in the U.S. Air Force.
In later years, when he began pastoring a church, he didn’t play, although he still loved jazz, listening to the likes of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Miles Davis and Jimmy Smith.
His daughter, Maria Hunter, said Alexander “was the most loving, caring and dedicated father. He loved the Lord and spent his entire life making sure that others knew Him and salvation.”
“He was more than a pastor to me,” said Atlanta poet Hank Stewart, who has been a member of Antioch for more than three decades.
“He was like a father to me and so many other people. Part of the reason I do poetry is because it was a gift from God, but secondly, because my pastor encouraged me to get out there and give it my best. Instead of aborting my dream, he fertilized it.”
Another son, the Rev. Kenneth L. Alexander serves as Antioch’s co-pastor.
He said his father could be fun to be around. “He had this personality that was very inviting and you could get caught up in whatever he was doing,” he said. “As a child I just loved being around him and going to church with him.”
He later realized that many of his father’s friends were actually prominent leaders in the church community and in civil rights. People like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. A.D. King and the Rev. Martin Luther (Daddy) King Sr.
As he got older, Kenneth Alexander realized his father was just as prominent. He once attended a board meeting of the National Baptist Convention. A heavy and sometimes heated discussion was taking place. “Daddy got up, got the mic and everybody got quiet,” he said. “The meeting got productive.” What did his father say?
“In more eloquent terms that I could use, he basically told everybody to shut up.”
He said people may not realize how much his dad could use humor in his sermons and to get his point across.
“If Dad had been a comedian, we would have been rich,” he joked.
Hunter said her father would always say he was “glorified paperboy just sharing the Good News.”
Funeral services are pending. Alexander is survived by his wife of 64 years, Barbara J. Alexander; three children, Cameron Eric Alexander, Kenneth L. Alexander and Barbara Maria Hunter; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. A son, Gregory Alexander, preceded him in death.