arlton Byrd always felt that he was born to pastor, born to preach, born to be an evangelist. He grew up in the ministry, grew up wanting to be a pastor, and loves to speak. Now he speaks many times a week and sometimes twice a Sabbath. On this particular night he’s in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, preparing to speak for the NY13 kickoff rally at the North Bronx Seventh-day Adventist Church. And he can hardly wait to preach, to fire up the base and get members here excited about the 2013 major city evangelism campaign set to blanket the city that never sleeps.
It’s the first of hundreds being organized by the worldwide Adventist Church, but for Byrd, it’s another opportunity to further Christ’s mission: “I love the Lord, I love people, I want to go to heaven, and I want to take as many people with me as I can,” he states, flashing the signature smile he wears above his signature bow tie. “God called us to take this wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, everywhere, and I’m just glad I get to do it full-time.”
“I Ran to Ministry”
Full-time, Byrd is a pastor, evangelist, and the newest speaker/director for Breath of Life (BOL), the television ministry founded 39 years ago by Walter Arties to bring hope and guidance to the African-American community. Thousands have accepted Christ through its evangelism efforts, often held in stadiums and major venues in cities across North America and other parts of the world.
FAMILY TIME: Carlton Byrd, with wife, Danielle, and daughters Caileigh (10, on left) and Christyn (12).
Byrd, whose nickname is “Buddy,” took the helm just two years ago at age 38 and was glad to get the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the revered C. D. Brooks and Walter Pearson, Jr., his predecessors. Though it has been only a short time, he’s hoping his message will penetrate the noise that convolutes today’s urban community.
It’s getting through in Long Island, New York, where Alecia Anderson watches Breath of Life
on Friday evenings. “Can I take a photo with you?” asked the 20-year-old member of Long Island’s Riverhead church soon after Byrd arrived at North Bronx. The flash of Byrd’s smile prompted the flash of her father’s camera, and then it was on. After her father, Orley Anderson, got a turn, others jumped up.
“He’s my favorite preacher,” said Orley, who identified himself as the first elder of the Riverhead church. Orley arrived two hours before the announced NY13 program time to secure a seat. “He makes the message so clear and simple. He’s a powerful [speaker], sure of what he’s saying.”
Alecia, who relished meeting Byrd, agreed. “He’s inspiring, and I understand what he’s saying.”
That may be because Byrd understands—his calling, his purpose, and what it takes to do ministry. “Ministry is service,” he told me afterward as we sat in the tiny, white-walled media room in the attic of the church overlooking the sprawling two-story sanctuary of the North Bronx church. Byrd is constantly engaged in ministry. And surrounded by it. His dad, William Byrd, is a pastor in West Palm Beach, Florida, and his mom, Carol Byrd, is superintendent of education for the Southeastern Conference, headquartered in an Orlando suburb. His father-in-law, too, is a pastor. In early years Byrd memorized the conference directory, read and filed letters for his dad, and attended many weeks of prayer and tent meetings, all because, as he put it, “I wanted
to be there.” And he adds, “I was born to do this.”
Byrd didn’t run from God’s call. He ran to it. “I arrived at Oakwood [College, now University] knowing what I needed to do,” he recounted with surety. “Some pastors told me to run [away], but I didn’t.”
He’s been running ever since, trying to follow a path paved by the renowned Adventist pastors and evangelists who influenced his life—his dad, E. C. Ward, Pearson, Brooks, Benjamin Reaves, and E. E. Cleveland.
Path to Success
His first assignment out of Oakwood was to pastor the South Central Conference’s Laurel, Columbia, and Soso, Mississippi, congregations, which probably could have met in his car. The Laurel church, for example, had two members. “I didn’t worry about that because I knew it was going to grow,” he mused. “I worked hard, cut the grass at the church, painted—anything that was needed, I did it.”
He also conducted a series that yielded three baptisms. This increased the membership by 150 percent, making Byrd the top evangelist per capita in the conference that year. At summer’s end the conference sent him to the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, to complete his Master of Divinity degree. Later he earned an M.B.A. at Tennessee State University in Nashville, and a Doctor of Ministry with an emphasis in African-American religious studies at Andrews.
After graduating, Byrd was sent to pastor in Tuscaloosa and Eutaw, Alabama, where he ran his first tent effort and baptized 19 people. This was followed by Nashville, where he pastored a new church plant and baptized 300 people in four years. That’s where Byrd believes he really became an evangelist. It’s also where he started doing what he dubbed “tract attacks,” which involve identifying a community, going door to door, soliciting Bible studies, and praying with people. Byrd tries to recruit the entire church to participate. On Sabbath, right after worship and before lunch, members take to the streets and take communities for Christ.
The method also worked in Houston, Texas, where Byrd baptized 500 people in three years and then in Atlanta, Georgia, where he baptized 1,800 in five years and grew the church to include 4,000 members, two services, a 50-apartment senior citizen housing complex, barbershop, beauty salon, health fitness center, food pantry, clothing distribution center, youth activity center, vegetarian sub shop and juice bar, and a women’s shelter.
Byrd has just completed his first year in Huntsville, Alabama, as senior pastor of the Oakwood University church, where he’s currently based. Sure enough, not long after he arrived, he was in the pulpit promoting “tract attack Sabbath.” About 1,500 of his 2,000 members joined him, and after just eight months and one meeting they’d baptized about 200 new believers.
AUDIENCE APPEAL: During Carlton Byrd's sermon at NY13, congregants raise their hands to an appeal.
The responsibility of leading such a large church and Breath of Life simultaneously hasn’t slowed him down. If anything, it has spurred Byrd to want more, do more, dream more. “I’m excited, invigorated, on fire for the Lord,” he beams.
And still running. Byrd dashed from our interview to another with Hope Channel cohost David Franklin in the sanctuary of the North Bronx church. It’s Friday night in the Bronx, but last Sabbath Byrd was in Atlanta. Tuesday he traveled here to New York, Wednesday he held a BOL rally at the Linden church in Queens, followed by another at Elmont Temple in Long Island Thursday night. Tomorrow he’ll preach the 11:00 service at the Ephesus church in Harlem. Then he’ll make his way to the Brooklyn-based Hanson Place church for a 6:00 event. Sunday he’ll officiate a funeral at his home church in Huntsville, on Monday and Tuesday he’ll hold BOL board and executive committee meetings at the North American Division (NAD) offices in Silver Spring, Maryland, and then head home to conduct Wednesday night prayer meeting. Afterward he’ll reunite with Danielle, his wife of 15 years, and their 12- and 10-year-old daughters, Christyn and Caileigh.
Listening to his itinerary I wondered aloud if anything had ever slowed him down. Challenged him, stopped him.
“My daughter,” he said, suddenly getting quiet. “She was 4-and-a-half months old.”
Stopped in His Tracks
The story unfolds: “It was September 25th, 1999. We left the north side of Nashville en route to Tuscaloosa to speak for an event at the church I’d pastored early on. We had been having car trouble; our car wasn’t sounding right. On the south side of town, we stopped at our head elder’s home. He switched cars with us and we took his SUV. Fourteen miles from our destination, the car started doing flips. We were all knocked unconscious. When I came to, I was lying in the median. We all were. My wife started screaming. Our daughter was not moving. The ambulance came and took our daughter to one hospital, us to another. When I got to where she was, she was on a respirator. The next day the physician told me that if she didn’t wake up by noon of the following day, they would take her off the respirator.”
The Byrds prayed and prayed. “We just knew she was going to make it. I knew she was going to make it. But she died in my arms,” he said.
“I was mad at God. I said, ‘I labor for You as a minister; why would You allow this to happen to me? I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I got married and then had kids.’ My life had been very ordered,” he explained. “I did things the way they were supposed to be done—ordered. Yet here was a real tragedy that happened to [us]. I didn’t read it in the paper, it didn’t happen to somebody else, it happened to us.”
“How did you get through it?” I asked.
“Prayer,” came the answer, “a whole heap of prayer.
“I tell people, ‘God wouldn’t take you to it if He couldn’t bring you through it.’ Even though you can’t see it and you don’t understand it, and it doesn’t make sense . . . God will bring you through the storm. He will, He will, He will, He will,” he repeated until his voice trailed off.
A few weeks later, Byrd, 27 at the time, came across, as if for the first time, 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (NKJV).
“God spared my life,” Byrd now concludes, “because I wasn’t ready; or perhaps He still had a work for me to do; or maybe it was all of the above. I surmised that it’s all of the above.”
As a result Byrd is more passionate about the mission. “I’m not just talking, I’ve lived it,” he says, “I’ve lived [through] tragedy and survived. . . . My sense of urgency for the second coming has grown tremendously.”
Needs and Next Steps
Since December 2010, when he took over the storied, albeit financially strapped, media ministry, Byrd has traveled extensively to raise awareness, raise funds, and conduct evangelism initiatives. The field services arm, directed by Danielle, is reaching out to donors with personal letters and updates. BOL manager Linda Walter, based at the Adventist Media Center in Simi Valley, California, keeps the broadcasts airing on Hope Channel, which also airs on DirecTV 368; Three Angels Broadcasting Network; the Word Network; and local subsidiaries in Atlanta and Huntsville. And John Huynh, an intern also based at the media center, helped Byrd develop a presence on Facebook and Twitter, an online store, and a mobile app to allow smartphone users easy access to sermon archives. He also e-mails three-minute Breath of Fresh Air
devotional videos that contain edited snippets of Byrd’s sermons and serve as spiritual appetizers for recipients.
FAITHFUL VIEWERS: During the NY13 event this past fall, Carlton Byrd poses with Orley and Alecia Anderson.
In the pastor’s study at the North Bronx church, the driven and choleric Byrd also wants to share some needs. “We need to get Breath of Life
on some mainstream television networks, and, even there, I will continue to preach [Adventist] doctrine because people need to know what we believe and that we’re a Christian community that celebrates Christ by keeping His commandments,” he said.
In addition, Byrd sees a need to book the half-hour preaching program on subsidiary networks in major metropolitan areas so when he prepares to conduct a series of meetings, the church can promote it and locals can view it before the evangelistic meeting begins in the community.
This brought him to the need for usable, television-quality programs. “Though there are churches that bear our name, we also need to establish some television-ready, satellite BOL churches,” he said. “These churches should be seeker-sensitive, mission-oriented, and in a nice facility, because they will be the face of Adventism to viewers.”
Finally, Byrd believes BOL needs an outreach component, so that when a natural disaster occurs they’ll have people on the ground ready to help. “We need to be actively engaged in community ministry and service,” he concluded before heading to the platform to share a sermon from Acts 21 titled “Prison Break.”
Then, just as Alecia Anderson from Long Island and her dad, Orley, expected, Byrd presented a simple and clear message punctuated by Bible reading, storytelling, and his trademark doxology.
As good people of the Book, the Friday night worshippers of various hues and cultures didn’t miss a beat. “The church that prays together,” Byrd started, testing the waters.
“Stays together!” they finished in unison.
“ ‘For he shall give his angels charge over thee,’ ” he quoted Psalm 91:11 (KJV) . . .
“ ‘To keep thee in all thy ways!’ ” they rejoiced.
“ ‘No weapon formed against thee,’ ” he began, citing Isaiah 54:17 (KJV) . . .
“ ‘Shall prosper,’ ” they cheered.
Some were now on their feet, and when Byrd moved from texts to songs, they quickly chimed in: “ ‘If it had not been for the Lord on my side,’ ” he crooned in melodious tenor, “ ‘Where would I be?’ ” they chorused.
With the hour spent, the sweat pouring, and his mission of firing up the base accomplished, Byrd brought the message home: “Let’s take New York by storm!” he shouted to thunderous applause. “Let’s take New York by storm! Let’s take
(pause) New York
(pause) by storm!
He did. And they will.
Celeste Ryan Blyden enjoys telling stories about what God is doing in and through His people in the Columbia Union Conference, where she serves as communication director. This article was published February 21, 2013.