Commemoration not Condolences: The Legacy of Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr.
“Child of God, I see you in the future and you look much better than you do right now.” — Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr.
Annually, in November, the Church Of God In Christ (COGIC) gathers for its Holy Convocation. Within a quadrennial year the excitement and flair is elevated. The year 2020 would’ve been no different, however a global pandemic known as COVID-19 has prohibited the world’s foremost African American Pentecostal denomination from gathering in St. Louis, Missouri for the 113th Holy Convocation. Only the second convocation to be cancelled since the 1918 Spanish Flu. The quadrennial year is the organization’s constitutional date to elect national officials inclusive of the General Board and Presiding Bishop. As the United States reels with excitement and uncertainty every four years, seemingly the Church Of God In Christ too. Noted and celebrated leaders vie for office, others re-election and some new faces emerge as contenders to influence COGIC’s trajectory into the future. Yet, there has been one consistent face and voice within the storied denomination for nearly 65 years and that’s Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr. who announced his decision, to not seek re-election to the General Board or run for Presiding Bishop, from the office on Friday, October 23rd via video from the National Church Of God In Christ Facebook page.
Elevated to the office of Presiding Bishop after the death of Bishop G.E. Patterson in 2007, Blake introduced his innovation, tactical approach to ministry and business and world vision to the denomination. Thirteen years later COGIC has congregations in all 50 states and over 100 countries throughout the world, implemented “COGIC Initiatives” throughout various congregations, continued renovations to Mason Temple and the Memphis campus, built affordable housing in Memphis and other numerous accolades. Not to be lost is Bishop Blake’s role as a member of President Obama’s 25-person White House Advisory Council which is part of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Furthermore, amid this nation’s most dire crises throughout this present presidential administration his voice has been firm in regards to race and racism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism and human rights.
Historically, African American clergy, especially pastors, have played a visible role in the struggle for civil rights on behalf of America’s most disenfranchised. Leaders like the late Wyatt T. Walker, a noted pastor, was an intricate part of Dr. King’s strategy team, proponent of social welfare programs and builder of affordable housing while pastoring in New York. Currently, pastors such as Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, Rev. Dr. Leslie C. Callahan and others have taken bold stances to ensure the livelihood and holistic existence of not only their congregants and too the communities where they serve. This is a work known and true to the ministerial legacy of Charles E. Blake, Sr.
The Presiding Bishop’s unprecedented decision to retire will undoubtedly shift the trajectory of the denomination, yet is one steeped in wisdom and keen sensitivity to the longevity of her people; something Blake has long valued. Most notably as pastor of the West Angeles Church in Los Angeles. This year Bishop Blake and Lady Mae L. Blake celebrate 51 years as servant leaders of the noted congregation. Celebrated for its Grammy award winning choir, community development corporation’s monumental impact upon the citizens of Crenshaw and its commitment to bettering the lives of the disenfranchised West Angeles is arguably the staple among African American Pentecostals and Christians for cutting edge yet spiritually sensitive ministry in the 21st century. This milestone, signifying over half a century of service, cannot be diluted nor dismissed in our present society.
The ministry of Charles Blake spans six decades, inclusive of this nation’s most pivotal crises and moments. While a student at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) the then Elder Charles Blake participated in the Civil Rights Movement, recognized for leading a decoy protest and leading the ITC student body. This standard of service beyond the sanctuary continued even while pastor of West Angeles and Bishop. He stood boldly against apartheid, supported and funded early efforts in the HIV/AIDS epidemic across Los Angeles, tore down denominational barriers in favor of ecumenical solidarity and created a program to assist formerly incarcerated men receive employment and housing through West Angeles’ social programs. Furthermore, the establishment of a Christian academy, opening a full time counseling center, growth of a congregation from 50 to over 18,000 and more. Bishop Charles Blake understood and understands the necessity of ministry and service beyond the pulpit. This understanding enabled him to establish “Pan African Children’s Fund (PACF).” A program of PACF, provided support to over 420 orphan care programs, 200,000 children and 24 nations throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Consecrated Bishop in 1985 and elected to the General Board in 1988 Blake has long valued his call to serve his denomination. Prior to ascending to office of Bishop he served his father, Bishop J.A. Blake, Sr. as Assistant Pastor, COGIC as Vice President of the Publishing Board and Editor of Young People Willing Workers (YPWW) literature, International Youth Congress Institute Committee Chairman and other various capacities. However, it was Blake’s tenure as Prelate of the Southern California First Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction from 1985–2009 that further displayed his remarkable administrative genius and ingenuity in ministry. Blake saw it as his duty to ensure the heritage of Pentecostalism was shared with the world. Seemingly by divine means Art E. Glass founder of Pentecostal Heritage Inc. deeded the Bronnie Brae House to Bishop Charles E. Blake. “It was here that the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 to 1909, the event to which today’s Pentecostals and Charismatics trace their roots, got its start.” The significance of this transfer of property enabled the home of the Azusa Street Revival to be overseen by Black Pentecostals. Leading over 225 congregations he, along with appointed leaders, reimagined and even reinvented worship in the African American church. Introducing the west coast, and subsequently the nation, to contemporary praise and worship led by gospel music celebrant Kurt Carr and Dr. Judith C. McAllister; with a maintained connection to COGIC’s authentic sound and rhythm. This was enriched through the Bishop’s own musical skill as a talented organist and having served as a minister of music in his early years. Leading West Angeles’ choir to produce numerous projects that would introduce a new sound and approach to “church”.
The retirement of Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr. signifies the end of an era that does not come with condolences, but commemoration. COVID-19 deeply impacted the Church Of God In Christ with the losses of First Assistant Presiding Bishop P.A. Brooks, General Board Members Nathaniel Wells and Ted G. Thomas, Mother Willie Mae Sheard, Bishop T.T. Scott and others. Yet, Blake’s commitment to ensure the welfare of COGIC constituents through the canceling of all national gatherings, providing resources to pastors, admonishing parishioners to vote and even West Angeles becoming a polling site speaks to his continued attentive awareness even as retirement looms near. Today, we’re able to celebrate COGIC’s second longest serving Presiding Bishop as he continues to grace our presence even amid a pandemic that has caused much turmoil and up-evil.
He may not be celebrated or well-noted as other traditional Black Pentecostal homileticians, but one cannot ignore his insightful and communal ministry. With potency he readily declares Isaiah 54:2–3, “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities”; the testament of his faith and labor. The ministry of Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake is one, in my opinion, that is deeply under-appreciated. Therefore, I celebrate this monumental moment commemorating over half a century of dedicated, intentional, persistent leadership and service. Thank you Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr. for 13 years as Presiding Bishop. Your administrative genius, world vision and keen intellect has transformed us for the better.
We thank you for seeing us in the future and surely we can say, “it’s better”.