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Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple hires Tulsa pastor to replace its ousted former leader

Empowerment Temple AME Church, the West Baltimore megachurch left shaken by the controversial ouster of its senior pastor in August, has named its new leader.

The Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, the pastor since 2017 of Historic Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, takes over as senior pastor at Empowerment this week, representatives of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination announced Wednesday morning.

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Turner, 39, is to conduct his first service before his new congregation Sunday, and the church plans to officially introduce him and his family to the broader Baltimore community with a meet-and-greet event Sunday, Oct. 3.

“Rev. Turner is a successful social activist, and he has a passion and gift for speaking God’s word,” said JoAnn Holly, an Empowerment board member. “He’s active in the community. He’s very interested in coming to help heal the congregation from the hurt of the past. And then we’re going to move forward.”

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Turner, a second-generation AME pastor who has never held a pastorate outside the South, sees his new appointment in a similar light.

“Empowerment has always been focused on community, social justice, the prophetic word and the rich history of the Baltimore area, and those all fit with the ministries I love and have been involved with for years,” Turner said in a phone interview from his Tulsa home Wednesday. “I think you’d have a hard time finding a better marriage.”

In this May 28, 2021, photo, Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, pastor of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, looks at a stained glass window while giving a tour of the church to a missionary around centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. Only the basement remained of the church, partially destroyed in the massacre in 1921 that destroyed the area known as Black Wall Street. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this May 28, 2021, photo, Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, pastor of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, looks at a stained glass window while giving a tour of the church to a missionary around centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. Only the basement remained of the church, partially destroyed in the massacre in 1921 that destroyed the area known as Black Wall Street. (AP Photo/John Locher) (John Locher/AP)

A native of Tuskegee, Alabama, Turner becomes the third senior pastor of Empowerment, a church founded in 2000 by the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant.

After Bryant left for an Atlanta-area megachurch in late 2018, Davis appointed the Rev. George Barnes II as his successor.

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Barnes was ousted from his position in August after Empowerment leaders said he had been late filing audit reports required by its mortgage lender two years in a row, costing the church tens of thousands of dollars in fees.

Barnes has said he stabilized the church’s finances, meeting every mortgage payment throughout his tenure, and alleges that the AME church failed to follow its own laws in the way it separated him. Church leaders have so far declined to comment on the allegation or to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Barnes’ dismissal.

Turner’s current church has historic roots. Vernon AME Church, sometimes called Vernon Chapel, stands on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, the site of an infamous race massacre that took place just over a century ago. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, white mobs attacked hundreds of African American residents, homes and businesses in the neighborhood, then such a prosperous largely Black community that it was known as “the Black Wall Street.”

The 18 hours of burning, looting and killing — triggered by unconfirmed rumors that a Black man assaulted a white woman on an elevator in town — left at least 39 and as many as 300 people dead, leveled a 35-block area and led to the temporary internment of nearly 6,000 African Americans. It ended only after the Oklahoma National Guard declared martial law.

People fleeing the assault found refuge in the basement of Vernon AME Church, one of the few buildings to survive the two days and the only one still left even partially standing.

In this May 28, 2021, photo, Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, pastor of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, prays in the sanctuary of the church between meetings around centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. Only the basement remained of the church, partially destroyed in the massacre in 1921 that destroyed the area known as Black Wall Street. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this May 28, 2021, photo, Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, pastor of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, prays in the sanctuary of the church between meetings around centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. Only the basement remained of the church, partially destroyed in the massacre in 1921 that destroyed the area known as Black Wall Street. (AP Photo/John Locher) (John Locher/AP)

Considered one of the nation’s worst incidents of racial violence, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre received scant mention in newspapers and, for decades, was barely mentioned in history books. As the 100th anniversary loomed last May, Turner worked to change that, leading weekly marches calling for reparations in front of Tulsa City Hall.

His appearances on CNN, National Public Radio, and CBS’s “60 Minutes” to raise awareness of the massacre boosted the national profile of his modestly sized church, attracted visits from such presidential candidates as Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg and Cory Booker, and hyper-charged a capital campaign that has now raised more than $1 million.

His efforts also led Historic Vernon to be named to the National Register of Historic Places.

“One of the reasons it’s so hard to leave is that God has blessed our ministries in Tulsa so abundantly,” Turner said.

Though his roots in the AME church run deep — his parents gave him the middle names “Richard” and “Allen” in honor of Richard Allen, the minister and author who founded the denomination in 1794 — Turner did not always plan to enter the ministry.

He was enrolled at the University of Alabama Law School in 2005 when he received the calling, according to his bio on the church’s website. He went on to earn a masters in divinity degree from Turner Theological Seminary in Atlanta and a doctor of ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Turner then served as pastor of four churches, all of them in Alabama, before starting his tenure in Tulsa in 2017.

Holly said word of Turner’s hiring spread quickly, and described the response as “overwhelmingly positive.”

Holly said she spoke with Bryant after the announcement and said the church founder, who has known Turner for years, “speaks very highly of him” and believes he will be “an excellent fit” for Empowerment.

For his part, Turner said he, his wife and two boys will remain in Tulsa through the end of the current school semester, then move to Baltimore. He’ll commute to the city on weekends until then.

In the meantime, he said, whatever problems the church has faced, he’s looking forward, not backward, and approaching his new chapter as prayerfully as possible.

“Whatever the issues have been at Empowerment Temple, I believe in the Bible,” he says. “God took five loaves of bread and two fishes and fed 5,000 people. He can make it fruitful for the needs of his people.”

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