Rev. Harold Carter reaps hallelujahs and amens for 30 years at New Shiloh A Pillar of Prayer


On this cold rainy morning, a warm wind is blowing through New Shiloh Baptist Church, the warm breath of divine inspiration. With a choir of 200 dressed in scarlet robes, with the sounds of the drums, organ and piano, with the praisings of hundreds of congregants, New Shiloh is making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Rev. Harold Carter, now celebrating 30 years as pastor of one of the city's largest and most influential black Baptist churches, is presenting the Word. Every so often, he breaks into song, like a bird taking flight. As he preaches, the excitement builds.

"Somebody said 'Reverend, why do you preach like you do?'

"I got a charge to keep.

"Somebody said 'Why do you pray like you do?'

"I got a charge to keep. I'm not doing it just for you, I'm doing it for my master, praying on high. . . . When I get home, how happy I will be, when I get home, my Savior's face I will see. . . . I don't know how long he's gonna give me, but every day I'm gonna lift him higher . . . higher . . . higher.

Eyes closed, uttering words whose meanings are woven into their inflections, the 58-year-old pastor seems a human transformed. He talks about Mark's account of Jesus in Galilee, the bombing in Oklahoma City, the crisis of spirit in America, his childhood memories of gospel singing. His voice washes over the congregation, carrying age-old griefs and age-old comforts. Some people wave their hands, some sway with the spirit. Some dance in the aisles, propelled by a passion they cannot contain.

Dr. Carter has been preaching this way on Sundays, at least two times a day, for more than three decades. He's preached on most other days, too, from wherever God called: from Romania and Kenya, from the Washington Cathedral, from Camden Yards, from churches in West Baltimore scarcely bigger than a prayer book. He's preached through the glory days of the civil rights movement, through the 1968 riots, through urban renewal and urban flight.

This week, New Shiloh will pay tribute to Dr. Carter's 30 years of spiritual leadership with services, a concert and a banquet for 800 friends and congregants.

There's much to celebrate: The Saturday Church School, which offers prayer and instruction to congregants of all ages. The RAISE mentoring program for teen-agers, the model for the citywide RAISE program. The men's and women's ministries. The daily early morning prayer service. The New Shiloh School of Music. And the growth in the number of women who serve the church in positions of authority, including many full-fledged deacons and the chair of the church board.

In addition, there's Dr. Carter's 26-year-old radio ministry (his sermons air at 7 a.m. Sundays on WBAL, 1090-AM). There are his books, including "The Prayer Tradition of Black People" and "America, Where Are You Going?" There are the crusades in the Civic Center and Camden Yards. And there are the 60 or so ministers, including 34 who pastor their own congregations, who have studied with Dr. Carter.

An inspiration to others

"He has probably inspired more young people to come into the ministry than any preacher I would know of. Period," says Rev. Alfred Vaughan, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore.

One of them is Rev. Walter Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church. Raised in the Presbyterian tradition, Mr. Thomas was 21 when he first heard Dr. Carter preach. He was planning to become an urban economist so that he could help solve the city's social problems. After getting to know Dr. Carter, however, he dropped out of a doctoral program in economics at the University of Maryland to enter divinity school at Howard University.

"Reverend Carter was able to make truth relevant," he says. "His gospel had legs and hands and feet. I accepted the call into the ministry under his preaching, and he was inspiring in the sense that I began to realize, in listening to him and in watching him, that the answer to the problems our people were facing was to be found in their relationship to God, first and foremost."

Dr. Carter's ministry is rooted in the power of prayer, says colleague and admirer Rev. Frank Reid III, pastor of Bethel A.M.E Church.

"All of the great things New Shiloh has done have grown out of the foundation of prayer," he says. "Dr. Carter has a special calling and focus in his ministry to empower and to teach people how to pray. His first book grew out of his ongoing quest for an understanding of the spiritual and scriptural roots of prayer in the African-American community."

The widely studied 1976 book was among the first to focus on the meaning of prayer for African-Americans, rather than the broader Christian community.

"We as church members are those who have a charge. Preachers and pastors do not have to scratch the backs of folk who got a charge. They'll be there rain, shine, sleet or snow. They'll give God the glory. How many got that charge today? Got that charge, got that charge! Those who want to come down here, come right now, hallelujah. Got a charge. Come on everybody, open your mouths and sing. Come on, get into the spirit of the Lord and sing!"

Dr. Carter is hailed as a skilled administrator and fund-raiser, a scholar, a musician and even a "chef extraordinaire." But everyone talks first about his powers as a preacher.

"Reverend Carter's greatest legacy for the urban community is that he's a faith builder," says Mr. Thomas. Wherever he preaches, "He creates the capacity to believe."

'A preacher of preachers'

His colleague and friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, calls him "a preacher of preachers."

"His preaching is in the deep tradition of black eloquence and spirituality, the sense of relevant exegesis. He interprets the scripture in liberating terms."

Dr. Carter says his ability to preach is a gift.

"I hope I don't come off as being an ego buff, but I almost started off where a lot of people seek to become," he says. "I listened to Martin Luther King and then I just got up and it was almost like preaching was another aspect of being natural. I don't ever remember 'learning' to preach.

"Even in seminary, I had fellow classmates ask me, 'How is it done?' and I couldn't tell them. . . . I can go home, lose my keys and not find them, but if I get up to preach, the flow of what I need to say is there."

Dr. Carter grew up in Selma, Ala., -- the city Mr. Jackson calls the Calvary of the civil rights movement. He was a preacher's son. His father, Nathan Mitchell Carter, taught Old Testament studies at Selma University, "a preacher's school," as well as preaching at rural churches. His mother worked as an elementary school principal before she married.

Harold graduated from high school in 1952 at the age of 15. He went on to Alabama State College (now university) in Montgomery on a work-study program. Though he was gifted as a saxophone player with a recording-quality tenor voice, he set out to become a lawyer. In the summer of 1955, however, he began hearing an inner voice that said God intended him to preach.

He became certain about entering the ministry when he began attending the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching. Dr. King became an inspiration as well as a guide.

Transformed by King

"How transformed I felt when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told me he had gone to college wanting to be a doctor, then switched to law, only to wind up himself preaching the gospel," Dr. Carter wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1990. "I felt a spiritual load had been lifted, and I was miraculously born again! It seemed to me from that time forward, I began a romance with the power of the mind, the thrill of the spirit and the satisfying pursuit of the Word of God!"

After college, he entered Dr. King's alma mater, Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa. (In the 1970s, he earned doctorates from St. Mary's Ecumenical University in Balti- more and Colgate Bexler Hall/Crozer Seminary in Rochester, N.Y.)

Some folks back home in Selma were surprised to learn that God had called him.

"Growing up, I was very playful, maybe I had a little bit of agitation in me, a little rascality," he says. "I must honestly tell you I don't remember studying through high school. I just got over, I just passed. It was only in college -- particularly after meeting up with some of the professors and hearing Dr. King -- that I started to begin the process of using my mind."

After Crozer, he served as pastor of the Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., for six years. He married a Baptist minister's daughter, Weptanomah Washington, and together they began developing their much-praised team ministry.

In 1965, the Carters came to Baltimore with their two small children, and the 28-year-old pastor fell in love with New Shiloh's grand tradition of African-American prayer.

"Thirty years ago, many black churches were trying to be white," he says. "They didn't want anything to do with the traditional black liturgy in trying to say 'We are as good as the dominant culture.' Any gospel music was almost out of order. There was no sense of an amen corner where the people openly praised the Lord.

"But black religion had not been polluted at New Shiloh. It was black African at its best."

For decades, New Shiloh stood at the corner of Lanvale Street and Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore. But under Dr. Carter's leadership, the congregation outgrew its traditional stone building.

Five years ago, the church moved into stately modern quarters that command an entire block in a dilapidated neighborhood south of Mondawmin Mall. Built at a cost of $10 million and decorated with the rich visions of African-American artists, the new building stands as a symbol of determination in a city where many churches are tempted to follow their congregants to the suburbs.

A deeper commitment

Rather than leave, New Shiloh chose to sink its roots deeper into the city and minister to an urban community besieged by unemployment, drugs, violence and the miseries of broken families.

The church serves as a spiritual home to close to 6,000 people from all over the metropolitan area. It is a place where Baltimore's school superintendent worships beside a McDonald's cashier, a place where those who have left the city's crime and poverty are reminded of how much is left to be done.

"Dr. Carter has the uncanny ability to preach or present his sermons and the worship service in a way that a person who is a Rhodes scholar could be sitting next to someone who is a domestic and they would both be fulfilled by his message," says Patricia Morris, dean of the school of education and urban studies at Morgan State University.

New Shiloh has never exhibited the class consciousness the Carters saw at other churches.

"When we came here, I thought it was very refreshing that it didn't matter if you wore a mink coat or a cloth coat," Dr. Carter says. "This church has always had what I call the finest of traditional 'black' faith: People who loved worship in the sense that God was the center of their lives. . . . That's the force which has continued to make this church what it is now."

The ministry is very much a family affair. "First lady" Weptanomah Carter founded and runs the Women's Ministry and has written nine books on spiritual topics, including "The Black Minister's Wife."

Dr. Carter's older brother, Nathan, choir director at Morgan State University, also directs the music at New Shiloh's services and is headmaster of its new music school.

His daughter, Weptanomah Carter-Davis, a therapist who is married to the pastor of Second Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, was formerly on the church staff.

His son, Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr., pastor of the historic First Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va., was once engineer for the radio ministry.

Listening to God

But Dr. Carter continues to set the standard at New Shiloh with his hectic, ever-changing weekly schedule. Besides his three Sunday services, there are weddings, funerals, seminars, classes, business meetings and out-of-town revivals. Somehow, he still finds time to listen to God and prepare a message for his congregation.

"If he has a moment to think, he's writing," says Nathan Carter. "He's always doing something. . . . He's a hard worker, that's a natural thing in our family. People say we do too much, but whatever it is, we thrive on work. Harold thrives on work. It doesn't hurt him, it helps him."

He also appreciates his leisure time, Dr. Carter insists, a time for fishing trips on the Chesapeake Bay and for listening to short wave radio.

"I'm not all wound up like a spinning top," he says. "I really love life, I celebrate it. I love things, as you can see."

His spacious offices at the church and his Ashburton home are filled with beautifully made paintings, sculptures, furniture, crafts and mementos from his trips around the world. There are photographs of his grandchildren -- and photographs of a visit by President Jimmy Carter.

"I think of the many preachers I've seen over the last 30 years who got caught up in the charisma of what the people said about them -- and who didn't have enough sense to try to be pleasing to God. People can make you think YOU'RE God, think YOU'RE the angel, somebody higher than ordinary. But you better let God keep your feet on the ground."

Dr. Carter says ministers are always vulnerable to losing touch with God.

"I'm sure younger ministers looking at a church like this with thousands of folk coming every Sunday, this could blow their minds! . . . You have to really stay focused because a thousand forces and a thousand winds are ever blowing to try to throw you off course.

"I belong to the tradition that you preach with authority. But that authority is tempered with a lot of love. And it has to recognize that people have got to come to believe in you, to believe you're for real, to believe you are willing to sit where they sit, eat what they eat, be burdened with what they're burdened with."

He describes his spiritual life as a perpetual tension, a balancing of forces.

"One is the force of the certainty of God. The other is the force of the search for God. One is the force of the reality of the Word, the other is the force of 'Is the Word really true?'

"If there is any certainty at all, it is the certainty that the Bible is, in fact, the Word of God. That Jesus Christ is, in fact, the Messiah. That he can be trusted as one's greatest savior and friend and that his church was sent here to proclaim the kingdom of God and to love all the people.

"But in the context of those certainties that guide my life, I still wrestle. Otherwise, faith gets cold and sterile. And as for me, I don't want to lose the excitement."

"From 1965, '75, '85, '95: I've got some good news for you: The same God from 1965 is here right now. He woke me up this morning. He started me on my way. He gave me joy, joy, joy -- the joy of the Lord is my strength."


This week, New Shiloh Baptist Church will honor Rev. Harold Carter's 30 years of ministry with sermons and a community concert.

* Tomorrow, at the official commemoration, Dr. Carter's son, Rev. Harold Carter Jr., will preach at the 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. services. Rev. Frank Reid III, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, will preach at the 6:30 p.m. service.

* Wednesday, Dr. Carter's brother, Nathan, will conduct the New Shiloh School of Music in a free community concert at 7 p.m. in the church, Monroe Street and Clifton Avenue.

To hear a prayer from Dr. Carter, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Punch in 6223 after the greeting.

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