I came to love reading in a roundabout way. I wanted to be an informed, persuasive preacher. So, I read about the evangelists who were making waves, causing a stir, drawing a crowd. They were shepherding people in search of answers to one of the most urgent questions that mortals could ask: “How do I get right with God?”
Preachers were my first heroes. They were rock stars in an age when no other celebrities ventured into the desolate rural hills of a big tropical island where lives were cheap, short, full of trauma and civic neglect. That’s where I grew up.
Suddenly, people had priorities and purpose
Way back in the late 1940s there were few venues in which people could gather, sing, visit, break bread and celebrate life. Then, evangelical preachers came, pitched their makeshift tents in an otherwise overlooked part of an abandoned colony and gave awesome, eloquent performances. They exploded with fervor and holy zeal, giving hope, introducing discipline, demanding temperance and organizing believers into church groups. Suddenly, converts had priorities and purposes to compete with the bleak realities wreaking havoc in the lives of the oppressed. It was breathtaking to watch these men with silver tongues calling people to repent, lead and unite. I was so impressed!
The more I heard, the more it fueled my hunger
The best preachers told stories with punch lines that revealed great truths. They opened scriptures, read dramatically, challenging listeners to apply biblical solutions to problems threatening their existence.
They gave meaning to the forgotten ones. In return, they were celebrated and compensated. Their reputations and their territories grew. They persuaded passive listeners into becoming active believers.
They were motivators of the unmotivated. They brought those on the fringes into the fold. I was awestruck. The more I heard them, the more they fueled my hunger and desire to join their ranks. I was hooked.
Preachers were famous; revivals inspired me
I was still a young boy when I left rural Puerto Rico to join my mother in New York City. We began to attend church. I also accompanied her to evangelistic crusades. Preachers were famous in that great city too. The religious revivals of the 1950s after World War II also inspired me. Billy Graham’s “Hour of Decision” on radio and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living” on TV enthralled Protestants and Catholics nationwide. Rev. Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace and “Father M.J. Divine” were legendary ministers in Black Harlem and beyond. The Puerto Rican preachers added a new face and accent to the mix.
Too black for white folks, not black enough for African Americans
I wanted to discover how the masters of the pulpit honed their skills and practiced their craft. My passion to deliver entertaining, powerful messages drove me to read biographies and sermons. I was learning the techniques for engaging listeners to pay attention to my messages. I became accomplished at projecting my voice and practicing the art of performing on stage. Reading led me to pursue more formal education. Finally, I was ready.
Nonetheless, my path to becoming a preacher was cut short. Church leaders found my multiracial blended identity a stumbling block in the age of segregation. I was too black for white churches and not black enough for African Americans, so I was told.
Reading and education can let you change paths and still make a meaningful life
But by then, I was educated. By graduating from high school and college, I had options. I was coached to teach. Persuasive speaking skills made my teaching come alive. Advocating for students from book-poor homes became my passion. My new vocation, while not conventionally religious, remained spiritually important.
What burning questions do you have? Are they connected to your interest in a particular field of study? Are you trying to figure out how to bounce back from adversity and become resilient? When confronting challenges, if plan “A” is blocked what is your plan “B”? Embracing reading as the gateway to becoming educated and expanding your options may very well hold the answers to your urgent questions as well.