WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Calbert R. Brantley was just 5 when he read his father's sermons aloud, pretending to preach the Gospel to the faithful crowds. At 7, he promised God he would someday become a preacher.
"I forgot about what I said, but he reminded me around age 18 or 19," Brantley said with a hearty laugh. "I tried to run from it. I tried to run from this burning, this yearning, until I just couldn't get rest in my personal life. I said, 'Yes, Lord, I'm going to preach; I'm going to be a minister of the Gospel.'
After seven years ministering at Zion Baptist Church in Waterbury, Brantley will leave at the end of the month to replace his retiring father at the historic St. Matthew Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C.
"Every church has a unique story," the 43-year old pastor said in the office at Zion he will soon vacate.
The story of Zion Baptist Church goes back 97 years. It is, along with Mount Olive Baptist Church and Grace Baptist Church, one of the "big three" African-American churches in Waterbury.
When Brantley arrived at Zion, the church had been without a pastor for four years after the retirement of the Rev. Stanley P. Petteway.
"They needed healing," Brantley said. "They needed stability. As a transitional pastor, I was able to provide just care, pastoral care, listening, fellowship with them and breaking bread and just being authentic; laughing a lot and embracing them."
He also brought change to the church.
"Operation Love Thy Neighbor," an outreach ministry, not only fed and clothed the homeless, but welcomed them into the church.
"I think Zion is a source of inspiration to the community, because it is a place that embraces anybody, regardless of age, ethnicity, male or female, sexual orientation," he said. "This is a church where anyone can find community, and we try to continue to maintain that legacy. A lot of persons from the halfway houses and shelters have found a spiritual home in Zion."
Audrey Harrell, who said she has attended Zion for more than half a century, said Brantley also reached out across the generations.
"The senior ministry programs, he has enhanced that greatly by adding on activities for seniors, and he's also enhanced the youth activities," she said. She said she hopes when a replacement for Brantley is chosen, the new pastor is "someone similar to him; open, very open, to all generations."
Brantley is from South Carolina, but grew up a military kid, moving eight times in the 22 years his father was an Air Force chaplain. His stations included bases in Washington, D.C., Guam and Turkey.
"We forged community wherever we went," he said. "It was a successful thing for us. Our family thrived on that. For us it was fulfilling."
And he credited those years also with helping develop his approach to his faith.
"In the military, where we had Protestant services, you had every denomination trying to find spirituality under one cloak. So Lutherans, Church of God in Christ, African Methodists, Episcopalians, we all came together and worshipped together in a Protestant setting," he said. "And so I learned at an early age that there were many different flavors, but at the end of the day, we all love the Lord."
Watching his father forge friendships and draw military members to his church, he said, taught him the power of building relationships.
"I don't care how smart you are, people don't care what you know until they know that you care, until relationships are established," he said.
He added he pays particular attention to the senior members of Zion, who he calls his "Golden Chosen.
"They may not understand me, but if they trust me, that I have their best interests at heart, they'll walk with me, they'll follow my lead," he said. "But if I have not built the relationships, I have no collateral."
The people at Zion often made that task easy for him, he said.
"Here at Zion, they've been wonderful people. As a matter of fact, they remind me of home. They have roots mostly in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana," he said. "They have Southern roots, and so they reminded me a lot of a Southern church community. They were just good, down-home people, so we related a lot."
When his father, the Rev. Clinton Brantley, decided to retire and asked his son to come home to South Carolina to replace him, the son said he was unsure.
"I like New England. I was not thinking about going back home at all; going back to the Bible Belt," he said. "My dad wanted me to consider it, and I said, 'Dad, the Lord is not leading me that way.'"
It was important to him, he said, not to make the move because his father wanted it, but because God did.
"I have to feel a sense of calling," he said. "I have to feel led. I can't passionately serve if I would be serving with regrets."
That calling eventually came on a cruise ship. His family took the holiday voyage to celebrate the renewing of his parents' wedding vows on the 50th anniversary, he said.
"The whole family was there - my wife, my daughter, my brother and his family, my sister and her family - we're all there together," he said. "I just felt the spirit come over me, saying, 'This is home.' It would not leave me since that experience. Ever since then, I felt that tug."
Brantley gave his last sermon at Zion last Sunday. By Tuesday, he, his wife Kyla and 6-year-old daughter Candace are expected to be in Charleston, S.C., where he said they'll live at a church-owned home until they close on a house purchase.
"I had home court advantage; I did my engagement party there 12 years ago," Brantley said with another laugh.
He immediately qualified the remark.
"I believe just me being connected to my dad was not a shoo-in, because although they love my dad, they want something different from my dad," he said. "He took them as far as he could take them. But they love him enough to want something similar. They wanted the best of both worlds."
The Rev. Antwaun Richardson, who is assistant to the pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford, will serve as interim pastor until Zion finds a permanent replacement for him, Brantley said.
"I feel very sad about him leaving," Harrell said. "But I am also happy that he is going back home to pastor at his father's church."
He said he isn't worried about filling his father's shoes in South Carolina.
"Part of me leaving home was to prove that I could make it on my own. And that I didn't have to try to fill anyone's shoes," he said. "I think I'm at my best when I try to walk in my own."
Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com