I’m not sure exactly when it happened for me, but I have long been enamored with super-seniors.
Particularly for me there is something about the builder generation (those born around 1925-1945). My mom’s mom was a builder. A block away from my grandmother lived another builder with whom I developed a very strong relationship. I’m amazed at their strength, commitment, principles and the way that they established things. These folks established schools, churches, entire communities and provided stability and structure from which they’re great-great-grandchildren are still reaping the benefits.
There are few greater examples of these characteristics than Dr. Charles E. Bradford. A true company man if there ever was one, his lifework and legacy tell many great tales of the fruit that flows from a life lived in service to others and pursuit of an ideal that is much greater than oneself. He is an example from which we might all gain great insight and inspiration.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had the tremendous privilege to spend quite a bit of time with Elder Bradford. As providence would have it, the decision was made to honor him and his wife for their contributions to the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a part of the Black History Month festivities at the Oakwood University Church. In preparation for this grand occasion, I had the opportunity to sit down with Elder Bradford to film an interview about his ministry and philosophy. He did not simply reminisce about old times. Rather, he lectured and schooled the entire production team about the way things are and the way they should be. Ninety-three years old and still sharp as a tack and quick-witted as can be.
I visited him and Sister Bradford in their home. After spending just a few minutes in their presence it is immediately clear that, with more than 70 years of marriage, they have become fused together as an inseparable unit; loving, life-partners over a life-long journey of church work. I leaned in to listen as they talked about everything from their perspective on the current happenings to the challenges in their very first churches.
The experiences and stories are endless for both of them. Even Sister Bradford has some epic stories to tell. She was one of the first and only living staff persons from the 1946 team of workers at the South Atlantic Conference headquarters located on the famed Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, GA. She wrote the letter on behalf of then-president H.D. Singleton to invite Warren Banfield and E.C. Ward to join the South Atlantic team. Elder Bradford, on the other hand, was also hired in 1946 by the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference, but in just a few months became a charter member and pastor of (what became) the Southwest Region Conference. The two were married shortly thereafter and went to pastor first in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
There in Baton Rouge the young pastor got acquainted with the dean of preachers, Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. Taylor once spoke of Elder Bradford saying, “I count Charles Bradford as the only ministerial friendship which I have that goes back more than sixty years. I know of no one else in all of these years who possesses the spiritual genius to remain true to the faith of one’s fathers while reaching out to others in the great family of God—certainly not as effectively as Charles Bradford, one of the Lord’s true noblemen.”
These men served side-by-side in Baton Rouge, and then later in New York City. However, as the story goes, when they met all those years ago, they were not friends. W.W. Fordham and Elder Bradford had organized an evangelistic meeting in the city, and it just so happened that their evangelistic meeting coincided with Dr. Taylor’s summer tour of the Holy Land. By the time Dr. Taylor returned home, many of his members had already become converted to the Adventist message, due in large part to Elder Bradford and his powerful preaching. Dr. Taylor decided he’d fix the entire ordeal, by preaching a sermon on “the Lord’s Day,” but the sermon fell flat.
Years later, while in New York, Dr. Taylor invited Elder Bradford, on numerous occasions, to preach at the famed Concourse Baptist Church. Yet, he was careful to stipulate that while he was happy to return the favor and preach any other day, he could not preach on Saturday because it was the day he set aside for preparing his own sermons to preach on Sunday. They remained friends until he died in 2015.
Elder Bradford served faithfully as an exceptional administrator, as the first president of the North American Division (NAD) and the only African-American to serve in that capacity. His legacy is that of creative and courageous leadership. Yet, he had established his reputation as a courageous leader long before he became NAD chief. In 1964, while President of the Lake Region Conference, he wrote a letter to General Conference (GC) President R.R. Figuhr, to urge him toward a more progressive view of race relations. He admonished Figuhr saying:
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has done exceedingly well in its global mission of preaching an unpopular message that cuts across the grain of the natural man. We have with great courage and in no uncertain terms handled issues charged with emotionalism, e.g., the Sabbath question and healthful living. From a human standpoint such controversial issues would have made it impossible for the movement to grow and prosper. But God honored the faith of His witnesses. And when we with pen and voice and loving example condemn every practice that smacks of prejudice and racial superiority the world will have demonstration here and now (not by and by in the Kingdom of heaven) that the third angel’s message breaks down every barrier and creates the new man in Christ who is neither Jew nor Greek, black or white. It is in our power as leaders of the flock to not only look forward to but hasten that day.
He had established on this and countless other occasions a commitment to social justice and faithful service to the church. He also demonstrated this when he urged African-American Andrews University students to remain focused, committed to the church and their studies, and simultaneously challenged university administrators to protect and prioritize the well-being of all of its students. This was after students hung confederate flags in windows and burned a cross on the campus of Andrews.
As NAD President, among his many duties, he would return to his beloved Oakwood as chairman of the board of trustees, a fitting post given the fact that his mother, Etta (Littlejohn) Bradford had been one of the first sixteen students, and his nephew, Calvin Rock, served as university president. Brad would finally leave a more tangible mark of his legacy at Oakwood in what today has become the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center. This extension of the Oakwood ministry training complex was the brainchild of Elder Bradford as a leadership development lab for church leaders that was designed to extend well beyond their formative years of ministry preparation.
Yet, of all of the contributions made to the church, most notable must be his theological and literary work, especially relating to ecclesiology. Having written several books about the church and church work, Elder Bradford remains passionate about the health and function of God’s church. Still though, a lot of what he’s written hasn’t been published—such as the paper he wrote in the 80s about women’s ordination, or the one he wrote in the 1960s urging the GC to affirm more minority leaders. As I sat in his house, he passed me manuscript after manuscript, note after note, and the theme that runs through them all is the beauty, power and necessity of God’s church. He spoke of letters he donated to Oakwood University, handwritten by the great Dr. George Washington Carver himself. And on one of the notes he handed me was a short illustration about Dr. Carver and a prayer for the church.
He recounted a story he heard from a professor wherein Dr. Carver held a peanut in his hand and prayed, saying, “Mr. Creator, help me to learn all that there is to know about this peanut that I hold in my hand.” He continues saying, “His prayer was answered. My prayer is that the Creator God will help us to know as much as we can about that institution he regards as the ‘apple of His eye.’ The church calls for a larger prayer. So much depends on it.”
Elder Bradford believes in the church. And why wouldn’t he? He’s a builder, a company man. He helped to establish the strength of the church we have today with his bare hands, blood, sweat and tears. He has prayed, sacrificed and labored for the church, and he longs to see the church as God intends for it to be. Then he handed me another note. This one froze me when I read it. His words so rich, deep and filled with hope. He writes with conviction and power about the church that Jesus came to establish. He writes about the church that we all want to be a part of.
Finally, there will be, in time, and history, a demonstration of the ideal community. The Spirit’s rule will be unchallenged. Every member of the community will be affirmed and participate in ministry. It cannot be a racial community, permitting racial discrimination and separation within its own fellowship. Class and caste will be unknown. It will not be a male church, tolerating male dominance; nor a national church, tolerating national arrogance. As it nears the end, the community will conform more and more to the liberating rule of Christ…Freedom and justice will prevail. Understanding and acceptance will permeate the fellowship. Every potential maximized. The gifts of the Spirit will burst into flower. This is the challenge of Adventism—a pilgrim people “between the already and the not yet,” always in transition on their way to the Kingdom of God.
Finally he says, “I’m tired now. I’m gonna go and get some rest.” I begged him to let me borrow all of the notes. I promised to bring them back. I wanted to read them, scan them, study them and glean from a master builder. He relented, and I left feeling filthy rich. It’s been over twenty-four hours since I sat in their living room, but my heart is still full and beaming with pride that in some small way I have been connected to one of God’s chief builders, chosen for the building up of God’s kingdom. I am blessed. We are blessed. May God cause us to follow faithfully in his stead.
A few days after our video interview, Elder Bradford called my office to speak to me. He wanted to follow-up a little about our interview. I was simply honored to take the call. We talked for a little while and then he pronounced a blessing (as he did last night), and just before I hung up he said, “Young man, take care of the work!” I replied as anyone with common sense would. “By God’s grace, sir—by God’s grace.”
I want to be a builder too.