LEWISTOWN - The Rev. Bernard Carpenter became the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church 30 years ago, and while he may be giving up his regular duties as the church's minister, he has no intention of drifting quietly into the back pew.
Carpenter, 73, recently announced he will retire on Sept. 21, and though he's made similar announcements before, this time it's really happening.
"I tried three times to retire, and each time, I didn't get the peace that I needed," he said.
Sentinel photo by KIM HAYES
The Rev. Bernard Carpenter, of Bethel A.M.E. Church, stands in the pulpit Thursday at the church. Carpenter will retire on Sept. 21.
This time is different, he said, because he has definite plans to continue his ministry through gospel music and evangelism in the community. An active visitor of area nursing homes, he said he will continue to speak to and sing for the people there.
"My music ministry, if the Lord opens the door, I have a message," he said.
A large part of Carpenter's ministry included reaching out to those facing addictions through counseling, which he will continue at the church and in the community. He also would like to reach out to support and encourage other pastors.
"This is just the next page in the chapter in evangelism," he said.
Carpenter wasn't always clergy, though. In his younger days in Pittsburgh, he struggled with drugs and alcohol himself, landing in prison at a time when his career as a musician could have taken off. He was part of The Marcels, the doo-wop group responsible for popularizing the song "Blue Moon" - or at least, he would have been if he hadn't been arrested the day after the group's first rehearsal. He said some time later, he heard The Marcels singing "Blue Moon" on the radio piped into his jail cell.
Eventually, he met a woman who was originally from Mifflin County and moved here with her.
As a 30-something black man in the 1970s, he was influenced by the black power movement of the time. He said any issues he had when he arrived in Lewistown were because of his approach, not his skin. He initially got a bad reputation because of his foolish ways.
"I came to town with a white girl and a militant attitude," he said. "But this town, when they found out I wanted to be a right person, they really got behind my ministry."
That girl has been his wife for 44 years now. They have two sons who are both teachers and licensed preachers, as well as four grandchildren.
"I owe my salvation to the Lord Jesus Christ for using my wife to pull me off the streets. ... She's my rock," he said.
He had been saved for three years before he ended up at Bethel as a gospel singer. The church had trouble keeping a minister, and in 1984 when the Rev. Melvin Sharp drowned in the Juniata River, the congregation asked Carpenter if he would lead them.
"It was something that excited me," he said. "I didn't know what I was getting into."
In truth, had he known much about the trials ahead of him in the ministry, he said he probably would have been too scared to do it.
"My calling was from God," he said. "It had to be."
From there, the small church expanded several times, first adding a kitchen and restrooms, then enlarging the building further until the latest addition; in 2005, the Bethel A.M.E. H.O.P.E. Center was built to help people excel. The center hosted pro-life meetings and a program Carpenter founded called Turning Point, which was a faith-based approach to helping addicts no matter where they found themselves in the addiction process. The H.O.P.E. Center gave them a place to go where they could be heard and helped.
"We used the Bible to show them that there was hope ... to meet them where they were," he said.
His message to those who are struggling is simple: "If you really want to do right, this community will help you."
The congregation itself is made up of people from all races and walks of life. Carpenter said it's a real church, representative of the diversity that exists in the real world.
"We invite anybody and everybody," he said. "People won't look at you like you're strange when you come in."
The Bethel congregation now averages 70 people on any given Sunday, but at one time attendance was around 225. The average church congregation size is about 125, he said.
In appreciation of his service to the church, a retirement concert will be held at 6 p.m. on Sept. 6 at Bethel A.M.E. Church, 23 Juniata St., Lewistown. Dave Hartsock, Dawn Kauffman and Rick Alderton will perform, as will Carpenter. A free-will offering will be taken. After the concert, snacks will be available during fellowship time.