President turns spotlight on P.G. church

January 26, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

TEMPLE HILLS -- The Revs. John A. and Diana P. Cherry warily approached the microphones and television cameras arrayed outside the Full Gospel AME Zion Church yesterday. She was smiling. He was wide-eyed.

"I really didn't expect this," he said.

He didn't? The night before, President Clinton had introduced the Cherrys to the nation. In his State of the Union address, he applauded them for their ministry, which focuses on strengthening families.

And just last week, Mr. Cherry gave the invocation and the benediction at the inauguration ceremonies for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"This is new for me and different," Mr. Cherry said, "because I'm a preacher, not a politician."

He is preacher to a gigantic flock.

Full Gospel, a sprawling complex in a neighborhood of tidy brick homes, has 17,000 members, the Cherrys say. And 200 new members join each month. As many churches struggle to hang on to parishioners, Full Gospel is expanding its membership and adding programs.

There is a Christian school, kindergarten through 12th grade. There are a book and gift store and a full-time church staff of 80. Two receptionists work the steadily ringing phones. Two motor coaches are parked in the driveway.

Members come for premarital counseling, marriage enrichment classes, singles enrichment sessions, classes for people fighting addictions. They watch Full Gospel's television broadcasts. They sweat at "Christian aerobics." They participate in programs for the elderly, for shut-ins, for young men, for young women.

"It's not entertainment," Mr. Cherry said. "It's not an experiment. It's working."

"It's truth," Mrs. Cherry said.

"It's truth," he repeated.

Members of Congress attend services there. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has visited. President Clinton, who heard about the Cherrys' work, worshiped with the congregation one Sunday last August.

"My feeling is he was very much touched by what they are doing," said Neel Lattimore, a spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When Mr. Clinton began working on his State of the Union speech, with its themes of responsibility and citizenship, he remembered the Cherrys as a couple who personified those ideas, Mr. Lattimore said. "These were people he knew, he personally knew, and people he and Mrs. Clinton wanted there last night. There's a rapport there."

When Governor Glendening was planning last week's inauguration ceremonies, he asked Mr. Cherry to lead the prayers.

"He and the governor have had a relationship going way back," said Charles F. Porcari, a Glendening spokesman. The two men had worked together on various Prince George's County programs for years.

The Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, said the Cherrys succeed with "a combination of message and anointing. In the world they would call that 'personal charisma.' "

Mr. Cherry, 55, is a compact man who met reporters outside the church in a tailored gray overcoat. Mrs. Cherry, 51, wrapped in gray fur, approached the microphones with him.

Married for 27 years and the parents of a 24-year-old son, they preach that strong families, strong churches and strong communities make a strong nation. They believe in preserving families and reducing the rate of unwed pregnancy.

The congregation suffers because of street crime, Mr. Cherry said.

"We have an enormous amount of funerals here, burying young men, black boys, black girls," he said. "I believe it is the responsibility to stop and save what is lost."

"People flock to their church because they teach the word of God and how it can be applied in their daily lives," Mr. Reid said. "They teach the Bible so it can be applied to all people, to all ethnic groups, but they also teach that there is an African presence in scripture.

"They're a tremendous couple doing tremendous work," Mr. Reid said.

The Cherrys did not set out to lead one of the nation's largest churches. He was the son and grandson of ministers, "and the last thing I wanted to do was be a minister." But that changed 13 years ago. He was in the furniture business in Marlow Heights when "I had a divine encounter with God."

The Cherrys began teaching the Bible in their family room. When the sessions outgrew that space, he began holding them in his store. Eventually he moved the furniture out and a church in. And in time the congregation moved to Temple Hills, where two services are held each Sunday in the rose-and-mauve-draped 3,000-seat sanctuary.

By early 1997, Mr. Cherry said, the church will relocate to a 10,304-seat sanctuary on 82 acres closer to the Washington line -- closer, as the president noted, to the urban problems of crime and drugs.

The Cherrys expect to cover the cost of the new $24 million complex without a mortgage and without holding fund-raisers. Their church members tithe.

Mr. Cherry said he was "awed and honored" by the president's mention. But, "We try not to reflect on things that are happening in our lives. I want to keep my focus."

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