Dressed in a white robe, nationally acclaimed Prophetess Juanita Bynum-Weeks took the pulpit and proceeded for several hours to pace the stage, quote the Bible and motion at the crowd, which included her friend Michelle Williams of the female R&B group Destiny's Child.
The prophetess said, "I was born to be a witness," and repeated the phrases "watch this church" and "Jesus have mercy" several times during her address.
The congregation, jammed into pew upon pew and decked out in their Sunday finest, responded with shouts of "that's right" and "let's do this" as they jumped up out of their seats and threw their hands in the air.
The church prides itself on equality, with no "superstars," congregants later said, but on a Sunday afternoon the standing-room only crowd of 800 was thoroughly riveted by one woman.
Bynum-Weeks, who began her Christian life at the church and later left the city to begin her own ministry, came back to New Greater Bethel to help the church launch its revival-style Covenant Keepers Conference, which started on Saturday and runs through this Sunday. People have come from all over the country for the event, which features daily workshops on renewing one's spiritual life and nightly worship services.
"When they leave through the doors when it's over, they're a brand new person," said Gail Johnson, the church's president and daughter of its pastor and founder, John Boyd Sr.
Covenant Keepers, a conference for women in the past that expanded this year to include men and youth, is but one of several seminars held annually by the church. A men's conference will be held in October and one for youth will be offered sometime this summer.
In addition to its special events, New Greater Bethel operates a food pantry open seven days a week, runs a K to 12 school, works with abused women and provides consultations on health and nutrition, among other services to the community.
"There's something every day that's going on in this ministry," Dr. Johnson said.
The church opened in 1972 in a tent at Francis Lewis Boulevard and Linden Boulevard in Cambria Heights before moving on to a former drugstore nearby and then an old movie theater at 219-09 Linden Blvd. In time, New Greater Bethel added a second old movie theater, the one on 215-32 Jamaica Ave. where Covenant Keepers is held, and now operates out of both facilities.
The Jamaica Ave. movie theater previously showed X-rated movies and was indicative of the state the area was in before the church came, Dr. Johnson said.
"It just kind of replenished the whole neighborhood," she said, with new merchants following the ministry. But now blessed with more than 2,000 congregants just at the Queens Village site, New Greater Bethel is looking for a new home to unite its two locations and all its members.
On Sunday many of those members showed up for Prophetess Bynum-Weeks' dynamic call to god. Some congregants, however, advised a visitor that the address was a high point in the conference, and that not all the events would be so filled with energy.
The congregants also said it was not too late for people to come to the free nightly services and to join them Saturday when they canvass the neighborhood to witness for god.
"They still have time to be a part of it,"Johnson said.
She noted that the church's regular Sunday services were also spirited, with the pastor and elders not following a scripted program and healing, prophesying and blessing of oil for the congregants' home use a common occurrence.
Said Dr. Johnson with a laugh, "You come in here Sundays and you don't know what to expect."
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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