Reverend A.R. Bernard presides over one of the largest religious congregations in New York City: Canarsie-based megachurch the Christian Cultural Center, which boasts over 30,000 members.
Born in Panama, Alphonso Bernard grew up in a struggling single-parent household in Bed-Stuy. As a kid, he held a $2.00/hour after-school job in the garment district and eventually turned to selling marijuana to help his mom make ends meet. A member of the Nation of Islam at the time, Bernard eventually found a more reputable job—he took an entry-level position at Bankers Trust—and it was there that one of his colleagues suggested he attend a gospel meeting. He converted to Christianity shortly afterwards and soon quit his job to pursue the ministry. In 1978, he founded the Christian Cultural Center out of a small storefront. These days he presides over an 11-acre complex, which will soon feature a performing arts theatre, a botanical garden, and residential facility for senior citizens. Bernard is also a popular public speaker and brings in the dough speaking to Fortune 500 companies as well as groups of college students.
Given the size of his church and the influence he has with the African-American community at large, politicians had long tried to ally themselves with Bernard. Bernard's position makes him an important player for major business leaders, too. Bruce Ratner tried to enlist his support on his Atlantic Yards bid and Disney looked for Bernard's help when it released The Chronicles of Narnia in 2005. Increasingly, his reach is extending to a national audience. He now hosts two broadcasts weekly on TBN, the world's largest Christian TV network. (He also has a show on Sunday mornings on 98.7 KISS-FM) and he's earned a number of celeb followers, including Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Star Jones, and Jason Kidd.