CANTON – The Rev. Gary Martin’s start in Canton was a rocky one in 1994.
Just two years after becoming the senior pastor at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Martin resigned.
“There were discipline issues,” he said. “There’s no way in the world you can run a church without discipline. If I couldn’t do ministry in the way I was expected to, I knew I needed leave. I didn’t want to split the church. That was never my intention, nor my dream.”
Martin considered leaving the state but instead launched his own nondenominational church in 1997 with 19 charter members. The new congregation met in a member’s home before renting space from a Seventh Day Adventist Church, then building its own facility in 2003.
Next weekend, the founding pastor of True Light Christian Ministries at 3719 Lesh St. NE will lead a 25th anniversary celebration with a gala on June 9 at the Doubletree Hotel. The event will culminate with a mortgage-burning ceremony and two special worship services on June 12 at the church.
The Rev. Clevon Dukes of Farrell Pa., will speak at 10 a.m., followed by Bishop Carl E. Jones of Greensburg, Pa., at 3 p.m.
“It’s rare for a congregation to break ground, build their own facility and pay it off,” Martin said. “So for that to happen in Canton, and particularly a minority congregation, is special.”
Martin has been in ministry for 40 years, 30 of them in Canton. Though he was raised Baptist, he decided to take True Light in different direction.
“True Light is a very special worship place,” he said. “We’re nondenominational. And one of the reasons was because we wanted to be able to reach out to people of various denominations. There is not one, singular group because I believe the kingdom is bigger than that.”
Teaching, not just preaching
The Flint, Mich., native is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He earned a master’s in theology the American Baptist Seminary and a doctorate in divinity from Vanderbilt University.
Martin said teaching is a central component of his ministry at True Light. In addition to pastoring, he has been an adjunct professor at Malone University and Walsh University, and recently wrote his first book, “Let Me See Your Face: The Journey to Answered Prayer.”
He has been a longtime contributor to the National Baptist Convention’s National Baptist Publishing Board.
“I believe you grow a church not from the outside in, but from the inside out,” he said. “Bible classes are essential. You can’t get married here unless you go through premarital counseling. We believe God has honored all of that.”
Martin also credits members’ faithfulness, noting that they don’t rely on fundraisers. The church, he said, is primarily financed through tithes and offerings. For a time, they rented space to a messianic Jewish congregation.
“One of the reasons we did that is we wanted to be really open to any group of people,” he said.
True Light also places emphasis on outreach, which has included ministering to boys in the Indian River juvenile prison in Massillon, giveaways and family community events.
“It was almost like Thanksgiving, the way they (members) fed them,” Martin said. “You know, one of the things we didn’t want to do was leave the inner city because everybody seems to build in the suburb when they want to build a new facility. We believe everybody needs to to be ministered to. This was a great opportunity for us to minister to people. We’re in the people business.”
Doing things the right way
At a time when churches are struggling to keep their doors open, True Light has thrived. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin said, they hosted “drive-in” services in the parking lot and also conducted services online, which was a big success.
The church has about 100 members.
“I think it’s because we did things the right way,” Martin said. “Everything we do has to fall under an umbrella. I call it mentoring people according to Christ’s teachings. When I first came here, I came to see the impact of mentoring people according to Christ’s teachings, so anything we did had to fall under that umbrella. And if you couldn’t justify it by Christ, you shouldn’t do it.”
Martin also cites strong support from members who hold strategic positions in the community. Part of next week’s festivities will include a recognition of charter members. The kitchen will be named in honor of two of them, Maybelle Davenport and Helen Dunnivant.
Though women tend to be the majority in many churches, half of True Light’s members are men.
“And strong men,” Martin said. “We encourage them to be the priests in their homes. I have to try to lead by example. Sermons aren’t heard, they’re seen. If you show people what that looks like, people start to model it.”
Martin and his wife, Debra, CEO and executive director of the Pregnancy & Parenting Center, have four adult children.
Martin said he has no plans to retire but has made the church a promise. The church has four associate pastors.
“I told the church that I would never out-stay my ability to be effective,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who holds on, just to hold on. I would rather leave earlier than later.”
The anniversary event begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m. followed by dinner and live music from 8 to 11 p.m. by The Michael Austin Project. Semi-formal dress is requested.
Gala tickets are $55. To purchase or for more information, visit the church’s website at www.truelightchristianministries.org or contact Tomier Davenport at 330-338-2992 or Kelley Foster-Lever at 330-605-6155.
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or email@example.com
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP