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First African American student at Southwestern held to the Word

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The three-day-old baby wailed and sobbed for a mother who would never again sing to him or whisper his name. His grandmother, stunned by the death of her daughter but stirred by the infant’s cries, picked up her well-worn Bible and placed it gently on his chest. The whimpering stopped. Chester Brookins, comforted at last, slept.
So, literally from the first, it was always about the Bible for Brookins.
“The only way he would counsel anybody was to get out his Bible,” Eddie Mae Brookins said of her husband. “He’d say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you say or what I say — all that matters is what Jesus says.'” And he knew where to find what Jesus said about whatever issue was being discussed.
“He didn’t care much about money — he was just crazy about souls. He valued the Word of God more highly than food. Even before he started preaching, folks said that even when he had a bat in his hand playing baseball he kept a Bible in his shirt pocket.”
That hunger to know God and know his Word, the craziness for sharing his faith with lost people, carried him halfway around the world, to large churches in Topeka, Kan., and St. Louis — and to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1951 as the first African American student to register at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Eddie Mae, widowed in 198
0, still lives in the Dallas house the couple built 35 years ago. It is just down the street from Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church — where she met Chester and where he served in his first full-time and his longest pastorate.
“Reverend was really sick with diabetes when we learned Southwestern was going to accept black students,” Eddie Mae said. “But even though he had a degree from (Dallas’ former) Bishop College, he was determined to keep learning. At first he was so weak other students had to help him walk to class. His grandmother told him when he was a little boy he would go to seminary. Southwestern fulfilled her prophesy.”
Brookins never graduated but still accepted an invitation to teach seminary-level classes for the extension departments of all the Southern Baptist seminaries. Ironically, his teaching was one of the few things Immanuel Baptist Church and Metropolitan Baptist Church in Topeka had in common after their bitter split.
In the 1960s, he taught integrated extension courses in the city’s two largest white churches while he pastored Stranger’s Rest Baptist Church.
Before arriving at Southwestern, Brookins had extensive ministry experience.
He quickly advanced to staff sergeant in the military police and doubled as company chaplain. He earned a Bronze Star for discovering a band of Japanese soldiers hiding in caves underneath U.S. positions on Guam but rarely talked about that or the savagery on Iwo Jima.
He preferred to discuss the revivals he led on various Pacific islands “where thousands came to Christ.”
A soldier on leave met Eddie Mae and blurted out, “Does he make you go to Sunday school every week, too?”
A week after returning from war, he preached a revival at a rural, three-member church outside Dallas. Thirty people attended and the church called him as pastor for one Sunday a month. “Bus fare cost more than his salary,” Eddie Mae said.
Soon he was leading two half-time churches, including her home church in Terrell, Texas. All the while, he was completing his undergraduate degree from Bishop College.
Finally, in 1947, he was called as pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church where he remained 13 years. Piles of photographs show kindergarten graduations, youth fellowships, choirs, church suppers, weddings and jammed worship services. The church was thriving; family and longtime friends lived nearby.
In 1961, though the couple were encumbered by significant debt themselves, they answered the call of financially burdened Stranger’s Rest Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. He led a bond-selling campaign to right the economic situation and fueled significant growth. By 1972 things were in great shape. So naturally, the couple went to a struggling church in St. Louis.
“The church was only bringing in about $300 a month, and they were having beer parties to raise funds — they didn’t know anything about the Word of God,” Eddie Mae remembered. But they learned in a hurry. From the first time Brookins stood in the pulpit and opened his Bible, “people started giving and tithing and believing God’s Word.”
Within months, the congregation had purchased a large church from a white congregation that was fleeing the neighborhood. More piles of photos reflect the rapid growth and swelling impact St. Louis’ New Sunny Rest Baptist Church achieved en route to becoming one of the major churches in the city.
After six years the Brookins finally bought a home in St. Louis. “It was my dream house; I looked forward to enjoying it for many years,” she said. But Brookins, in Dallas, suffered a major heart attack. The doctors didn’t think she could fly down before he died.
Instead, she got to nurse him for two years, but they had to sell the dream house and resign from New Sunny Rest. Even limited by a bad heart, Brookins kept on doing what he loved best.
Before he died in 198
0, the couple had started a mission: St. Phillips Baptist Church.
“People talked about Reverend’s ‘aspiring manner and inspiring message,'” Eddie Mae recounted. “He was the same in private as in the pulpit. A few months before we married, he was visiting with a neighbor boy and I left to run some errands. When I came back the whole house was in flames. I thought he was inside, and the firemen had to pull me from the house. Plus, that week everything I had loaned out — an ice cream freezer, a hoe, a typewriter — had been returned. I’d even picked up my best clothes from the cleaner’s that morning. All gone.
“When I saw him, I collapsed and cried and cried, first with relief for his safety then in sorrow over losing everything I owned. I was working in a factory making bombers then, and Reverend quietly reminded me that not a single one of those big planes was allowed in the sky until it had been tested and tested. ‘The Lord is testing you,’ he told me. ‘He talked about Job and said God had greater things for me to do, so he was testing me before sending me into the sky to fly.'”
Her favorite of many photos of “Reverend” scattered around the house shows Brookins holding a large Bible tucked under his left arm. The same photo was printed on the cover of the program for his memorial service. It is most fitting for a man who, from the time he was three days old until his death, drew comfort from God’s Word and kept it close to his heart.

    About the Author

  • Craig Bird