A couple of people pass by the Rev. John Marlow of the Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle in Bradenton as he stands outside the church’s social hall.
After Marlow greets them and asks about their welfare, they go about their business, tidying up the property.
Without hesitation Marlow explains their presence on the church campus is part of the church’s purpose — to help people. At a time when economic hardships abound, they are two of 45 people who occupy apartments and houses on the church property, an important ministry of the church.
“It’s thrilling for those that can’t afford housing right now,” he said. “We don’t make money from it. This is part of our ministry. This is part of our giving back to the community.”
The Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle has been ministering to people in the community since 1943, when it first began in a storefront next to Pelot’s drugstore, said Marlow. Ever since the church began, it emphasized the teachings of Jesus Christ and helping people.
“Christ as a teacher is as valid today as he was historically,” said Marlow. “No one person can change the world. Every person doing what they can, can make their beliefs and faith change the world.”
John Roberts, a bridge builder by trade, came to Bradenton from Jacksonville and founded the church. He served as pastor until 1960.
Marlow became the second pastor, coming to the church in 1960, at age 27, after serving as a U.S. Army chaplain. At the time, Marlow had a choice between coming to Bradenton to preach or going to southern Illinois. He chose Bradenton, because after his own struggles with poverty as a child, he related to what the church was doing.
“I felt inspired by the Lord to this church,” said the 75-year-old pastor who has spent most of his career ministering at the Bradenton church. “It’s been a good journey. I came here for six months and it led to 49 years.”
During the years the church has grown from a local worship center to a more multicultural, interdenominational congregation, with services and Christian activities almost every day of the week. Weekly services include translations for different languages.
A highlight of every spring at the church since 1948 is the fellowship meeting that attracts a diverse population of believers from different countries and cultures around the world. This year’s “International Body of Christ Gathering” attracted more than 5,000 people from Africa, India, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Haiti, Zimbabwe and Kenya as well as other countries, according to Marlow. For four days, they shared Biblical preaching, worship ideas and Christian values.
The annual gathering broke down the walls that sometimes separate people in the everyday world, because they share a continuity of belief in the same kind of worship from Roman Orthodox to Full Gospel, said Marlow.
“We are one body and fellowship of nationality and people,” he said. “We unite all. We cross lines of every background. It’s quite a blessing.”
Regular Sunday worship services at Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle church are progressive, but remain true to the gospel, said Marlow. Elders are seated in the numerous chairs on the podium along with the pastor and assistant pastor.
Marlow said it is the church’s way of showing the congregation “the church has multiple leadership and strong leadership.”
Matthew Knopf, one of the elders, credits Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle with being a major influence in his life. He has been attending since he was 2 years old, and at one time lived at the church.
Knopf’s family attends the church as well as all eight of his employees of his contracting business. He calls the church “phenomenal” and Marlow “a true man of God.”
“It’s more of a family to me than a church,” said Knopf. “We believe the truth is there. I don’t think you’ll find a church like this anywhere in the area.”
The Tabernacle Christian School, where Knopf graduated, is a private Christian school adjacent to the church and has been in operation since 1976. The school has 40 students and emphasizes the fundamental teachings of Christ in addition to core educational curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Marlow.
But helping people is the primary mission of the church, said Knopf. The church has a number of ministries, including one to help the homeless where the church offers meals, food boxes, clothing and support. “Jesus helped people, so we try to help people, too,” said Knopf. “No one that comes here is turned away.”
In the 64 years since the Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle started, it has grown and prospered, said Marlow. The church has 350 members and more than 200 attend the regular Sunday afternoon worship service, and they now have satellite locations in Pittsburgh; Blair, Miss.; and Sebring.
Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle moved to its building on Seventh Avenue in 1952. When members purchased the church property, the old buildings could have been taken down to make room for a larger church, but Marlow saw them as an opportunity to expand the church mission. And as the years progressed, different people — from elderly folk to families — have made Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle their home, not just on the grounds, but in their hearts as well.
“I believe that still is the basis of Christ’s teachings, helping people if they don’t have a better way of life,” said Marlow. “I think that’s better than the $40 million-dollar cathedrals people are building today.”