On Sunday, the Rev. George C. Gilbert Sr. won’t have to go far to see proof of his influence as a father. He can stand in the pulpit of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church and look over his shoulder at his son seated at the organ and his grandson playing the drums.
For most of a nearly three-decade-old ministry, the church in Northeast Washington has been led by a father-son duo with deep booming voices and a fierce family pride.
“When I see my son and grandson working with me for the kingdom at the same place, it makes me very happy and very grateful,” said Gilbert Sr., 66.
Although he moved with his parents to the District in 1961, Gilbert Sr. said, he never forgot the lessons he learned on the family farm in Gretna, Va., lessons he tried to pass on to his son.
The family worked hard during the week but always made it to church on Sundays. Gilbert Sr.’s father, George K. Gilbert, gave up farming but remained an active church member when the family moved to the District. He went to work as a truck driver, but he also served on the deacon board at church.
George C. Gilbert Sr. played football at Anacostia High School and received a degree in business administration from Norfolk State before answering what he says was a call to preach at 26.
“It was series of things that kept nagging me,” he said. “My brother had been killed, I was singing in the male chorus. But then I preached my trial sermon in 1974, the same year my son was born.”
Gilbert Sr. received a master’s degree from the Howard University School of Divinity before becoming pastor of Carolina Missionary Baptist Church, now in Fort Washington, and then launching Holy Trinity United Baptist Church.
The Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr., 38, remembers, as a 5-year-old, wanting to emulate his father. “I would sit in the front pews with the deacons and watch my father preach. At a really early age, I took God seriously. “
Although he believed that God was calling him to preach in 1998, his father wasn’t convinced. “He said ‘I am going to wait a whole year and, after this year goes by and you still feel the same way, we will go forward.’”
As Gilbert Jr. talked, the father chimed in.
“I was pretty much old-school,” he said. “ If God has called you and you are not willing to wait, maybe he hasn’t called you. I wanted to see how he handled that period of waiting. If he had really been called, he would come back and tell me.”
Following in his father’s footsteps has not been easy,” Gilbert Jr. said. “It is intimidating when you look at my father’s accomplishments and the lack of fear that he has. There were times that I felt like I couldn’t fill those shoes.”
Now he’s eager to do so, and he finds it challenging to be patient, feelings his father understands.
“You start preaching at 24 or 25, and you think that by 35 you will be pastoring 2,000 people and be on TV,” Gilbert Jr. said. “But the reality is there is enough work in the Kingdom of God for everybody.”
Gilbert Sr. is the former head of the conservative Missionary Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Washington, DC and Vicinity, and he has been outspoken about D.C. politics. His son has cut his political teeth as a leader of D.C. Jobs or Else, a campaign to get area construction companies to hire more local residents.
With prodding from Jobs or Else, District officials enacted a law that requires construction companies to hire skilled and unskilled District residents for apprentice jobs on contracts that receive city funding of $5 million or more.
“We got into the trenches with the council members and the mayor to get the companies to hire District residents,” Gilbert Jr. said.
He now leads a special ministry that trains men and women for skilled and unskilled construction jobs. He said his phone rings off the hook with calls from employers who need workers and workers who need jobs. That same day, he said, he found jobs for 45 people.
“There are so many things that black men deal with often because they don’t have a job,” he said. “You have a lot of brothers who society has thrown away.”
The ministry also allows him to make a contribution independent of his father, he said.
Xavier Gilbert, 17, just listened as his father and grandfather talked. Then it was his turn.
Does he worry about measuring up to his father and grandfather?
“It is not a burden being around some strong black men, because I have a picture of what I should be when I grow up,” he said.
And though Xavier said he has no plans to preach, his grandfather noted that the teen is a musician, just like his dad, and music leads to ministry.