As if borrowed from an eastern North Carolina sunrise, pastel bonnets and Sunday suits brighten the Rocky Mount sanctuary on Easter Day. In the pulpit, James Gailliard is flanked by white lilies and two purple-draped crosses. Easter's message, says the trim pastor, wagging a slender forefinger for emphasis, is God's promise of "victory over death and the grave." Congregants murmur amens.
Gailliard had preached about death on another spring Sunday several years before. His son, Kyol, and two other young men, all in their 20s, had died after their car slammed into a brick wall and exploded.
At the morgue, "they told me not to look at him, that I'd never get the image out of my mind," he says. "I unzipped the bag, and there was his charred body, but they couldn't have been more wrong." Today, the image he cherishes is of Kyol as his sound engineer, sitting at a nearby console every Sunday as he preached, sending his voice through the church.
"I said, 'God, when you sent me to Rocky Mount, this wasn't part of the deal,'" he says. "But as a pastor, it was important for me to share my grief, to show people what it's like to go through seasons in your life when you're questioning God."
It has been 14 years since James David Gailliard sat down in borrowed space in Rocky Mount with a dozen others and founded Word Tabernacle Church. Collection plates yielded $75,000 in 2005. Since then, he and the church have weathered personal tragedies, recession, hostile politics and other headwinds. Today, Word Tabernacle has 3,200 members, 33 employees, donations that exceed $3 million annually and assets of $ 14 million.
Meanwhile, its senior pastor's influence has expanded outside the sanctuary into Rocky Mount's power structure and the N.C. General Assembly, where Gailliard was elected as a freshman representative last year. Word Tabernacle overlays the spiritual with daily-bread necessities of members and others--finding jobs, training, growing businesses, health care and, at times, paying overdue heating bills. Its Impact Center has mounted initiatives such as helping fill jobs at Rocky Mount-based Barnhill Contracting Co., one of the state's largest contractors with 1,100 workers. "They profile the kinds of employees they're looking for in certain positions and we, in turn, can help produce that employee through our own internal workforce-development initiatives," Gailliard says.
The preacher was among those who persuaded state leaders to move the 400-employee Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount, a major economic boost. Gailliard met with each of the 10 Council of State members who voted on the move. It's what you might expect from the man who received a distinguished citizen award from the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
"He's at ease with the power brokers but also the guys at the end of a shovel," says Norris Tolson, a former secretary of the N.C. departments of Commerce and Transportation who heads Carolinas Gateway Partnership, the industry recruiter for Nash and Edgecombe counties.
Word Tabernacle operates from an 114,000-square-foot former Home Depot store in north Rocky Mount, not far from the intersection of U.S. 64 and 301. Since acquiring the site in 2015, it has spent $13 million to create a multipurpose institution. Beyond the sanctuary, it includes classrooms, gyms, and community meeting and performance spaces. Gailliard's no-nonsense outlook permeates.
"He's knowledgeable and open even about some of the mistakes he's made in life himself," says Solomon Maryland, a Rocky Mount heating and air-conditioning contractor and a regular church attendee since 2007. His 5-year-old business has 15 employees, and he recently hired more, aided by the Impact Center. "I had to get over the fear of not getting enough support to make payroll. They connected me with a lot of people who helped."
Gailliard, 54, was born to a Caucasian mother and African American father when interracial marriages were...