The Gospel According to Barrett

Courtesy of TL Barrett

The Life Center Church of God in Christ sits on the corner of Garfield and Indiana, just east of the honorary two-and-a-half block Rev. T.L. Barrett, Jr. Blvd. The boulevard’s namesake is sitting in a pew close to the pulpit. On the second Sunday morning of the year, he’s just been introduced by Minister Camara to a standing ovation by over a hundred beaming congregants. It is his birthday–or rather, as the bulletin reads, and as Minister Camara reminds everyone–his “earth day”. And this is Pastor Barrett, after all: the man who organized the Life Center Church just west of Washington Park, who twenty-odd years ago was implicated in a pyramid scheme, and who in 1971 recorded a rare gospel record with South Side youth that was rereleased to great acclaim this past year.

The album “Like A Ship…(Without A Sail)” has been described by just about every music review site as a holy grail of gospel. For the 39 years since its small-scale release, collectors and gospel fans have had to search through milk crates of used vinyl to find the recording, which was originally distributed mostly at church functions and neighborhood events. “I think it took about 45 seconds into track one and we were instantly hooked,” said Matt Sullivan, co-owner and founder of Light in the Attic Records. The album was licensed to Light in the Attic by Numero Group, an archival record label based in Little Village that spent four years trying to obtain the license from Barrett. “Like A Ship” was re-released last July with three bonus tracks on LP, CD, and MP3. Eight tracks of funky gospel-soul goodness, “Like A Ship” sounds as though it’s being streamed right out of the sanctuary. And with the 40-person Youth For Christ Choir backing Barrett, there’s an infectiousness to the sound that transcends any objections about the record being “unprofessional,” which it is–Barrett is a self-trained musician leading Washington Park youth, after all.

Born in New York City in 1944, Barrett spent much of his early life in Chicago where he attended public schools on the South Side until his dismissal from Wendell Phillips High School. The dismissal, coupled with the death of his father that same year, prompted him to return to New York in 1960. Home in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, Barrett earned a G.E.D. and went on to graduate from Bethel Bible Institute, where he honed his piano skills. Returning to Chicago in 1967, he became the pastor of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church the following year. It was here at Mt. Zion that he recorded “Like A Ship” and began to gain recognition throughout the city as a community leader and an activist who used music as a means of enriching the lives of youth. His successful ministry at Mt. Zion led him to organize the Life Center Church in 1976. Barrett would eventually grow close to Jesse Jackson and Eugene Sawyer, the second black mayor of Chicago, before being implicated in a pyramid scheme in 1988 and ordered to either pay restitution or face jail time.

Now, on a Sunday in 2011, Barrett’s congregants sing “Happy Birthday” in celebration of his 67th –this is his 68th year, the preacher clarifies; he’s only just fulfilled his 67th. Barrett, funny and charismatic, notes all this on the pulpit, in semi-conversation with one of the congregants standing next to him. Wearing a suit and a round white hat, Barrett looks much older than his “…Without A Sail” self: he has long white sideburns–neatly trimmed–and moves slowly and deliberately, appearing for the first time fifteen minutes into the two-and-a-half-hour service. He is loved by his congregation and by his choir, and after tithes are collected for the church, everyone moves to the center aisle to wish him well, shake his hand, and wish him a happy birthday. A birthday offering is taken up–envelopes are handed out with the church bulletin–and a gift is collected for the Pastor, for the “spiritual leader [who] has always said ‘my church first’” and has, according to another minister, even taken one-third of his regular salary when times were especially hard upon the church. Following the Benediction, a celebratory meal for Pastor Barrett is held in Barrett Hall. “Joyful Noise”–track number six on “Like A Ship”–would have served as an appropriate soundtrack.

So which story of Barrett’s life deserves the headline: the passionate preacher, the accused schemer, or the gospel musician now clapping at the head of his congregation? The youth choir that backs up Barrett on track five sings it best: “Nobody knows…”

“Like a Ship” is available for purchase at