CHICAGO — The teen preacher addressed each person in the pew: the grandmother, the teenage usher, the unemployed father, the single mom.
"You are only blessed because you can be a blessing to others," he implored, and the faithful of Greater New Mount Eagle Missionary Baptist Church rose to their feet in praise that could be heard outside on 123rd Street.
Some hollered "Amen!" Others applauded. One woman slipped out to cry, moved as much by the message as its messenger: the Rev. Donald Abram, age 17.
On Friday, Abram graduated from Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville. In the fall he will leave behind the tough neighborhood of Roseland and head for the lush green campus of Pomona College in sunny Claremont, Calif., where he earned a full scholarship.
In some ways, Abram has followed in the footsteps of his father, now a preacher in Port Arthur, Texas. But he has managed to avoid the mistakes of his father, who did time on death row before winning his release and becoming an ordained pastor.
Abram has shown the congregation what can be accomplished when a community invests in its young people — and when they give back.
"God has given me the ability to reach many, and he's been speaking through me and allowed me to be dynamic," he said, sitting on the front porch of his Roseland home, facing the church. "It's not me bragging on myself. I'm astonished and amazed by the things God has done for me. Whether it's praying for someone and the power of God overcomes me or whether it's just preaching the word of God and so many people getting happy and encouraged because of it."
Preaching has brought Abram closer to his father, he says. It also has given him a way to escape the dangers that surround him in Roseland. Although he rose to the rank of captain at the military academy, worked for the high school newspaper and graduated salutatorian Friday, the church gave Abram a place to belong in a way high school never did.
"It's a rough time for me," Abram said, referring to high school. "The place I really fit in is church because I serve a purpose. I serve a role. Preaching is a part of who I am."
The Rev. Donald Toussaint Sr., 51, was born Donald Abram in New Orleans and raised in Mississippi. His birth name belonged to a stranger who saw his grandmother in labor and took her to the hospital, he said. In 2000, he changed his name to Toussaint, which he says belonged to his father.
He dismissed a call to preach twice in his teens. He said he was unable to continue paying for college at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., and he dropped out, going to work on an oil rig and getting mixed up with the wrong crowd.
"I was hanging out with someone I really shouldn't have been hanging out with," he said.
In 1982, Abram Sr., then 21, was convicted of capital murder for his role in the robbery of a convenience store where a teenage store clerk and customer were fatally shot. He got the death sentence, though someone else was convicted of pulling the trigger. He served 10 years, most of it on death row. But the murder conviction was thrown out, and he was released after agreeing to plead guilty to armed robbery.
Having heeded the call to ministry while behind bars, he joined his sister in Chicago and accompanied her to church at Greater New Mount Eagle. There, he served as youth pastor and became ordained. That's when he met Paulette Cameron. Their relationship eventually ended, but they maintained a bond: their son Donald Jr.
The father moved on to several churches, eventually joining a church in Port Arthur, Texas, which he left in a dispute with congregants. He launched his own ministry: God 1st Missionary Baptist Church, where he now serves.
Cameron has raised Donald and his three siblings as a single mom. After her relationship with Abram Sr. ended, she never went back to church, until it was time to support her son.
Instead, Abram's grandmother Muriel Lawrence took him and his siblings to church every Sunday. Abram, a quiet child, preferred spending his time with the adults instead of other children. He became an usher and joined the choir.
"My grandmother kept me in church. She made it mandatory," Abram said. "There came a point in my life where she wasn't making me go. I wanted to go because I had developed a relationship with Christ myself."
When he expressed an interest in music around age 12 or 13, the congregation raised money to purchase a bass guitar and paid Abram to play every week.
When Abram was 14, he started having a dream. In the dream, he saw himself at church. But instead of sitting in the pews, he was standing in the pulpit.
"I don't know how the Lord will come to you, Donald," his grandmother told him. "But when he does, you will know."
Abram interpreted the dream as a call to preach and delivered his first sermon in December 2008.
The Rev. Fredrick Wilson, senior pastor at Greater New Mount Eagle, keeps his eye on report cards and praises straight A's from the pulpit. So he already knew Abram as one of Lawrence's studious grandchildren when the teen came in one Sunday morning to tell him he wanted to preach.
"We tell our children here, 'You've got to start early getting your grades up,'" Wilson said. "'If you do that, you'll write your own ticket. They'll call for you.' And that's what he's done."
Established African-American preachers often don't give young aspiring ministers the spotlight, Wilson said, because they lack the life experience necessary to relate to people in the pews. But when he needs someone to put "a spark in things," he turns to Abram.
"I took the position here that I'm going to put him up as many times as I possibly can because I think you learn by doing," he said. "I'll take him anywhere."
The lack of life experience hasn't seemed to matter, Wilson said. More than once after Abram has preached, the pastor has watched people answer the call and approach the altar.
"He gives them a reason for accepting Christ," he said.
Abram said Wilson has been one of his harshest critics, and Wilson acknowledges that. He considers Abram his "spiritual son."
"His presence with me is only temporary," Wilson said. "Therefore I'm preparing him for when I'm no longer around and he's no longer around, as all parents try to do for their children."
Likewise, Cameron has made sure she instilled values and lessons to steer her son in the right direction once he lands in college on the West Coast.
"Donald has so much to offer to other people, I have to sit back and accept that I have to share my son with the world," she said.
On Friday, the family planned to watch Abram graduate. On Sunday they will watch him preach at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in the Lawndale neighborhood.
His father, in town for graduation, is hoping to preach at a South Side church early Sunday morning, then race across town to Pleasant Grove and watch his son make him proud.
Earlier this year, he and Abram discussed changing his name to Toussaint. The son wants to honor his father by taking his name, but Touissant thinks that maybe his son has already made a name for himself.2 comments on this story
"He's really listened to me and learned from my mistakes," Toussaint said. "I've made quite a few of them, even in my ministry."
Until two years ago, Abram did not know about his father's criminal past.
When his father finally sat him down and told him, he realized that God had not only kept him out of danger, God had turned his father's life around.
"My father has been a beacon of encouragement," he said, and he knows whom to thank.
"Isn't God amazing?"
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