Stacey Wescott, Mct
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.