Special to South Florida Times
Jacob Cohen grew up in Miami a preacher's kid but the last thing he wanted to do was preach. That was then.
Today, the son of one of the most memorable preachers in South Florida, the late Bishop A. M. Cohen, has not only followed his father into the ministry; he has been the pastor for the past 51 years of A.M. Cohen Temple Church of God in Christ, the church his father founded.
And, as far as anyone knows, he is the area's longest serving pastor of a congregation. Cohen's good friend, Bishop Julian Jackson, follows at a close second, recently celebrating his 50th year as pastor of Gamble Memorial Church of God in Christ, 1898 NW 43rd St., in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood.
Unlike Cohen, Jackson didn't grow up at the feet of a father who was a minister. His dad worked the fields in Georgia and Jackson and his siblings often were taken out of school to help plant and harvest the crops. He married as a teenager and, while barely in their 20s, he and his late wife Thelma moved to Miami seeking a better life.
Jackson soon became a member of the Fifth Avenue Church of God in Christ, serving under the leadership of the late Superintendent Willie W. Gamble, and was called to the ministry in 1955. After Gamble’s death in 1960, Jackson became pastor of the church that was later renamed Gamble Memorial Church of God in Christ.
Jackson is also the founder and jurisdictional prelate of the Southern Florida Jurisdiction Church of God in Christ, an organization that he founded in 2000.
Meanwhile, just south of Gamble Memorial in historic Overtown, Jacob carries on a family tradition as pastor of A. M. Cohen Temple, founded by his father in 1923. He has a wealth of memories of the happenings at the church he grew up in at 1747 NW Third Ave.
Cohen, the 14th of 15 children, remembers personalities such as the late Sister Rosetta Thorpe, who called A.M. Cohen Temple her "home church" whenever she was in town. Thorpe is remembered for her bluesy way of accompanying herself on the guitar as she sang gospel songs.
"She was a star,'' Cohen said, recalling that people would flock to the church to see Thorpe whenever she was in town. “My father also had a radio program on radio station WKAT and, whenever Sister Thorpe was in town, she would be on the broadcast.''
Cohen left home after three years of college, trying to escape what would become his life's work. "When I dropped out of college, I didn't tell my dad where I was going and joined the Army. That was in 1954.''
After two years in the Army, he returned to college, attending Fayetteville State Teachers College, graduating in 1958.
He joined a church in North Carolina, working with the late Bishop Wyoming Wells, and later became an ordained minister. "I discovered I liked preaching,'' he said. "While I was in the Army, I'd stopped going to church. But one day, my wife's brother-in-law, who knew my father, invited me to the church. I went and got saved.'' He met his wife Josie there.
It had to be the leading of the Lord that got him back in the church at that time, he said. "My plans were to go to dental school but we didn't have the money."
At the urging of his father, Cohen returned to Miami and taught at Frederick Douglass and Charles Drew elementary schools, while, at the same time, serving as a minister in the church under his father. He became pastor of A. M. Cohen Temple after his father died in 1959.
“I taught school and served as the pastor until 1965, when I left the school system,'' he said.
Over at Gamble Memorial, Jackson was also growing spiritually. He and Cohen were ordained elders in the Church of God in Christ at a service officiated by Cohen’s father and were later consecrated as bishops.
"We were ordained elders together, right from this church,'' Cohen said. "We were young ministers together.''
Serving his congregation for 50 years has been a spiritual challenge for Jackson. "But,” he said, "I enjoy what I do. It is my sincere desire to proclaim the Word of the Lord clearly because I feel responsible for the lives of the people.''
But, he added, providing pastoral care is dificult. "A minister must deal with each member of his congregation on an individual basis. A prescription for one person may make another person sick,'' he said.
For Willie Mae Robinson, a member of Gamble Memorial for more than 30 years, what has endeared her to Jackson is the fact that he "lives what he preaches. He is a righteous man and an excellent example of a man committed to God. He tries to lead the congregation towards a righteous life.''
Jackson is 77 and Cohen is 78 but they both look fit and healthy and said they have no plans to retire soon.
"I'll work as long as I can," Cohen said. "I enjoy my work and I try to deal fairly with everyone.'' He has no regrets about his half-century serving the Lord.
"We know we can't force people to come to the Lord. If they come, we are happy for them. But I don't count membership,” he said. “Sometimes the church is full and other times it's not. Some people come for a while and move on to somewhere else. But the church is alive and it keeps moving on."
Photo: Julian Jackson, left, and Jacob Cohen