TAMPA — The minister was praying inside his tiny church in Fayetteville, N.C., a church with no members. In 1963, Earl Bright had already founded three Church of God churches and served as pastor in nine more.
A thud on the roof jolted him out of prayer. Outside, the Rev. Bright chased down a 13-year-old-boy named James, who admitted throwing rocks out of boredom.
"Well, if you are bored, come to church," the Rev. Bright replied. James was among the new church's first members.
The Rev. Bright died Sunday, in Winter Haven, where he moved after his wife, Inez, died three years ago. He was 88.
"He was a fiery Pentecostal preacher," said Wayne Bright, his son. "He talked about heaven, and he talked about hell."
He spent the first half of his ministry doing what the Church of God calls "rebirthing," spreading spiritual pollen from town to town.
He washed parishioners' feet and dunked them in lakes. He never drank, smoked, watched even one movie or ate a slice of pizza, his son said. Church of God members are encouraged to live modestly and "avoid pride, elaborateness or sensuality," according to the codified beliefs on the church's international website.
He did, however, sometimes give in to a craving for a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Inez served dinner at 6 p.m. for a family of nine, plus house guests who sometimes stayed a year. When another minister needed a car, the Rev. Bright gave him his and signed over the title.
He finally got a chance to settle down in Providence, R.I., serving 22 years in the same church.
He grew up in Jacksonville, one of 22 children of the Rev. Crawford Bright, also a bishop in the Church of God. He pledged his life to God at age 15 and married at 18. He began preaching at 22 and founded his first church in Philadelphia at 26. In 1976, the church appointed him a bishop, its highest level of ministry.
He retired to Brandon in 1991 and co-founded Pughsley-Bright Funeral Home in Tampa. The funeral home has gone out of business, but the Bright Funeral Home he started in Providence, R.I., is run by his son Earl Jr.
"He gave me the training and direction that brought me from being a little boy to manhood," said the Rev. James Monroe — the same James who, 47 years ago, threw rocks at the Rev. Bright's church.
Today, Monroe is a Church of God bishop himself. His Abundant Life Church of God in Fayetteville has 1,000 members.
He will preach the eulogy at the Rev. Bright's funeral.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]