LaPlace church hits 10 years of strengthening families

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 1, 2005



LAPLACE — With New Wine Christian Fellowship ready to hold a big celebration on Sunday, July 31 to commemorate 10 years in LaPlace, it might be easy for Pastor Neil Bernard to sit back and feel content.

His church now has a regular attendance of about 400 each Sunday and appears to be the fastest growing church in the St. John Parish area.

But Bernard, a 44-year-old pastor who grew up as a struggling teen trying to find his own identity, sees a world of challenge ahead of him that, in his own words, is just getting touched.

“I am committed to breaking the fatherless cycle that has plagued the African-American families,” he said. “We can do it one person at a time, and we can do it as long as we stick to the vision God has given us.”

Bernard sees his vision as one that began 10 years ago after he came out of a personally troubled childhood, not so much that he wasn’t from a strong family of his own, but one where he struggled to fit in himself.

“I just always felt like I didn’t fit in,” he said. “I was a black kid who wasn’t good at sports, I couldn’t dance, and I was going to a mostly white school. But God finally filled that void in me.”

The change that came late in high school, and was solidified in his years of college, led him to become a leader at Reserve Christian Church in St. John Parish, eventually leading to the start of New Wine Christian Fellowship in 1995.

Since that time, Bernard has focused on the fatherless, and strengthening families throughout the region.

In just the past 10 years the church has begun the St. John Youth Challenge which is a summer-long program for young children who do not have active fathers in their lives, while they also offer computer training for welfare moms, hold a prison ministry that teaches computer and life skills, teach nearly 300 kids a year LEAP preparation classes and have spearheaded a St. John Teacher Appreciation Day to start each school year. Additionally, the church has held governmental forums to have an impact in public issues that affect families.

“Anything that can help families be stronger, we are trying to do. We lobbied with other pastors to have bars closed after 2 a.m., and we are continually looking for things to build up the family unit,” he said.

Bernard said that he knew in 1982 that he was meant to preach and head a church, but he initially thought it would be as a missionary.

“I was heavily influenced by a missionary to Malaysia, and thought that would be my calling,” he said. “But one night I saw a documentary called ‘Growing up Black in White America.’ It broke my heart for people right here in our country. I saw things I didn’t think existed and I knew I had a mission right here.”

At Reserve Church under Pastor Rod Aguillard, Bernard joined with others in trying to fight the drug epidemic here. His group went into the project areas and invited people to come to the church to play basketball on Saturday night. The first night, 70 of 120 who attended accepted the Lord.

“The people getting saved at our basketball night didn’t seem to fit into our church, and even though it was always Brother Rod’s heart to reach those, I think I began to see that I was born to start a church that would reach the black culture in this area,” Bernard said.

The New Wine pastor doesn’t mince words in talking about the need for strong black pastors, here and across the country. He said he is especially bothered by what he has seen as a lack of integrity and misuse of money in some churches.

“I remember in 1994 when I was in Alabama and just went out and looked for a church to go to. I pulled into a small church with a little over 100 people and sat there thinking, ‘this is the same thing, the fleecing of the people, the lack of integrity in the pulpit.’ I’m so grieved by the misuse of money in some churches. There has got to be integrity in churches or people won’t be helped, and my passion is a restoration of Biblical leadership that will model Christ,” he explained.

In May of 1994 he felt impressed to start his own Bible study at his house, breaking away from Reserve Church with 12 people, mostly family, joining him. Within 10 months he had 80 people coming to his house by word of mouth alone.

“Our model has always been to reach souls that no one wanted to reach,” he said. “From the beginning I knew that New Wine was what our name would be. I felt like there was always a call on me to reach a certain group of people that others aren’t reaching.”

He points to the startling statistic about African American families, showing that only 30 percent of black homes today have a mom and a dad there, compared to 70 percent in the 1960s.

“Statistics show that a stable home decreases poverty and improves achievement in school. We have a fatherless problem in this country, and we want to reach out to help change that,” he said. “But it has to be Jesus to change people. I am committed to be a Godly father and husband myself, since I once heard a pastor say that real ministry is just reproducing yourself in others.”

“God took me, a messed up young man, and turned me around. Now for the next 10 years I am committed to raising up New Testament churches with a greater commitment to break the fatherless cycle,” he said.

New Wine is currently housed in the old Plaza LaPlace Shopping Center on Airline Highway, leasing two-thirds of the shopping center. However they have plans to purchase the entire building and are close to coming to an agreement on that deal, Bernard said.