Struggling childhood shaped Bernard for his future

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 1, 2005



LAPLACE — Growing up as a young black man, Neil Bernard knew there were two things expected of him.

“If you were a black teen, you were expected to be able to dance and to play sports. I wasn’t very good at either one, and because of that, I spent most of my young life struggling to fit in,” he said.

With four brothers who were all good athletes, the pressure was even stronger on Bernard.

“I just didn’t fit in with my family,” he said. “I remember one time when we were visiting friends and my dad gave my brothers all 25 cents to dance for the relatives. I didn’t get asked and I remember wondering ‘Why don’t I fit in?'”

For Bernard, now 43, the struggle to “fit in” lasted most of his young life, but appears to be a struggle that has made him stronger than ever today as he pastors New Wine Christian Fellowship, a congregation that

appears to be the fastest growing church in the St. John Parish area.

It is that very struggle that drives him today to help families grow stronger, and ensure that fatherless children have strong male role models through one of the many programs he has begun at New Wine Fellowship on Airline Highway.

“My passion really is to strengthen families, because when there is a solid family with a mother and father, all the decay in the African-American culture will change. The breakdown of the family for African-Americans is directly related to the lack of fathers. Did you know that in the 1960s there were 70 percent of African-American homes with a mother and father. But today, there is less than 30 percent. It is unbelieveable,” he said.

Bernard was fortunate himself to grow up with both his parents at home, but he seemed to be everything that some young blacks were not.

“I was a good student and made the honor roll, but I wasn’t a good athlete, and I was a black student in a mostly white school. It all just made me feel like I didn’t fit in. And with my brothers all such good athletes, I was always the last one to get picked. I was always asking God, ‘why did you cheat me? Why am I so different?'” he explained.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Reserve, Bernard was part of a small group of black families who were the first to integrate St. Peter’s School in St. John Parish.

“The first year we went, I was young enough to not remember a lot of what happened. But recently a teacher told me she was there at the time, and other teachers said they wouldn’t teach black kids. She remembers when a kid in class invited the others to his party, and I got left out and cried about it. Then I remember in the second grade when my brother got jumped by kids,” he said. “But I believe I was born into a family with a legacy of activism. My grandfather was a civil rights activist who took the registrar of voters to court in 1948 and won the right to vote for blacks. I knew there was a future for me to fight for things that weren’t right.”

Through it all, Bernard believes it was a praying mother who got him through it, and eventually put him on the path to his current position in St. John Parish.

When it was time to enter high school, his parents asked him if he wanted to go to a private school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where his brother was already attending St. Stanislaus.

“My family was upper middle class and successful blacks, and that even meant some blacks despised us. All my brothers except one had gone to St. Stanislaus and when I saw the school, I wanted to go,” he said.

His mother, always a strong Catholic, had begun attending the charismatic Catholic movement, and began telling the family members they all needed to be “saved.”

“With my Catholic background, I thought that meant I had to be a priest,” Bernard said with a laugh. “But with my mom praying for me, I never could be happy sinning.”

At St. Stanislaus, he kept trying to find his inner peace, first by lifting weights and getting involved in activities. Still a good student, he tried alcohol and girls, but still didn’t find what he was looking for.

“I was never a happy sinner,” he said. “One year I got so drunk on Easter morning and felt so bad about it, I quit drinking. I was always trying to be a good boy, but I knew something was wrong in the way I was trying to find it.”

In the summer of his junior year of high school, his girlfriend broke up with him, furthering his search for something to feel at peace about. But when he went to class in the fall of his senior year, a teacher began talking to the kids about “being saved.”

The teacher invited the kids to a local church service, and Bernard said he accepted the Lord.

“Everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve done it with a passion. And suddenly I had the peace I had been looking for,” he remarked. “My mom encouraged me to read the Bible and the feeling of never fitting in was gone.”

Bernard went to college at UNO, then Xavier, and while wavering a bit in his Christianity, got completely on track in 1981 when he rededicated his life to ministry.

Today, he has been married for 22 years and has four children. They are Alayna, age 14; Justin, age 16; Kristen, age 18; and Amber, age 20.

His father died in 1982 and Bernard moved back home at the time, leading him to begin attending church at Reserve Christian before beginning New Wine in July of 1995.