It was one of those dramatic moments that Darius G. Pridgen – preacher, pastor and politician – has become famous for.
On the day he was sworn in as president of Buffalo’s Common Council, he spoke before an enthusiastic audience of friends, family members and big-shot politicians who packed Council Chambers at City Hall. Normally a mundane political event, the ceremony took on the appearance of a religious revival meeting.
“Some ask, how I can serve two masters?” Pridgen declared, referring to his dual roles as a city leader and pastor of one of the region’s largest churches.
“I serve only one,” Pridgen said, pointing a finger up toward the heavens.
The big room thundered with applause for a fiery and dynamic man whom many people see as a leading contender to become Buffalo’s next elected mayor.
A 5-foot-6-inch man with a solid military build, who wears bow ties, shaves his head and speaks in a big, booming voice, the 49-year-old Pridgen is a commanding presence. He is also a rising political star who took just three years to progress from rookie Council member to the Council’s leadership post.
Many people believe his goal is to become mayor. Pridgen said he has not yet decided whether he will ever seek election to the post. He said he is ready to step into the mayor’s shoes – at least temporarily – if Brown goes elsewhere.
Pridgen said he gets asked about the mayor’s job all the time – by friends and members of his church, True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street. He also hears it from fellow politicians, callers to his weekly radio show and people who bump into him on the street or at City Hall.
“When I even hear that word ‘mayor,’ and my name next to that title, it’s humbling to me, a very intimidating thought,” he said. “But I am a military man. In the case that there was an opening in the mayor’s office because of him leaving, True Bethel already has a plan in place. A written plan … I am fully prepared to adjust to meet the demands of being mayor.”
But Pridgen also pointed out that he doesn’t need the mayor’s job or any other job at City Hall.
“I already have a very good job, a job I love, as a church pastor,” Pridgen said.
Just who is this man, Darius Gibran Pridgen?
Reporters from The Buffalo News spent hours with Pridgen and interviewed more than 50 people who have known him at all stages of his life – from his boyhood on Buffalo’s East Side, to his days serving in the Air Force and delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service, to his more than 20 years as pastor of one of Western New York’s fastest-growing churches.
The portrait that emerges is one of a smart, driven, hardworking man, an extraordinary public speaker who can bring audiences to tears with his sermons, a tough civil rights advocate who once organized a boycott of the region’s biggest shopping mall and saved a church from demolition by threatening to chain himself to the doors, a devoted father and grandfather, and a politician who impresses colleagues with his quick grasp of complex issues.
What also emerges is a man who sometimes lashes out with angry statements, accusing the local news media of racism on a recent radio show and criticizing the African-American community for failing to speak up about the brutal beating of a white man by black teens in 2009. He is a man who sometimes gets criticized for living in a $300,000, tax-free, church-owned condo, in a waterfront neighborhood far from the poor neighborhoods he serves as pastor.
Pridgen is also a man haunted by dark thoughts about his own mortality, even as he conducts funerals for murdered gangsters and drug dealers, tries to make peace between warring gangs and looks for other ways to stop the violence that has shattered lives in some sections of the city.
The fact that Pridgen continues to serve as a full-time pastor while also working as one of the city’s top elected officials makes him a rare figure in Buffalo’s history, said George K. Arthur, 80, a former Council president who has been a keen observer of city politics since the 1950s.
“To my knowledge, he’s the first minister ever to serve as an elected official of Buffalo. Most ministers try to stay away from politics. They don’t want the devil to rub off on them,” Arthur said.
He calls Pridgen “a good listener,” who stays on top of key issues and – unlike many politicians – can relate to young people.
“I think he’s in office to help people,” Arthur said, “not because he’s on an ego trip.”
In his short time as a politician, Pridgen has impressed and formed friendships with many of the region’s most powerful people, including Mayor Brown, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner; developer Rocco Termini; and political maverick G. Steven Pigeon.
Termini said he was initially “very skeptical” that a pastor could work effectively with the business community. He recalled going to True Bethel Church last year to meet with Pridgen about a development project he was pitching. He said Pridgen spoke to him for about an hour in his study, and then began putting on his religious garments. Pridgen told him he had to leave him for awhile to speak at a funeral.
“He walks out into the church, preaches at this very emotional funeral for about 10 minutes, then comes back into his study, and resumes talking with me,” Termini said. “He picked right up where our conversation had left off, without missing a beat. I was amazed.”
Carl J. Calabrese, a former deputy Erie County executive who is now a lobbyist and expert on local politics, also is impressed.
“Darius Pridgen is a great speaker. I have heard him preach, and it’s something to behold,” Calabrese said. “But he doesn’t check his morality at the door when he goes to work at City Hall. He’s dynamic and charismatic. In terms of options for his political future, I think he’s going to be on everybody’s A List.”
Born to preach
Barbara and Earl Pridgen say their son has wanted to be a preacher since he was about 4 years old.
“He’d get up on a little stool and preach sermons to his friends. His baby-sitter would put a little robe on him,” Barbara Pridgen recalled with a hearty laugh. “He tired us out then, and he still does today.”
Pridgen was the leader of his Bible class at age 9 at St. Luke’s American Methodist Episcopal Church, and he preached his first sermon there when he was 13, Earl Pridgen said.
His parents were strict, hardworking people, determined that their only son would get the best education they could provide. Earl Pridgen, now 70, was a steelworker. His mother, Barbara, now 69, worked in the engineering department of a telephone company.
Known as “D” to those close to him, Pridgen grew up in the Jefferson Avenue-East Ferry Street neighborhood, where his parents still live. But he spent much of his time hanging with friends and family members who lived across town in the Commodore Perry public housing project. He grew up knowing plenty of people who were involved with drugs and gangs, but Pridgen said they never tried to recruit him. Friends called him “the church kid” and considered him a “nerd,” he said.
Pridgen recalled as a teenager taking “one puff off a marijuana cigarette … I was so scared, I called a cab to take me home. Then the cabbie was smoking pot.
“I wasn’t allowed to play on the street, only on the sidewalk. I couldn’t be out after dark, even in the summer. I studied the Bible, took organ lessons and acting lessons. I didn’t have time to get into trouble,” Pridgen said.
His childhood friends Janice E. White, who now works at True Bethel, and University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt remember Pridgen at age 14 serving as his church’s youth choir director, while organizing bowling outings and other youth activities, including out-of-town trips to religious gatherings for teens.
“Even as a young man, he just had this vision. When he put his mind to something, he was going to do it and nothing was going to stop him,” Wyatt said.
Pridgen started his education at a religious school in Clarence, and later took summer courses at Canisius High School so he could graduate early, at age 16, from Bennett High School. He paid for the summer courses by working at a nursing home.
He set off for Livingstone College, an all-black Christian school in North Carolina, but didn’t last long there. He said he left after getting into a dispute with the school over damage caused to his car when a stocky woman sat on the vehicle during a parade organized by the school.
“They refused to fix my car, and I sued them,” Pridgen said. He said he left Livingstone in disgust after the incident and moved back to Buffalo.
Contacted by The News, Livingstone College officials declined to comment on Pridgen’s account of what happened.
At that point in his life, Pridgen said, he had a crisis of faith. He said he started feeling that many churches were “too judgmental, hurting people more than they were helping them.”
“I tried to run away from God,” he said. “That’s when I joined the Air Force.”
Pridgen served the Air Force as a criminal investigator at bases in Texas and Panama. He was recruited for an Air Force choir, and through his participation in the choir, rediscovered his devotion to religion.
Returning to Buffalo after four years in the Air Force, Pridgen went to work for the Postal Service. He earned bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from SUNY Buffalo State and a master’s in organizational leadership from Medaille College. He also got involved in church life and anti-violence programs in the city.
In 1992, he became a pastor for the first time at the tiny People’s Community Church on Swan Street. Two years later, he moved to True Bethel. That church was also tiny, struggling along with just 30 members. Pridgen had a dream of making True Bethel a powerful force on the city’s East Side.
Power of the pulpit
Determined to attract people – especially young people, including gangsters – who had never gone to church before, Pridgen tried to make his church less traditional, more inviting and more directly involved with life on city streets.
He persuaded church members to buy an old Twin Fair department store building on East Ferry. Way too big for the church’s operations 20 years ago, it has been gradually refurbished to accommodate the sanctuary, offices, classrooms, banquet rooms and meeting rooms.
Knowing that many African-Americans pride themselves on dressing beautifully for church, Pridgen established a “dress-down” policy at True Bethel. Congregants were encouraged to wear jeans and other casual clothes, as long as they were clean and neat.
“I don’t want you spending $80 on a pair of Nikes if you don’t have $40 to buy food for your family,” Pridgen said.
In 2001, the pastor led the black community in a boycott of the Walden Galleria and other Cheektowaga businesses that were accused of racial profiling and discrimination against black teenagers. Cheektowaga town officials at first denied the allegations, but later, then-Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak admitted there might be a problem. Community relations consultants from the U.S. Justice Department were sent into the town to mediate.
A year later, Pridgen got some national news headlines when – in the midst of a Sunday service – he had his blood drawn on the altar for an HIV test. He encouraged young people to get tested for HIV.
Under Pridgen’s leadership in 2004, True Bethel became the first church in America to open its own Subway sandwich shop in a church. The sub shop has provided jobs and business training for young people, and it was featured on the “Undercover Boss” TV show.
In 2009, a white Buffalo teenager, Brian Milligan, was taunted with racial slurs and then beaten by a gang of black youths for dating a black girl. After the beating, Pridgen invited Milligan and his girlfriend to be guests of honor at a Sunday service, where the church gave them $600. Calling for racial unity in the city, Pridgen said members of the minority community should be outraged, and he urged them to help police solve the crime. They did, and two attackers went to prison.
Last year, Pridgen helped save historic St. Ann’s Catholic Church from the wrecking ball by threatening to chain himself to the church doors. The efforts of Pridgen and other “Save St. Ann’s” activists prompted a committee from the Vatican in Rome to overrule an earlier decision by the Buffalo Catholic Diocese to raze the church.
Pridgen also encouraged young people at True Bethel to get gangster tattoos removed from their bodies. He found a local doctor who removed tattoos from dozens of young people at a greatly reduced fee.
And this spring, during a huge Easter service at Kleinhans Music Hall, Pridgen kicked off a citywide effort aimed at getting parents of children in the Buffalo Public Schools to get more involved in their kids’ educations.
“Darius Pridgen has done a lot to get young people to come to church. He’s gotten involved in the community, and he has attacked community problems in a way we’d like to see more clergy get involved,” said Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP.
Critics of waterfront condo
While the vast majority of the people approached by The News for this story offered nothing but compliments for Pridgen, the pastor-turned-politician does have his critics.
Carl P. Paladino, the Buffalo developer and School Board member, called Pridgen a “very bright, very decent guy” and said he generally admires him. But Paladino criticizes his use of a luxury waterfront condo as a tax-free clergy residence.
True Bethel bought the condo at Harbour Pointe Common in 2007 for $299,000, according to government records. The property is assessed at $218,500. Owners of comparable homes in the same development pay about $4,330 annually in city and county property and sewer taxes. But clergy residences in New York State are not required to pay such taxes, according to state tax officials.
“If he’s claiming that waterfront property is the rectory of his church, I think that is absolutely incredible, and the people of Buffalo should be aware of it,” Paladino said.
Tim Moran, a gay-rights activist who publishes a Buffalo magazine called Outcome, said he thinks it is “hypocritical” for Pridgen to live in luxury on the waterfront while his parish is based in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“He’s not a homeowner. He doesn’t pay property taxes,” Moran said of Pridgen. “I don’t think he can relate to the problems of people who do own homes and pay taxes on them.”
Pridgen, who also drives a late-model Cadillac sport utility vehicle that the church owns, makes no apologies. The pastor said he worked long, hard hours to make himself a success. He said he has spent countless hours trying to help people in poverty and understands the challenges of trying to make ends meet.
“I don’t feel I have to apologize for doing the right things in my life,” he said. “I’m not going to be enslaved by anybody. Nobody’s going to tell me where to live, what I can drive or how much money I can make ... I don’t think that where I lay my head down at night makes me any less committed to the ministry.”
Betty Jean Grant, minority leader of the Erie County Legislature and a member of Pridgen’s church, defends her pastor.
“I don’t begrudge him one ounce of luxury,” she said. “Everything he got, he earned through hard work. He took a church with a few members and turned it into a church that has thousands of members at three different locations.”
Others in the church agree.
“The condo was an investment for our church,” said Janice White, executive director of the church’s True Community Development Corp. “If D ever decided to leave his job as pastor, the church would take over the condo and he’d have to look for a new place to live.”
As president of the Common Council, Pridgen makes $62,000 annually, according to city records. He declined to say how much he makes as True Bethel’s pastor, but said the amount is probably less than most people think it is. White, who is one of the church’s top officials, would only say that Pridgen’s salary as pastor is below $100,000 for running a church with about 4,000 members.
Although he insists that criticism does not bother him, Pridgen occasionally lashes out, as he did on his weekly WUFO-AM radio show in late February. The station – a staple of Buffalo’s black community for decades – has been partly owned by True Bethel Church since last year.
During the Feb. 28 radio show, Pridgen angrily denounced the Buffalo news media, saying the city’s media outlets are owned and operated by white people who are too quick to criticize black politicians. He alleged that he, Mayor Brown and other black politicians in Buffalo have been victims of unwarranted media attacks.
“Are you going to tell me that the only people who do something wrong are people of color?” Pridgen asked his listeners. “Let me stub my toe, and they’ll be chasing me.”
He later told The News that the outburst was a reaction to reports on a Buffalo television station raising questions about the Brown administration’s handling of millions of dollars in federal housing funds.
The divorced father of five children – two of them adopted – Pridgen has eight grandchildren. He makes no secret of his romance with a much younger woman, 25-year-old Monique Thomas, who sings and works at the church. Pridgen speaks often of his love for her on his Facebook page, and of his devotion to the two young sons she has from a previous relationship.
But Pridgen said he wants people in Buffalo to know that his relationship with Thomas started long after his divorce, and that he does not live with Thomas.
“She and her boys live out in Amherst,” he said. “If I had a woman living with me out of wedlock, I would be out of a job.”
Fighting gangster mentality
If one issue has consumed Pridgen over the past two decades, it is his effort to fight the spread of drugs and gangster violence in Buffalo. Working closely with Buffalo Police and volunteer anti-violence groups, he has officiated at about 200 gang-related funerals, led protest marches on crack houses and arranged “summit meetings” between rival gang leaders.
Pridgen is “a courageous man” who has opened his church for funerals for gangsters and murder victims, even those who never went to his church, said Arlee Daniels Jr., program coordinator of Buffalo’s Stop The Violence Coalition.
“I’d say 90 percent of the gangster funerals in Buffalo over the past 10 years have been at True Bethel,” Daniels said. “A lot of other pastors won’t do them, and I understand why. There’s always a lot of fear of violence or retaliation.”
In August 2010, four people were killed and four injured by gunfire after tempers flared at the downtown restaurant then known as the City Grill. Three of the murder victims had family ties to True Bethel Church. Pridgen worked closely with police, pleading with friends of the victims, asking them not to retaliate with violence and urging the shooter to turn himself in. He also organized a $15,000 reward fund that helped authorities to arrest and convict the killer, Riccardo “Murder Matt” McCray.
Almost four years after the City Grill massacre, drug crimes and gangster murders continue in Buffalo.
Have his efforts to stop violence been a failure?
Absolutely not, Pridgen said. He said he is sure that some violent crimes have been averted over the years because of his work, and the efforts of other ministers and anti-violence groups in the city.
“I think the situation would be worse if we were not involved. I think it would be much worse,” he said.
Still, Pridgen confessed that he has been convinced for many years that he will someday die a violent death, similar to that of Sister Karen Klimczak. An East Side nun who spent years helping criminals try to turn their lives around, Sister Karen was murdered by an ex-convict in 2006.
“I do believe that, like Sister Karen, I am going to die by homicide,” Pridgen said. “I never thought I would live past 40 ... It’s always been in my head. I feel like I’m on borrowed time.” He added that he has “no fear” of death.
He has faced dangerous situations in the suburbs as well as the city.
Last January, Pridgen got a call to help police in Amherst. A despondent 54-year-old man, armed with a knife, had barricaded himself in a Transit Road motel, threatening to hurt himself or others. At one point, he asked officers to kill him.
“We had trained hostage negotiators talking to him for hours. Under no circumstances was he coming out,” said Amherst Police Chief John C. Askey. “The man’s family called Pastor Pridgen.”
Pridgen rushed to the motel and spoke to the man for a couple of hours on a cellphone. Pridgen climbed up a ladder and talked to the man through a motel window.
Finally, Pridgen persuaded the man to come out, with his hands in the air, Askey said.
“I can’t say enough about how well he handled the situation,” Askey said of Pridgen. “He didn’t try to take over. He asked our people, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
Pridgen said he had never handled a hostage situation before and was genuinely nervous as he drove out to the motel.
“Once I got out there, I kept telling him, ‘Don’t give up. Things may be bad now, but they will get better. People will help you.’ ”
He said he was “very relieved and totally, emotionally drained” when the man finally came out.