When you enter Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral during a Sunday service, you see hands up in the air and hear singing. It’s hard not to feel that a presence greater than the people who worship there is in the large sanctuary.
Women in their decorated hats and colorful church outfits and men wearing finely tailored suits have no problem raising up from their seats and singing along as the choir sings songs like “I Have a Testimony” or “Souled Out.”
Soon afterward, a tall man in a robe comes to the pulpit to give a rousing sermon that often speaks the truth to what church members are thinking about when they walk through the church doors. Evidence of their agreement with what is being said can be heard from the various “Hmm mms” and the occasional “Well!” Many of them have been hearing his messages for the last three decades.
With a career in the ministry that spans 50 years, the Rev. Floyd Flake has made a name for himself over the last 35 years as one of the city’s most prominent Black clergymen. His time as leader of Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York has allowed him to be more than a pastor-he has been an educator, businessman and politician.
However, the fact that he is a husband, father of four and grandfather of one has been as central to his life as his ministry. He is also quick to point out that his cooking hobby is nothing to mess with. Aside from the name recognition and the fact that he leads a congregation of over 25,000, Flake is just a regular person.
In a recent interview, the minister discussed his life and career with the Amsterdam News. Flake explained how he started out as a churchgoing child in Texas and went on to become one of the nation’s premier and most powerful figures in the Black church.
“I guess I had a calling pretty young, because by the time I was 10 I gave my life to Christ on an Easter Sunday,” Flake said. “From that point on I was engaged in so many youth church activities and I was kind of a leader in church among the young people. Up until about 15, when I accepted the call to preach, I was raising questions about if this was something that I really wanted to do, because I come from such a large family.”
That large family included 13 brothers and sisters. Flake said that while he didn’t come from a long legacy of ministers like many in the clergy do, his grandmother was an evangelist and his mother kept him in the church. Flake started preaching as a teen across his home state of Texas
“We were a church family. We were definitely a religious family. I think from the beginning it was clear to me that this was my calling. People felt that I was a pretty good preacher as a teenager,” he said.
When it came time to go to college, Flake said there was no question that he was going to go to a historically Black college. He had seen many Black colleges growing up in segregated Texas, which primarily offered him the opportunity to go to Black colleges at the time. In school he was also an athlete and competed in several sports, including track and field.
At the advice of a mentoring pastor, Flake went to Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he earned a degree in psychology. Shortly after he graduated he began to take seminary courses, ultimately graduating from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Flake worked shortly for Reynolds and Xerox before leaving the corporate world.
He had plans to stay in Ohio but received an offer to go to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to be its associate dean of students. He also worked at Colorado College and Boston University as dean of students and dean of the chapel.
While in Boston he met his future wife, Elaine. She was teaching in a town outside of Boston and he was the assistant pastor of the church they both attended. Elaine sang in the choir. Flake said the two were best friends before they took things further.
“She was the one I wanted to talk to,” he said. “Over time, I realized that this was the woman that God had brought to be in my life. It’s been a great marriage and a great life for us.”
When Elaine was seven months pregnant with their first child, Flake was asked by a Harlem pastor if he would come to New York City to take over as pastor of Allen A.M.E. He came to New York in 1976, but was a little apprehensive beforehand. Elaine convinced him that it was the right move.
Flake came to Allen A.M.E. when the church only had 1,200 members. He used his background in marketing to make the church grow and refine the church’s mission.
“You can’t grow a church from the inside out,” he said. “You grow from outside in. You go outside and you bring in younger people. With my marketing background, I looked at why people were leaving to go to Nassau County. People left because of a lack of quality education and housing and the drugs in the community at the time.”
He connected with then-Mayor Ed Koch to discuss bringing affordable housing to southeast Queens. Flake got one of the first Section 202 housing programs to provide senior housing, gaining 300 units.
To address the issue of education, Flake and his wife decided to build a school. He led the church to buy up property and concentrated on running the drugs out of the community where they wanted to build.
“When we opened that school, it was the first year we really started to blow up,” Flake said. “When we opened that school, we had so many kids we decided to have a youth ministry. You had children at the school and children at the church. All of a sudden, people started believing we were doing good for the community.”
As the church began to grow, so did its need for space. In 1984, the church started to raise money for a new building. In 1997, Allen A.M.E. moved to its current location.
Vowing never to go into political office, Flake found himself running for Congress in 1986. He won and served New York’s 6th Congressional District from 1987 to 1997. During his term, he brought two federal buildings to Queens, providing thousands of jobs, and built 500 affordable homes in southeast Queens.
“I just never let myself adopt the Washington culture,” he said. “I never got into the social element in D.C., and I never considered myself as a career politician-I considered myself a career preacher-pastor, so my emphasis was on that side. Because of my background, I always considered myself a business-centric pastor.”
When his alma mater needed his skills, Flake returned to Wilberforce University as president in 2001. The college was in danger of losing its accreditation and was deeply in debt. He served as president of the university for seven years, using his connections in government to get Wilberforce, along with several other HBCUs, $2 million a year to keep the school solvent.
With all of his accomplishments and everything he’s done at Allen A.M.E., people have often called what Flake has an empire. He disagrees with this strongly.
“I call it Allen,” he said. “I guess I define it by what we are known best, and that’s our church name. I don’t call it an empire. An empire makes you think of things like those Roman rulers, and I don’t see myself that way.
“I don’t know how you define it. It’s just a church that is doing good for the community, simply doing its best to make sure this community is sustainable. That’s the way I see ministry.”
Taking a note from his favorite scripture, from Acts 2, Flake said that the future for himself and for Allen is simple: “They met the needs of the people and the church grew daily.”