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Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Pastor Gilmer Answers God’s Call

Carlton Gilmer

Carlton Gilmer has overcome some hard knocks to become a successful pastor.

Heartbreak and tragedy lead man astray only to guide him home

Everyone has a story.

Periodically, 318 Forum’s Tony

Taglavore takes a local person — someone well-known, successful or influential — to lunch and asks, “What’s Your Story?” “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” — A.W. Tozer

Every Sunday morning at 10:30, there he was. The infallible pastor. Playing piano. Standing at the pulpit and preaching the word of God.

Smiling ear-to-ear as if he didn’t have a worry in the world.

The other six days of the week? “I was going to the cemetery Monday through Saturday, drinking at my parents’ and my brother’s grave, just living consumed with grief. One day I left the cemetery, because I would go there to drink, then I would get in my car and go home. My house was about two miles from the cemetery. I was one house away from my house, when all of the sudden, lights came on behind me. It was a police officer. I was arrested and taken to Bossier Max with a DUI.”

Carlton Gilmer, the son of a construction foreman and a stay-at-home mom, was what he calls a “closet alcoholic.”

“My wife didn’t know anything about it because I was (drinking) at the cemetery while she was working. By the time she would come home, I was sober enough to pull the wool over her eyes. She didn’t know until she got the call that I had been arrested.”

Carlton didn’t get treatment. “I was convinced I could help myself, and I couldn’t. I did for a while, but when the next round of tragedy came, I returned to what I had learned. I didn’t want to cope. I didn’t want to think.”

The “next round of tragedy” came two years later.

“The last time I left the cemetery, there was a Bossier sheriff’s officer on the side of the road. I don’t remember anything about that — that’s how inebriated I was. I didn’t know anything until I woke up and I was facing that brick wall that I faced two years prior. When I saw that wall, I knew immediately where I was. My picture came out in the Inquisitor.”

The 61-year-old senior pastor of Bossier Life Church told me this story, and his story, during lunch at a place of his choice, Jacquelyn’s Café in Shreveport. Carlton enjoyed a large chicken salad and a glass of unsweetened tea. I made short work of my small shrimp salad and a glass of water.

“I went through an unfortunate divorce 20 years ago. It was very painful. It wrecked what I thought the picture of ministry was all about because ministers don’t divorce. But I walked through it. I thought I would regain life and just move on, and life would be happy. But life presented a lot of challenges for me.”

Challenges? More like heart-wrenching, bloodcurdling events. In six years, Carlton lost his father, mother and newborn grandchild, who died at his house after complications from birth.

Carlton also lost his brother. “(He) called and asked if I could take him to his cardiologist. I told him I was too busy. Could he find someone else? He drove himself, had a heart attack en route, went into oncoming traffic, and an 18-wheeler hit him and killed him. As you can imagine, I blamed myself for my brother’s death. If only I would have taken him, maybe he would be here.”

Despite leading a congregation of people who loved him, Carlton felt alone. He began living a private life. But after each arrest, Carlton’s church family continued to believe in him. He wanted to quit the ministry, but his followers wouldn’t let him.

“They got up and stood behind me. They said, ‘Pastor, you’re not done. You’re going to get help, and we’re going to be here until you can come back and be our pastor.’”

Carlton returned after six days of “intense therapy” at an Ohio counseling and therapy center for ministers.

“The counselors took me all through my life and found places where I was weak.”

In 2018, Carlton found sobriety — and something else.

“All the years I served in churches, I knew the God of my parents. I knew the God of the ministers and pastors I had served. I knew the God of my friends and colleagues. But six years ago, I really found the God of Carlton Gilmer.”

From age 3, Carlton’s entire life has been centered around God — and God’s music.

“My mother was (singing) in the choir.

Church ended, she went to take off her choir robe, and I walked up and sat down at the piano. I began to play what we sang for the last hymn. That was on a Sunday. Monday, my dad bought me a piano, and it began.”

“It” was Carlton’s career. By age 10, the Bossier City-born youngster was a hired hand.

“First Christian Church in Bossier, a little bitty church, needed an organist.

They hire (d) me and paid me $10 a week to play their organ.”

Carlton’s father knew his son’s future was in his son’s hands — literally.

“He didn’t even want me mowing the yard. He didn’t want me to do anything to jeopardize my hands, but because he knew that was my life.”

When Carlton graduated from Bossier High School, he wasn’t much interested in going to college. He was all about music and ministry. “But my dad wouldn’t have it.” So, at his father’s insistence, Carlton auditioned for and was offered a fully paid musical scholarship at Centenary College.

A parent’s answered prayer. Carlton accepted, then left after 18 months.

“It just was not what I wanted. As a little boy, I would stand in the back of my dad’s pickup truck, in the bed, and I would lay a Bible up on the front of the cab. I would preach to no one. Dad would park on the street, but that was my pulpit. My dream was that one day, I would preach the gospel.”

And he did. First, at small churches, before making the big time. For 17 years, Carlton was an associate pastor at “the Duron’s church,” First Assembly of God. Thousands of members. As seen on TV. Carlton was in the spotlight — until he wasn’t.

Carlton left and became pastor at a Haughton church for 11 years.

“I was looking for something kind of like what I grew up in. Maybe not big. Personable.”

The opposite of big? How about inside Starbucks on Airline Drive near I-20? That’s where, in 2012, Carlton, his wife of now 20 years (Terri), two of his daughters and two “visitors” started Bossier Life Church. It’s grown to about 100 members who meet inside leased space at the old Heart O’ Bossier Shopping Center.

“On Sunday mornings, like my pastor used to do when I was little, I’m either at the door or out in the parking lot welcoming people when they get out of their cars. I’ve tried to go back to the way things used to be. Sometimes, the present is not always the best.”

After over an hour of soaking up Carlton’s story, I forced myself to stop asking questions about his rise to and fall from fame. So, I asked my final question: As always, what is it about his life story that could help others?

“Failure is not final. The only way failure is final is if you allow it to be. My favorite scripture in all the Bible is Micah 7:8: ‘Don’t laugh at me, O my enemies, when I fall, for I shall arise.’” Carlton has risen. “Rock bottom is not a bad place to hit, because it’s a safety net. A net in itself you can fall through. When you’ve hit rock bottom, you’ve gone as far as you can go. The only way from there is up. God created the rocks, so if you hit the rocks, you’re on good ground. You’re on God(’s) ground.”

Do you know someone who has a story to tell? Contact Tony at tony@sweetloumedia.com.


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