Bernard Gill was a man of strong faith, strong principles and strong leadership. Maybe that's why his young family has been able to stay strong, and stay together, without a mother or father.
Gill was a creative and tireless youth worker and minister who knew the mean streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul and helped make them a little easier for hundreds of kids who needed direction and hope. He was a member of the "God Squad," a group of street-savvy ministers who bring hope and the Gospel to those in trouble. And, for the past decade, he was a charismatic and influential part of the National Youth Leadership Council (www.NYLC.org). Based in St. Paul, the NYLC advocates service-learning approaches to help kids find out about themselves and their communities by engaging their energy in work dedicated to serving others.
Like the work Bernard Gill did, every day.
"Bernard was very inspirational," says Jim Scheibel, the former mayor of St. Paul who serves as chairman of the NYLC board. "He was someone who everyone looked up to, a real popular person who was active in his church and his community and was a mentor to the staff. He made a real difference for young people."
Service to the young was Bernard Gill's way of life. An assistant pastor at Faith Tabernacle Gospel Church in Minneapolis, he had begun work on a Ph.D. thesis on ways to help young African-American men in Minneapolis find a path up and out of trouble. On April 10, he had just finished leading a seminar at the National Service-Learning Conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center when he collapsed and died during a reception.
Gill, 45, apparently went into anaphylactic shock after eating seafood. He left no will, only a small insurance policy, a house in St. Paul with a $1,200 monthly payment (it needs a new roof), a leased car, and four children who suddenly were orphans; Gill's wife, Ruth Ann, died of cancer in 1997.
The oldest child, Geoffrey, 20, is a sophomore at Augsburg College. He moved home from a dorm after his dad died to look after his three younger sisters: Vanessa, 18, a freshman at the University of Minnesota; Amira, 15, a sophomore at St. Paul Central High School, and Halina, 13, an eighth-grader at Ramsey Junior High in St. Paul. With help from his grandmother, who does a lot of the cooking, Geoffrey has been making sure his sisters stay on the track their father set out for them, while trying to get his own schoolwork done and keep focused.
"It gets to be a lot sometimes," says Geoffrey, who is aiming at a degree in education and in youth and family ministry, just like his father. "I'm learning to deal with a lot of stuff, and I think it's coming together. But sometimes I have to just sit down and try to relax. That's when I think I am at the point where I used to call on my dad.
"He was a very protective father, and very loving. And he helped me a lot. He was always giving me advice on life. I feel a little lost without him. He always encouraged me to be different, to not be the same as everyone else. We had our disagreements, but I eventually learned to listen to what he had to say. Because whether I liked it or not, he was probably right."
When you become the head of the family at 20, you go back to lessons learned. That's why Geoffrey Gill relies on what his dad told him the most, in every situation: Put your faith in the Lord.
"Do your best and God will do the rest," Bernard Gill always said.
Sometimes, of course, God wants his friends to lend a hand.
On Saturday, in St. Paul, Bernard Gill's friends will hold a fundraising event to help provide for the Gill children, and to add a little stability and a touch of security in their lives. It's a little payback for a friend and father who gave his all to all his children.
"The family he left is an inspiration to all of us," says James Kielsmeier, president of the National Youth Leadership Council. "They are standing strong and standing together, without their mother or father, and that speaks loudly about the kind of man Bernard was, and the kind of work he did. He cared deeply about his family and his community and his church and he was a powerful role model.
"He walked the talk."
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