Los Angeles, CA — The fiery preacher with a booming voice delivered a final message from the pulpit Sunday morning.
“You shall live and not die,” Bishop Barnett K. Thoroughgood shouted in his signature baritone, exhorting his congregation of more than 2,000 members to squeeze as much as they can from their lives before going to meet their maker.
Thoroughgood, 62, wiped sweat from his forehead as he finished the sermon at New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ, sat down on stage, and collapsed in his seat.
Teary-eyed church members embraced and prayed together as paramedics were called to the church on Bishop Thoroughgood Avenue, but they couldn’t revive him, according to members who were present.
“He died doing what he loved,” church member Mable Beckett said Monday, still in shock a day after watching her pastor of 30-plus years take his final breath. “He lived the life he was called to, right up until the end.”
Word of the preacher’s dramatic end spread quickly through the Seatack community where Thoroughgood began his public ministry some 42 years earlier.
News of his passing reached people across the world by Sunday evening. Rapper Timothy Mosley, better known as Timbaland – a longtime church member
whose mother was at the service – wrote to his 315,000 Twitter followers: “rest in peace to my pastor, a true angel, Bishop Barnett K Thoroughgood.”
Thousands of people, including musician Justin Bieber, reposted the message, while others linked to a blog entry that detailed the circumstances of Thoroughgood’s death. Recording artists Pharrell Williams, a Virginia Beach native, and Missy Elliott, who grew up in Portsmouth, also called Throroughgood their pastor and contributed to the Pentecostal church he led.
Some years back, Williams paid to install high-end recording equipment in the church so he and others could stream Throroughgood’s messages anywhere in the world. As a result, the man who launched his public ministry in a tiny room, preaching to a congregation of two men, was able to reach a global audience, church leaders said.
Thoroughgood liked to say he started preaching at the age of 5, when he spent many summer days sharing Jesus with the prison work crews that came to clean ditches in his Seatack neighborhood.
“Some of the men – usually the older ones – would cry,” Thoroughgood told The Virginian-Pilot in 1987.
By the age of 16, Thoroughgood told the newspaper, he was delivering sermons at the Bright Star Church of God in Christ in Chesapeake, where his father was the pastor. At 20, Thoroughgood started New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ, he said.
Thoroughgood was a prominent leader in the black community.
He twice made unsuccessful runs for Virginia Beach City Council, campaigning on promises to unite factions of the city and to help the needy. He was appointed to a term on the city’s Planning Commission in 1986 shortly after his first campaign, during which he advocated for urban redevelopment.
The 6-foot-4 preacher likely will be best remembered for his impassioned sermons and his efforts to serve poor people in the community and across the world, church member Reuben Williams said. Thoroughgood made frequent mission trips to Haiti, he said, and directed thousands of dollars to urban ministries across the nation.
Reuben Williams, 62, attended Union-Kempsville High School with Thoroughgood and said he remembers hearing the teenage Thoroughgood share the gospel with classmates. He wanted everyone to know about God, Williams said.
Reuben Williams said he was stunned Sunday as paramedics attempted to pump life back into his pastor. In some of his final words, the preacher urged his congregation to “get right with God,” Williams said, because you never know when your time is up.
A memorial service is being planned for later this week.